What Is Quality in Music?

A professional’s judgment of music or painting or poetry is invariably more convincing to me than any amateur’s and more than that of any publisher, dealer, or other distributor. Even the learned, though I trust them on facts and on urtext (hoping that their own colleagues will have kept them in line about these things), I do not consider responsible as judges of content. Of iconography perhaps, but not of form or of expression. And as for the caretakers of the fine arts, with their game (rather like Monopoly) of trends and influences and market values, it rarely fits in with the values of form and content as these are thought of by artists. For in all these matters a consensus among workmen is not hard to arrive at. It is only for dealers and distributors and for the historian-verbalizers that the values come out different. And for the amateurs, of course, whose reactions to art, being disengaged from responsibility, are subjective.

Am I throwing away the enlightened, the seemingly engaged amateur? Certainly not. He is our customer, our sweetheart, and our dream. That is to say, he is when he loves us. When he does not, he is an unenlightened amateur. Whereas the most treacherous rival is no amateur at all, but wisely aware, we are certain, of all our excellences and of their danger to his career. And neither are the reviewers and the historians to be discarded. If they admire us, we can use them. If not, their judgments may seem to us something less than final.

My thought seems to be leading me toward the conclusion that in art the doers are the knowers. And that the doers, though they are rarely paying customers, are nevertheless to us the most impressive of all consumers, because they use us not merely in the living that they are doing, as ordinary customers do, but also in the art that they are making. For no work is uninteresting to a workman. And the workmen in any domain, particularly the “creative,” constitute for that domain an élite of true critics, of experts whose judgment defines quality goods. The most enlightened reader or listener has no such authority, nor has the best-advised collector of art. For all these, though powerfully related to distribution, have little to do with the art they buy. Their place is in the history of taste, not of creation.

Now taste has little to do with quality, since quality can exist in any style. It has everything to do with distribution, because the mode for certain styles or subjects is the highway by which artifacts are circulated. The financial beneficiaries of distribution—dealers, publishers, collectors—naturally would like to manipulate the mode as if culture were women’s wear, which indeed it rather tends to become. But the culture market, but-tressed as it is by consecrated scholars and historians who do not share in the profits, resists hasty or brutal manipulation. So firmly, indeed, that …

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Letters

Artists Anonymous September 11, 1969

Artists Anonymous September 11, 1969

Sorry, Marshall Lee July 31, 1969