Posts Tagged ‘esthetics’

Plato on Music Education, pt. IV: “American Idol” and the corruption of America

September 6, 2013

     Is American Idol corrupting America, or it is revealing its corruption?  Which came first:  a corruption of esthetic standards that led to moral and epistemological nihilism, or an epistemological relativism that led to a collapse of first moral, and then esthetic standards?  Plato’s Laws suggests that the consumer-based, pleasure-driven culture is the root of all the problems.  People believe they are entitled to say, do and believe whatever they want.  And unlike Plato, I think that politically, they probably are so entitled; but morally, they are not.  Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous sermon against the dictatorship of relativism argues that anyone today who dares to suggest that there is such a thing as Truth risks the ire not only of the mob, but also of the cultured elite.[1]  We are supposed to be postmodern and pluralistic; the idea that some things are just plain true is seen as oppressive.  When I was in college, it was the Left that was generally heard denouncing “cultural oppression” and championing relativism; today, it is more often the Right that denounces the “liberal elite” with their charts and graphs and facts and fossils.  I don’t have to argue about the absurdity of allowing something like human-made climate change to morph from a scientific question to a political shibboleth.  Everything I would argue about the corruption of American society is illustrated in this one news story:  According to a recent political poll, Louisianan Republicans are uncertain whether Barack Obama or George W. Bush is more responsible for the poor federal government response to Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005.  In response to a 2013 poll:

Q2 Who do you think was more responsible for the
poor response to Hurricane Katrina: George W.
Bush or Barack Obama?
George W. Bush ……………………………………… 28%
Barack Obama………………………………………… 29%
Not sure …………………………………………………. 44%[2]

So, is it just a matter of opinion which president was more to blame for the response to a natural disaster that occurred four years before Obama took office?  If anything is a matter of fact, shouldn’t it be something that occurred not only in the historical time/space continuum that we all inhabit, but even within the lifetime of most of us?  Yet, faced with the choice between factional, party-driven epistemology and agreeing with the obvious, the vast majority of Republicans are either unsure who was to blame for government actions that occurred in 2005, or are absolutely certain that they should blame someone who was nothing more than a powerless junior Senator at that time.  Sure, maybe they have a legal right to say something obviously false and stupid; but do they have a moral right?  If “morality” means anything more than “I like this,” then surely we have a moral duty to seek truth and to live according to that truth; even a consequentialist ethic must recognize that the likely results of choosing delusion over fact will be disastrous for everyone affected, eventually.

            Clearly, we are never going to adopt the legal system Plato advocates, where music is regulated by the state and only government approved tunes, rhythms and lyrics are allowed.  And I don’t think we would want to, either.  Plato was deeply suspicious of change, unless it was known ahead of time that it would be change for the good.  Like many Greeks, he admired Sparta’s unwavering adherence to the laws and customs of its founders.  But a few years after Plato’s death, Sparta and all the Greek poloi were conquered by the innovative, inventive, upstart Macedonians.  And a few years after that, Alexander the Great continued that innovative and ambitious spirit to sweep aside Egypt and Persia and more.  The paradox is that of course, as Plato said, all change is bad unless it is change from bad to good—-that is a tautology—-but prior to making the change, we cannot really know what will turn out for the best.

            But just because we embrace change and a more dynamic culture does not mean we need abandon all notion of truth and goodness.  And make no mistake, that is just what we have done.  We live in a world where so-called “conservatives,” the people who regard themselves (and are regarded) as defenders of “truth, justice and the American way,” freely and gladly wallow in relativism and nihilism.  There is simply no other explanation for why the vast majority of Republicans in Louisiana would deny that it was a Republican president who was in office in 2005 and therefore was responsible for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.  They do not want it to be true; “man is the measure of all things;” therefore, it never happened.  But Plato would ask, how could it be otherwise?  How could any people who have practiced self-indulgence and thrown off first esthetic standards, then factual investigation ever do other than fall into full-blown epistemological and moral relativism?

[1] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, homily at the mass for the Papal Conclave, April 18, 2005 (

[2]In Louisiana, Clinton keeps up, Governor Falls”   August 21, 2013 ( )

Plato on Music Education, pt. III: The Results

August 29, 2013

            If we accept the idea that pleasure is the only standard of goodness, where does this principle stop?  Plato says that if that is our standard in esthetics, it will become our standard in ethics as well.  One who becomes accustomed to enjoying bad music because it gives pleasure and rejects the notion that there might be standards will also come to reject the idea that there are standards of good or bad deeds, beyond the pleasure they give the doer.[1]  And conversely, one who learns that personal taste must be educated before one can judge beauty will also be prepared to learn that he or she must learn moral principles before he or she can judge virtue.

            And if subjectivism in esthetics leads thus to relativism in ethics, why should it stop there?  Plato argues that things may be valued because they have a “charm,” or for their rightness in some sense, or for their utility.[2]  For example, good food is tasty, but it is also nutritious.  To value food only for its pleasure-giving capacity would lead one to choose cake over fruit every time.  Sure, many of us do this; but do any of us really think this is wise?  We know that we must look to the objective truths of the world, and not merely to how we feel, if we are to judge correctly.  But the pleasure-driven person, by definition, does not do that.  He or she has thrown off all authority, and all self-control.  Without temperance, one becomes a fool as well as wicked, for one will reject unpleasant truths and unpleasing truth-tellers in favor of flatterers and comforting lies.  Moral subjectivism leads inevitably to epistemological relativism.  First beauty, then goodness, and finally truth all cease to have any meaning for the intemperate pleasure-seeker.

            I have no doubt that if Plato were alive today, he would be appalled by American Idol, Dancing With the Stars and all similar programs that allow (nay, encourage) the untutored mob to impose its tastes over the judgment of the knowledgeable.  No one meant any wrong in doing this.  It is just an inevitable result of market forces.  Television networks want to make money, and can do so with cheaply-made “reality” TV and contest programs more easily than with expensive, talent-intensive, quality programming.  They make money by selling commercial time; programs are just sugar-coating to get consumers to swallow the all-important commercials.  Making the programs more interactive is just another way to get people to tune in.  Furthermore, phone companies make money when people use their services to text their votes in.  But what is the effect?  In its extreme, we can call it the “Sanjaya Effect:”  a talentless, comically inept performer beat out many better artists based, allegedly, on votes cast ironically or out of pity or some other motive, rather than for any honest assessment of who was “best.”  Even the producers of American Idol were taken aback, and revamped the voting process to reduce audience input.  A show that was designed to elevate mob taste over expert judgment began to backpedal, as it discovered that not only does the mob not know what is good, it doesn’t even always care.

            Dancing With the Stars offers an even better illustration of the corruption of society.  In 2010, Bristol Palin advanced to third place, despite a manifest mediocrity.  Some voters directly stated that they voted for her out of pity or sympathy, saying things like, “Of course Erin’s a better dancer—she’s a professional.  But look at Bristol, just getting out there and trying her best.”  In Plato’s day, a judge who gave the prize to any but the best would be cursed by the gods; they swore before Zeus, but in today’s “competitions,” respect for standards or the spirit of sportsmanship has been replaced by self-appointed judges who vote whimsically—-or worse yet, factionally.  To Plato, the greatest danger to the state was factionalism; he had witnessed how party politics tore apart Athenian democracy, and his Laws warns repeatedly of the dangers of factionalism.  Party politics were no different than treason, in Plato’s view.  But many of the people who voted for Bristol Palin allegedly did so out of loyalty to her mother and the GOP, rather than to the rules of ballroom dancing (and yes, ballroom dancing is a competition and it has rules, just as much as ice dancing or gymnastics).  They would doubtless answer that, whatever their reasons, those reasons were theirs; they have a right to vote for whomever they wish, and besides, it’s all just a matter of taste and taste is personal:  “there’s no accounting for taste.”  Plato would reply that the rejection of true standards of artistic beauty in favor of politics or the sympathy of one mediocre soul for another is not “just taste;” it is a moral failure, a deliberate preference for the bad over the good.

To be continued….

[1] Laws book III, 699d-701c

[2] Laws, book II, 667-668

Plato on Music Education, pt. II: Standards

August 22, 2013

Plato on Music Education:  How American Idol is Destroying America (pt. II)

            If choral singing is to be universal, the obvious question then is, what are all these citizens going to sing?  As Plato discusses, the Greek poets generally wrote their songs to please their audience and themselves.  They might challenge accepted beliefs, or worse, they might repeat some of the old myths about gods committing adultery or deceiving each other or destroying good men out of petty rage.  Plato felt that the poets should not be allowed to write words that were not morally uplifting.  Furthermore, he was concerned with the music and rhythms, lest they be too wild and lead to uncontrolled, ungraceful and intemperate dancing.  When the poets wrote to please the crowd, the unlearned mob will pick the best music based solely on what gives them pleasure at the time.  However, nothing should be judged based primarily on pleasure, unless it has already been established that it neither serves no higher purpose, nor causes any harm.[1]  Since music is to serve very important functions besides being pleasant, it is these qualities that must take precedence:  “As they aim at the noblest kind of song, they will also have to aim not at a music which is pleasing, but at one which is right.[2]  By “right” Plato here means artistically correct, with the rhythms and tone matching the content and so on, as well as being morally and intellectually correct in content.  For this to be, the common Greek practice of letting the audience choose the winner must be dismissed.  Instead, Plato mentions with approval the Egyptian practice of direct government control to allow or ban certain songs, tunes, and rhythms according to what was deemed fitting for the community and pleasing to the gods. [3]   In music, as in everything else, only those who have experience and knowledge can really judge what is done rightly or not; therefore, the only proper judges of music must be those with the education and the years necessary.  Plato writes:

The standard by which music should be judged is the pleasure it gives—-but not the pleasure given to any and every auditor.  We may take it that the finest music is that which delights the best men, the properly educated, that, above all, which pleases the one man who is supreme in goodness and education.  And the reason why we say judges in such matters need goodness is that they require to be equipped not only with wisdom, but particularly with courage.  A judge who is truly a judge must not learn his verdict from the audience, letting himself be intimidated into it by the clamor of the multitude…  To tell the plain truth, the judge takes his seat not to learn from the audience, but to teach them, and to set himself against performers who give an audience pleasure in wrong and improper ways.[4]

            Plato considers proper judging of musical performances to be supremely important, because he considers character to be important, and music is the primary character education for the children of citizens in his proposed society.  Enjoying wrong and bad things will corrupt the individual.[5]  Learning true standards of judgment will enable one to enjoy truly good performances, and be mentally and morally improved as a result. 

            But how so?  This sounds like something between snobbery and nonsense in today’s ears.  How could enjoying bad music possibly corrupt the soul?  Well, either there are standards of judging good and bad music, or it is simply a matter of personal pleasure.  Plato believes there are standards that an educated listener will note, that an uncultured person cannot.  An article from Scientific American seems to argue much the same thing.[6]  This article discusses the research of postdoctoral scholar Joan Serrà and his colleagues, who examined such qualities as timbre, pitch and loudness of popular music over the last six decades.  They found that the variety of popular music appears to have shrunk:  more recent songs are less original in how they shift notes or keys, variations in volume have largely vanished and so on.  In short, they argue, popular music has become blander, more homogenous, as every would-be hit follows in the well-worn paths set by earlier hits, seeking primarily to be much the same, but louder than what went before.  Plato points to other qualities that he feels should be in good music, but which are often lacking in music that plays to the untutored audience:  consistency of form and content, grace and harmony, and so on.  When it comes to music, I am probably not much better than those uneducated boobs Plato decries; in addition to having been a poor student of music, I suffer from lifelong tinnitus which is slowly rendering me deaf (the same thing got Beethoven, so at least I’m in good musical company; and perhaps that explains why I am drawn to his music).  But while I may not have the auditory acuity or training to hear music as skillfully as my children (both professional musicians and music majors), I do understand writing; and the standards of “good music” that are being suggested here are not unlike the standards of “good writing:” varieties of expression (vocabulary, good command of syntax and grammar), coherence of form and content (a sad poem should not have a bouncy rhythm, etc.) avoidance of clichés, and so on.  We generally admit that there are objective standards whereby we can judge verbal writing; why not music? 

            The contrasting argument is that if I enjoy it, it is good to me and that is all that matters.  Those NPR snobs who say Mozart is better music than Kid Rock are just trying to put us down.  Who cares if all the music sounds the same, if I like it?  By the same argument, who says The Old Man and the Sea is a better book than Fifty Shades of Grey?  Or that Inherit the Wind is a better movie than Saw IV?  Who cares about anything other than the pleasure it gives, regardless of whether it was created by skillful craft and original artistry versus simple rote imitation of other people’s creations?  It is certainly possible to deny standards of judgment in esthetics; people do so all the time.  And insofar as the “Marketplace of Ideas” is manifest in the actual marketplace, the fact is that so-called “mediocrity” sells. 

To be continued…..

[1] Laws, book II, 667-670

[2] Laws, book II, 668b (italics author’s)

[3] Laws, book II, 656d-657b

[4] Laws, book II, 659a-b

[5] Laws, book II 656a-c

[6] John Matson, “Is Pop Music Evolving, or Is It Just Getting Louder?”  July 26, 2012 (