Quality and discretion

A few weeks ago I was asked if there was a fundamental difference between taste and quality. A very annoying question it was too. I’ve been mulling ever since, and I have to say that I still have no idea.

It’s really all about how you measure quality. Do you judge on technical ability? The item’s place in time? Or in comparison to other works by that artist? Take The Beatles: they (like Tolkien) were obviously hugely significant for their time but their work hasn’t necessarily stood up over the years. Not all their songs, at least (I’m especially amused by the musically really rather lovely song that seems to suggest a cheerful application of domestic violence). Similarly, many black and white film classics can’t be viewed in the same way now as they were than released. Given the choice would you rather watch From Here to Eternity or Star Wars? The League of Gentlemen or Ocean’s Eleven?

I’ve always remembered a review I once read of Megadeth’s Cryptic Writings. I should say that I’ve never heard the music, but the review criticised the album for being nothing new. But why should it be new? I’m sure that Dave Mustaine and friends tried to write the best songs they could, that the music was shaped by their lives and experiences. It wasn’t one of those ‘experimental’ albums so I found myself unable to work out in what way it could fail to be better than their old stuff. Maybe that’s naive, or over-simplistic, but if they’d released albums in a different order how different would perceptions be? Fashion and quality are being confused; after all, AC/DC have made a career out of sounding the same year in, year out.

Is there a fundamental difference between Quality and Taste? To some extent there must be; purely on a technical level there must be. How well you can write is – well, if it’s not an absolute then it’s something that can be measured on an appropriate scale. Similarly music contains technical aspects that can be scored. But the arts are mostly about emotional impact. There are some people who think Shakespeare’s works contain the entirety the human condition and are pre-eminent in literature. But many find more to be gained from Dan Brown. Why should we be snobbish? People want different things from different works, and there’s no reason you can’t enjoy both on different levels.

The oddest thing is the way horror, erotica, sci-fi and fantasy are written off as escapism, the least ‘real’ of genres when they are almost be definition the closest examiners of the psyche. Take horror; what can be more worthy that to really explore human fear and greed and response to the unfamiliar than that? The transformation of the hero/heroine in horror is often the most profound in literature – why is that not held up as the most worthy of genres? Speculative fiction often deals with the development of the species under possible future circumstances. Why is that less important than tragedies of past wars?

These are, of course, generalisations. Some books of all genres are there for nothing more than a cheap release. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. We read primarily for pleasure and sometimes we don’t want to be stimulated or challenged – so we take up something we’ve read before and it’s like greeting an old friend.

I suspect that whether we enjoy something changes with our moods and experiences. Someone who grew up with The Spice Girls might well think them better than The Monkees. We judge media in different ways and can quite easily admire a book for its technical excellence, its profundity or its readability at the same time and to differing degrees.

Which is all a very complicated way of saying that I don’t think the question is answerable. It’s something that can’t be quantified because not only to we have to build a workable ‘scale’ or formula by which to measure but our opinions are constantly changing.

So don’t trust reviews and always draw your own conclusions, because the only critic that really matters is you.

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