Pulled pork sandwiches at Blue Ridge Pig are delicious and well-worth the drive out route 250 to get. Several trips ago I swore quietly under the sun that I'll never eat pulled pork anywhere else but Blue Ridge Pig I'll never I won't. It was a dumb promise and one that probably kept me from eating delicious pulled pork sandwiches elsewhere. But I was out to dinner with my friend Annie a month or so ago, feeling good (having not seen Annie in two years, realizing she was still a wonderful person, her telling me she thought I’d look good in suspenders), so I ordered a pulled pork sandwich. And it was pretty good. Later I went back to the same place and ordered something different. It, too, was pretty good though maybe not as good as the pulled pork. But, you know, pretty good.
So while I respect Simon’s opinion on the eating/listening analogy, the suggestion that “going to the same restaurant and ordering the same entrée you know you like almost guarantees 100 percent satisfaction; going to different restaurants with different cuisines each time and trying the most unfamiliar dish on each menu is going to produce much more mixed results” seems to completely bypass the point.
Yes, it’s true: I have experienced 100% satisfaction from only ordering Orange Flavor Chicken at a wide variety of Asian-American takeout establishments over the past 13 years of my life. But if we’re trailing what the value of open-mindedness in the critic is (or being open-minded at all), it seems like you’ve got to go the extra mile and then imagine what a wreck I’d be as a food critic. I drink black coffee by the bucket. I used to smoke. In college, I carried around Tuong Ot everywhere I went; I’m sure it absolutely ruined my mouth (public apology for those kissed), but it made dormitory food acceptable (more accurately, it annihilated it). The first time I met my friend Hannah, she said “Mike, you know, you seem like a real white rice kind of guy.”
I never developed an ability to judge food. I’ll eat it. Sometimes I explore and sometimes I don’t. The important thing is that when I do explore, I might not always enjoy it, but the sheer confidence of my exploration is sometimes enough to make me feel like I’m just getting more out of my experience as a sentient being with reasonable reflexes, proper bowel control, and all my limbs. Disorientation can reinforce my boundaries, it can strengthen my resolve; every time I eat steak I remember how much I love good fried chicken. Can’t force that feeling the other way. So after eating steak, which might not be the most pleasurable eating experience for me, I can return to fried chicken; after a coke I can return to egg cream. Sometimes I want to have a coke though. I try not to think about that too much, like when I just want to hear "Crimson and Clover" (over and over) to the exclusion of anything else.
But would I ever proclaim that fried chicken was better than steak? No. That’d be dumb, and while I have little taste for steak, I have less taste for being dumb.
So, something about judgment:
Robert Christgau invokes David Hume in his take on Sonic Youth in the Voice this week:
“ When Murray Street came out in 2002, non-old Amy Phillips notoriously asserted in this very newspaper that since Sonic Youth hadn't made a good album since (1995's) Washing Machine, they should break up already. Who's to say her opinion isn't worth as much as mine? Me? Well, yeah. One concept the non-old have trouble getting their minds around is the difference between taste and judgment. It's fine not to like almost anything, except maybe Al Green. That's taste, yours to do with as you please, critical deployment included. By comparison, judgment requires serious psychological calisthenics. But the fact that objectivity only comes naturally in math doesn't mean it can't be approximated in art.”
And I invoked him, albeit kinda unfairly and obtusely and in the wild – albeit rich – heat of passion a couple weeks ago here. The essay that I and Christgau and any Aesthetics course are referring to is 1757’s On The Standard of Taste. Because it’s very fucking good. And while the impetus (and how Christgau employs it) is to differentiate between having a taste for something and having the ability to judge it, it’s not the only trick it turns. Sorry to do this, but:
“But though there be naturally a wide difference in point of delicacy between one person and another, nothing tends further to encrease and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty. When objects of any kind are first presented to the eye or imagination, the sentiment, which attends them, is obscure and confused; and the mind is, in a great measure, incapable of pronouncing concerning their merits or defects. The taste cannot perceive the several excellences of the performance; much less distinguish the particular character of each excellency, and ascertain its quality and degree. If it pronounce the whole in general to be beautiful or deformed, it is the utmost that can be expected; and even this judgment, a person, so unpracticed, will be apt to deliver with great hesitation and reserve. But allow him to acquire experience in those objects, his feeling becomes more exact and nice: He not only perceives the beauties and defects of each part, but marks the distinguishing species of each quality, and assigns it suitable praise or blame. A clear and distinct sentiment attends him through the whole survey of the objects; and he discerns that very degree and kind of approbation or displeasure, which each part is naturally fitted to produce. The mist dissipates, which seemed formerly to hang over the object: the organ acquires greater perfection in its operations; and can pronounce, without danger of mistake, concerning the merits of every performance. In a word, the same address and dexterity, which practice gives to the execution of any work, is also acquired by the same means in the judging of it.”
There are assumptions here: that beauty exists, that there’s beauty and non-beauty. That there’s good and there’s bad; that saying Art A is better than Art B would be as impossible as calling a “pond as extensive as the ocean.” And that to discern all these things, what we really need is practice. We need to think and we need to listen. Somewhere, I believe all that, because I bother to criticize at all. And I criticize because I want to understand music, not because I’m always looking for pleasure – though it’s great to find and share that feeling. There’s no way I can hold it against the “average listener” for not wanting to listen to twenty Soft Boys rarities, even though I have a hard time believing that you could possibly be truly alive if you’ve never heard the guitar break in “Hear My Brane.” And there’s no food critic that could make me stop eating Orange Flavor Chicken. Which is a little daring, I guess, because unlike listening to the Soft Boys, Orange Flavor Chicken will eventually make me fat. So will a $50 cut of steak. Music will not make you fat. It might make you dumber or smarter, but only if you even bother to really think about it. Which again, most people don't.
So, something about taste:
The verb “policing” came into play in Simon’s post. What immediately registered in my mind was reading Eve Sedgwick – I think, can’t remember, sorry – talking about how we “police” our sexual desires to keep ourselves fitting into our social roles. What’s interesting about the open-mindedness issue is that it’s an inversion: you police yourself to keep your desires as free and open as possible. But it’s just another identity, when you get down to it. So we’re like kittens on ice or something, it’s horrible, how do we stop sliding? Or it’s like that great Weekly World News headline: DOGCATCHER IS A DOG! Recursive, self-destructive. Anyone that has had something put where they preferred it not to be will understand: after all that, some people like to fucking fuck in a boring, regular fashion. And that’s just fine. You can’t make a window or a libertarian out of everyone.
Simon: “There is no evidence that people who listen to lots of genres have more enjoyment of music.” And there’s no proof that they couldn’t be experiencing more pleasure by branching out more. And there’s no proof for or against the possibility that the mere experience of branching out might make them feel better and more attuned to what they love. There are lines. And maybe Carl’s Celine Dion project is too much. I'm not sure. But I’ll let him be the guinea pig, frankly.
I think the point here is to keep all these things in the back of our mind. We've all got our mouths open and think we're talking. But yeah, we're gnawing on ourselves a little here. As a critic, I absolutely think we have to test the limits of our tastes because it will likely help to improve our judgment in the end. Christgau’s piece—is it judgment or taste? Couldn’t say for sure, but there's some part of me that just believes him. What do I know? I'm just a guy who likes Sonic Youth and pulled pork. Maybe I can entertain you with stories of how I like Sonic Youth and pulled pork for a few minutes. Maybe I'll make you think. Get off my cloud.