Wednesday, December 22, 2004
Me, I got nothing against lists. (That they’re are beginning to surpass profiles as the leading form of music journalism is another issue, but we’ll deal with that some other time.) It’s the concept of “the Best of the Year” that bugs me, because I’m never sure how seriously any of the list-makers take the claim. After all, there’s a world of difference between recognizing the merit — indeed, the greatness — of a work and actually liking it.
Surely we all spent at least some time in University reading or otherwise appreciating masterworks that left us dazzled, enlightened, impressed or inspired, but which afforded no pleasure whatsoever. For some, that experience lasted whole semesters. Now, I’m not going to argue that because few people read Paradise Lost for pleasure, it is therefore not great literature. Don’t be daft. But it does suggest a need to consider the difference between Great Art and Greatly Enjoyed Art.
Consider the film Sideways. It is in many ways great cinema — sharply written, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, vividly imagined. Using the usual criteria of artistic merit, I would have no problem calling it one of the Best Films I saw in 2004. At the same time, I would feel obliged to add that I didn’t much enjoy it. Well made as it was, I found the characters fundamentally unlikable, and as such got relatively little pleasure from watching the film. So even though it would easily make my Best Films list, it wouldn’t even place among my favourites of 2004.
Within the construct of “high art,” likability wouldn’t be an issue, because personal pleasure has never been very high on the list of cultural priorities. Pop culture, on the other hand, is all about pleasure — indeed, its eagerness to scratch that itch is one of the reasons high culture critics (particularly post-Adorno) so utterly disdain it. Obviously, there are many places where the criteria intersect, and we could all list works that mix the sensual and the sublime in ways that are illuminating and exhilarating, deeply resonant and utterly visceral. But just as we accept that there can be greatness without pleasure, we should also be willing to maintain a place for those things we enjoy that have no claim whatsoever to the status of Great Art.
To that end, I propose an end to best-of lists, and their immediate replacement with lists of the writer (or journal’s) favourites for the year. Not guilty pleasures — no cause for shame here — but a proud accounting of what gave the greatest and most consistent pleasure during the year in question. And if a given critic wants to augment their list of pleasures with a donnish nod to the year’s Great Works, fair enough. At least we’ll know that we’re not necessarily expected to enjoy ’em.
(And, yeah, I know: What about my faves for 2004? Patience, gentle reader. The year isn’t over yet.)