The Public Wants What the Public Gets

John Atkinson, you were right the first time ("Letters," Stereophile, December 1997, p.17, footnote 1): Jeremy Bentham is, indeed, the famous English philosopher and legal theorist whose mummified remains are preserved at the University of London. Sitting in a large glass display case, Bentham has been holding court since his death in 1832. As you noted, Bentham looks deceptively like a waxwork. But this is because his head, in fact, is made of wax. The original, rumor has it, suffered through one very macabre rugby game played long ago by mischievous students.

Yet Bentham's head was made of wax even when he was alive—at least according to reader Paul Canis. In his letter about the ongoing classical music debate (same issue, same page), Mr. Canis mentions the famous quip attributed to Bentham—that "If the people prefer pushpin to poetry, then poetry is best"—and suggests that I, resident philosopher, be consulted. Okay, Mr. Canis. I'll bite.

I want to agree with Mr. Canis. If Bentham is right, then cultural relativism reigns and some absurd conclusions follow. I've never tried pushpin (an old children's game), but I would vehemently disagree with substitutions like, "If the people prefer Bon Jovi to Bach, then Bon Jovi is best." (Believe me, it hurt to write that sentence.)

But I can't follow Mr. Canis, either, when he insists, contra Bentham, that there is a "radical difference in kind between good art and good commerce," and that commerce has nothing to do with the "real [artistic] value" of an art form. That mummy was no dummy. Utilitarianism, the school of thought founded by Bentham and John Stuart Mill, has a few things going for it. To say that "x is good," for a utilitarian, is to say that x serves a purpose or function that leads, in the end, to human happiness—and nothing more. This leads right to Bentham's quip about pushpin, and also to the core of utilitarian ethics and political theory: our goal, in all endeavors, is to maximize the happiness of the greatest number of people.

Best of all, utilitarianism is simple, and it's not obviously wrong. Everyone tries to be happy, so it's at least possible that the pursuit of happiness is, in the end, the basic, driving force of ethics, psychology, and perhaps human history. Utilitarianism might just be to individuals, society, and government what Newton's physics is to forces, masses, and energies.

But the verdict is still out. Worst of all, utilitarianism is vague. If we're supposed to maximize happiness, exactly whose happiness counts? How is it to be measured? Aren't there different kinds of happiness? Can someone be happy (or sad) and not know it? Bentham wrestled with some of these difficult questions, but he didn't slay them. They're still out there, lurking and waiting for all you would-be utilitarians.

But is Mr. Canis' alternative any better? While Bentham insists that all value judgments require just one yardstick—happiness—Mr. Canis believes there are at least two: commercial value, he insists, is altogether different from intrinsic artistic value. At first, the difference seems obvious. How do you know if your band is doing well commercially? That's easy. Your executive producer will say, as Pink Floyd once put it, "Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar...Have you seen the charts?" But it's an altogether different thing to be moved to tears or goosebumps by an Adagio or a well-played song. During those moments, as any audiophile knows, the entire economy—heck, the entire world outside your listening room—could disappear. Sales charts and cigars have nothing to do with it.

What does it have to do with? What, precisely, are the marks of intrinsic artistic value? None of the likely candidates hold up. Harmonic organization and complexity? No, since Bob Mould's guitar on old Hüsker Dü albums is more harmonically complex than Yo-Yo Ma's cello. Could it be that classical, artistic composers are somehow more in touch with life or the world? No, since a lot of pop musicians seem more informed and realistic about people and culture than were the great composers. Intelligence? Maybe, but until psychologists agree on what intelligence is, it won't help us define intrinsic artistic value. Talent? That just begs the question. Talent lets artists create artistically valuable goods.

I agree that there is a vast gulf between, say, a well-played version of the Bach double violin concerto and any given butt-wiggle extravaganza on MTV. Still, there's no way to define this difference in any precise and objective; there's no criterion of "intrinsic artistic value" that will make the clean bite between "high" art and "low" that Mr. Canis (and I) would like.

Let's see if my Philosophers' Guide to Solving Problems is any help. In the book's main chapter, "What To Do When You Don't Know What You're Talking About," there are three recommendations that serve philosophers well:

1) "Do the Wittgenstein": This one's easy—you just shut up.

2) "Do the Mystic": If you're having trouble specifying what you mean, perhaps that's because the subject is vexing, elusive, and possibly even unknowable by merely mortal minds. If so, scratch your chin and appear to be deep in thought.

3) "Do the Skeptic": That which does not exist cannot have a finger put on it. If you're unable to specify what you're thinking of, perhaps you are not thinking of anything.

Bentham points us down this last road. Besides the principle of happiness, there is simply no other real or reliable criterion of value. At bottom, an audiophile's reveries about the beauty of a symphony and a 13-year-old girl's glee about a Hanson song rest on the same kind of thing—subjective, human happiness. Admit it: If you hooked up some new speakers or cables and they lifted another veil from your favorite highbrow recordings, you'd shriek with glee like a 13-year-old girl, too (as long as it didn't make you look like a 13-year-old girl).

If that wax head could talk, I think Bentham would agree that "intrinsic artistic value" is an oxymoron. As long as they have something to be a property of, intrinsic properties exist all by themselves. My desk, for instance, has the intrinsic property of taking up space. If the desk is there, so is the property. But aesthetic and artistic properties are different. They are essentially tied to the people and cultures that perceive and appreciate them. Thus, it's impossible for an artistic property of something—a piece of music, for instance—to be intrinsic to it.

Suppose Jody Foster stashed away a couple of CDs on her cosmic journey in the movie Contact. If she asked her new, alien friend about the intrinsic property those CDs have of taking up space, or of being disc-shaped, they'd have something to talk about. But if she played a cut from a Bon Jovi disc and something from Bach's Mass in B Minor, then asked, "Which do you think has more intrinsic artistic value?," she'd get a blank, alien stare. Without the customs, symbols, and conventions of our culture, those two pieces of music would be merely nonidentical sequences of air-pressure variations.

Closer to home, everyone has heard music that seems devoid of artistic value. For me, I can't even listen to some forms of non-Western music—their timbres and scales just seem wrong, out of tune, or shrill. But were I to have been raised in the right cultures, I bet they'd sound natural, perhaps even beautiful (and the B-Minor Mass might give me a headache). You don't even need a spaceship to show that, when it comes to artistic value, there's something right about cultural relativism.

If artistic value ultimately boils down to a kind of popularity contest, we can still ask why it is that people prefer pushpin to poetry (supposing that they do). Bentham's answer is simple: It makes them happier. But there are other possibilities. My favorite theory belongs to a recent English thinker who, in the 1970s, took Bentham's utilitarianism, added two heaps of Marxism, and stirred them together using drums, bass, and guitar. In the single "Going Underground," Paul Weller (of The Jam) proclaimed his alienation from English society:

The public gets what the public wants
But I want nothing this society's got
I'm going underground...

Weller meets Bentham. What the public wants, what makes it happy, determines what the public is able to get. Commerce serves our desires. But when this chorus rolls around a second time, Weller turns Bentham over under sideways down. The bottom line is not what "the public wants" because...

The public wants what the public gets
But I don't get what this society wants
I'm going underground...

Yikes. The public wants what the public gets? "Great lyric," I used to think in my college days—"too bad it's not true." Obviously, there are many things that the public would not want if the public could get them. Imagine, for instance, filling an indoor sports arena with dirt so that people can sit in uncomfortable chairs, breathe noxious fumes, and damage their hearing while watching loud, oversized trucks and tractors frolic in the muck.

Okay, bad example.

Hmmm. I'm stumped. The very existence of monster-truck rallies, 8-track tapes, or CDs by John Tesh does suggest that the public can be sold anything. Weller takes us far beyond cultural relativism to cultural plasticism. Commerce doesn't serve our desires, it creates them. If so, Eric Hansen's letter (same issue, same page) makes a lot of sense: the future of classical music depends upon popularizing it—èt it out there on TV, radio, billboards, advertisements, etc. If you build it, they will come. If you play it, they will want it.

There is, unfortunately, the John Tesh factor to contend with, and let's not forget Yanni (though how I try...). These two are very popular, especially on video. Whenever I see them surrounded by their large orchestras, I get the sinking feeling that their fans take them to be living representatives of our classical tradition. Forget rap, pop, and country—if the record companies were to devote more of their classical budgets to artists like these, Tesh's and Yanni's faux-symphonic extended commercial jingles could kill classical music just by displacement. Aaron Copland? Isn't he the guy who plays piano in all those beautiful, picturesque locations?

No one likes censorship, but isn't there some way to avoid this possibility? Couldn't Stereophile organize a concert—billed as, say, "The Music and Magic of Tesh and Yanni (with a Very Special Surprise Guest)"—at the end of which, for the grand finale, David Copperfield would take the stage and make them both disappear?

Or, in response to the far-reaching effects these two have had on Western art, perhaps the University of London could offer them new honorary chairs—behind glass, one on each side of Bentham.

Paul Canis' letter, from December 1997 (Vol.20 No.12):

Cultural Relativism & Dogs

Editor: A number of letters in the November Stereophile responded to the ongoing (hopefully!) debate about the decline of classical music by saying that, if people wished to listen to other forms of music, then so be it. Musics of all forms have "the same inherent value," says Rob Hughes, who then goes on to explain his ideas of a process of natural selection in music history which presumes that art is simply another matter to be handled under the aegis of commerce, where supply meets demand and the most-purchased product is, by that stroke, also the best-quality product. That is good which the people call good—or, as Bentham said, "If the people prefer pushpin to poetry, then pushpin is best." (Ask your resident philosopher about this one, footnote 1). Indeed, to the pure business person, all products are of equally empty value until the marketplace signals their fetchable worth. Goods have no real value, only market value.

This is, of course, the perspective of record companies, who will always sign and produce...whatever sells. But isn't it curious: In the letters that felt the decline of classical music to be no big deal, merely signifying the fact that other, "equally valuable" forms of music have been chosen as the new "best," all used market analogies to explain their reasoning. Is it perhaps a symptom of the very malaise we classical music "elitists" would want to draw attention to that the radical difference in kind between good art and good commerce is apparently no longer obvious to our pop-music–loving brothers and sisters? I say this, of course, with good will (and a rump-shaking back-beat).

To not inappropriately paraphrase Iggy Pop, I would love to be your classical-music dog!—Paul Canis,

Footnote 1: When I attended the University of London a quarter-century ago, I used to walk past what I assumed was a waxwork of Jeremy Bentham in a glass case. It was only recently that I was told that it was the mummified body of the 19th-century philosopher himself.—John Atkinson