May 12, 2005

The Pursuit of Excellence

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.

Christopher Hampton

Nobody likes a critic, and nobody hates a critic as much as the person being criticized. Yet being critical is the only way that anything ever gets better. A good critic doesn't just pan the crap, but encourages the good stuff.

Just because someone likes something, doesn't make it good, nor does disliking something make it bad. Taste is taste and that's all it is. I liked every Eddie Murphy film I've ever see, but have no urge to see any of them again. In contrast, I saw the film classic The Good Earth twice and liked it better the second time. There aren't many movies that I can say that about.

Our kids were allowed to pick their birthday dinner. One daughter always picked macaroni and cheese. She could have had steak or anything that Lu or I knew how to fix, but it was always macaroni and cheese. I happen to like Egg McMuffins; but that hardly makes it a gourmet breakfast.

It is unfortunate that quality is often confused with taste. This is particularly true of wine; where quality is also confused with price. I really don't believe that with food or drink, there is such a thing as quality. It's either edible or it isn't. Beyond that, it's all a matter of taste. To the person who eats it, it's tasty or it isn't. Pemmican and Limburger cheese are delicacies to some, inedible to others. Some like raw meat, while others like the kind that you can cut with a fork. Some like sushi and some don't.

There is, nevertheless, such a thing as quality. A quality automobile is comfortable, handles well and will not break down very often. The experts at Consumer's Union can evaluate the quality of a car. They are not infallible, but they do a lot better than the average Joe who hasn't had the experience.

Quality in science relates to truth and a quality piece of work will be as good a thousand years later as it was on the day it was published. The works of Copernicus, Darwin, Mendel, Newton and others are still valid. They have been built upon, but that doesn't diminish them. For every famous scientist, there are thousands who have contributed reliable observation and experiments --real quality stuff. If a particular fine work doesn't last, the work built upon it will. For every scientist who does quality work, there are many more who clutter the literature with crap that impedes progress.

In literature, it is also a matter of truth and how effectively that truth was presented. Shakespeare seems to last, as do a number of works of the Greek playwrights. But not everything that Shakespeare wrote is worth reading or seeing. He has his best and worst works. Mark Twain is likely to be around for some time, while most best sellers will be forgotten in a generation.

In music, Beethoven is likely to be around for some time. I have a lot of hope for Gershwin and for some of the musicals, particularly My Fair Lady, which I think may outlive the original Shaw play. Out of the current mass of popular songs, some will hang around, but most will disappear. One problem with the best of jazz is that it is improvisation and it is the particular performance that can be great, while the written music may be mediocre.

There is a lot of stuff that is being presented as "contemporary classical music" that may never be played again and for good reason. I don't agree with Bill Nye(1850-1895), who said "Wagner's music is better than it sounds", but I would apply that statement to a lot of other composers. Will The Beatles stuff survive? Perhaps a few of their songs will. There are old songs, such as Greensleves, which may go on forever --and no one knows who wrote it.

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