Friday, December 13, 2013

"Arguing The Other Side"

Yesterday, I argued that it was dumb to pit works of art against each other in any form of direct competition.  I shall now argue the other side.

I will not argue the opposite side.  (That it is not dumb to pit works of art against each other in any form of direct competition.)

I am not a lawyer.  (Whose training allows them to do things like that.)

My point yesterday, hardly original, though quintessentially Earlo – arguing against something that is never going to change – was that the appreciation of works of art is subjective, and that, therefore, no work can be judged to be superior to another. 

It is simply a matter of preference.  For me, Seinfeld is the greatest situation comedy ever.  For others, it’s Me and the Chimp.  (Not many others, but I’ll bet there are some.)

The thing is…I don’t know how to say this except to say that I am contradicting myself, some creative undertakings actually are better than other creative undertakings.  It is not just a matter of opinion. 

Okay, it is a matter of opinion.  It is just that some people’s opinions concerning such matters are incorrect.

I’m only kidding.

(No, he’s not.)

Did somebody say something?  I guess not.  Okay, let’s start with an arena of monumental ignorance on my part.  (A dead heat in numerous departments, including the following one.) 


(I know I like Matisse because every time a work stands out for me, I look at the plaque and it says “Matisse.”  It’s like Groundhog’s Day with paintings.  I encounter the same artist over and over, and it always feels like it’s the first time.  Either that, or I’ve got Alzheimer’s.)

I am aware that certain paintings are extremely valuable, like, they’re worth tens of millions of dollars.  I do not believe that the astronomical value of such paintings is the result of a really good press agent.  Nor do I believe – by itself – that they get bid up to their stratospheric levels because of their rarity and a lot of competing really rich people wanting to own them.  Nor is it the Dutch “Tulip Frenzy” of 1637.  It is not an issue of collective hysteria.

These paintings are spectacularly good.  And that, primarily, though not entirely excluding those other explanations, is the reason for their Gargantuan price tags.

What makes these expensive paintings spectacularly good?  I have no idea.  But other people do.  Art critics.  Art historians.  Those people can write about that, often at length and in elaborate (some might say boring) detail.  The experts can explain what it is intrinsically that makes one painter’s work more valuable than their competitors’.  It is more than some “Cult of Personality”, like,

“Picasso was this really cool guy.”    

The guy actually did something great.  Don’t ask me what it was.  Because I don’t know.  But there are people knowledgeable in that area who can specifically spell it out.  In the end, you might say, “Yeah, but it’s still not worth fifty million dollars.”  But that’s you.   Somebody paid it, and it’s hanging in their foyer.

A painting’s value is to a substantial degree determined by the fact that respected people relied upon to make educated judgments have determined that that painting is, by some universally accepted (by the art world) standard of quality, objectively superior. 

You cannot imagine how uncomfortable it is to write so much about something I know so little about.  So allow me to venture, relievedly, somewhere closer to home.

(NOTE:  The following example involves two actors playing the same part, but the underlying issue remains the same.)

The original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof (1964) starred Zero Mostel.  When they made the movie version in 1971, Zero was bypassed for the leading role of  “Tevye” in favor of the Israeli actor Topol, the rationale being that Zero was too broad and stagey, while Topol was more groundedly believable as a Russian peasant in 1905 (the period in which the Sholem Aleichem story the musical was based on was set.)

There are people who are committed to the concept, “It’s not better or worse; it’s just different.”  (Although, interestingly – he observed ironically – many of these same people believe that their version of the news – or reality as a whole – is better than that of their opponents’.)

Applying that standard, it would be inappropriate to assert that Topol’s “Tevye” was inferior to Zero’s.

The thing is…

It was. 

More specifically,

Zero was transcendent as “Tevye.”

And Topol stunk up the place. 

By what standard?

The comedy standard.  (Of which, through experience, training and temperament, I consider myself knowledgeable.  And, since Fiddler on the Roof is a comedy, that matters.)

I have witnessed both performances.  Zero’s made me laugh till tears began rolling down my face.  Topol’s, whose (possibly authentic) gruffness allowed him to growl down every laugh line he was accorded, made me smack myself on the forehead, astounded that, having certainly heard him read the part – and I cannot imagine any funnier – the producers still selected him over Zero.

Zero performed the role.  Topol performed the role.  It wasn’t just different.  Zero’s performance was exponentially better. 

So what gives?  Can artistic judgment be subjective and also not subjective?

That appears to be the case.

How is that possible?

I do not know.  But suddenly, my head is really starting to hurt.

Will somebody bail me out here?


Mike said...

I note you're explicitly labelling the irony.

Canda said...

I saw Zero when they did the revival of "Fiddler" on Broadway. He was not in character at all. He was clowning from beginning to end, and doing shtick when the other actors were trying to perform. Way too broad for film. Topol may not have been the best choice, but he captured the emotion.

I would be curious to know if you saw him in the original. Perhaps then he was more real.

Mike said...

Decompose your subjective assessment into:
1) What is the artist attempting to achieve?
2) How well is this objective achieved?
This allows an objective assessment of ambition and technique.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I saw Mostel in the original Broadway production of FIDDLER and have purposely avoided seeing the movie as a result. Mostel was an old ham, there's no doubt, and I can well believe that over time his performance would have become more exaggerated. But he had quite a respectable resume in movies, too - the original THE PRODUCERS, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM - and I find it hard to believe he wouldn't, as experienced as he was, have known how to rein it in for the cameras. It's very sad to me that he wasn't given the chance.

I agree with Mike's two questions. If you're judging the best comedy you don't dock a drama points for not being funny (although I'd argue that THE GOOD WIFE often still has better jokes and evokes louder laughter than almost all sitcoms without descending into schtick). I don't personally care for jazz, but I can certainly listen to it and see how skiilled, talented, professional, and brilliant the musicians are. I still shouldn't be asked to judge it in a competition because I find saxophone annoying. :)

Say it this way: there's a lot of general agreement among film critics about the 100 greatest movies. 2001 and Citizen Kane appear on a lot of those lists, and I'd likely agree. But if I were heading off to a desert island and could only take ten movies, I probably wouldn't take any of those. I'd take the Marx Brothers and All That Jazz. The former is objective, the latter subjective. Once in a while the two meet on the same movie.