On Unicorns and Indie Rock

posted 10 December 2007, updated 11 December 2007

I think we're all pretty familiar with people whose taste in a particular kind of art has gone beyond what we'd consider reasonable into "pretentious". People who talk about the flavours of wines in terms of seasons and musical notes; people who insist that they appreciate the lyrics of The Muppet Show theme song in terms of the gender politics of the late 60s. Similarly, we're all equally familiar with people whose taste in certain art forms we would consider "unrefined": the people who buy airbrushed photos of unicorns leaping over dolphins in space; the people who own nothing but Top 40 compilation CDs.

My question is: where are those dividing lines drawn? And what do we call the area in between those two extremes? It turns out it's really tricky. There really are people who can argue convincingly and at length about the validity not just of describing a wine as "autumnal", and you will find many a 19-year-old philosophy undergraduate willing to argue that Unicorns Of The Universe is as valid a work of art as the Mona Lisa on the basis that both were commissioned works, painted to satisfy a commercial market.

I believe that pretension is just a side-effect of a deep interest, of over-exposure. The music snob's seemingly relentless search for obscurity and cacophonous atonality is just a search for novelty: when you've heard thousands of melodic, lyrical songs, it eventually becomes easier to find interest in a Finnish woman making music by clapping dead ferrets against an oil drum than to find another song marginally more melodic, differently lyrical. The gourmet does not seek out cheesecake; they seek out the subtle and unusual. Patrons of theatre eventually begin to search for the avant-garde.

How does it work in the opposite direction? Clearly, it is just a matter of perspective. If your total exposure to the visual arts has consisted of a painting of a grassy landscape, a kitten in a wicker basket and the aforementioned unicorn-dolphin astrological combo, you're not doing badly in your selection: maybe the unicorn is well-executed, or just more interesting, or any of a hundred other criteria. When we mock the pretentious, we are being just as ridiculous as when they mock us, and when we mock the "uncultured" we are being likewise nonsensical: it's like mocking a three year old for being short.

But taste in art, whatever type of art it happens to be, is an odd thing: we don't just search for novelty. We seem to search for things which are different, but not too different. The classical music fan doesn't go searching out rap after they've had enough Tchaikovsky, they search for more complex melodies or unusual arrangements. The general term we use to talk about this is a more "refined" taste.

But what exactly is "refining" your taste? Your taste in music is a function of how much of it you've listened to. Accepted wisdom is that listening to more of it somehow makes you more "discerning", but on what metric do you discern? It seems like taste is a sort of game, where we learn the rules as you we along and discover the aspects of the art that are harder to produce, and simultaneously discover the elements that are very common and learn to recognize that which is new to our particular game. And those seem to be the ones that we seek out.

One of my favourite little facts that I read ages ago and trot out all the time is that music is a secondary sexual characteristic, an audible peacock's tail. Somebody who can sing is indicating to the world that they have energy to spare on pointless ululation, that their brain is quick or their hands nimble or whatever other skill it is required to produce the type of music we're listening to. This is why most people "switch on" to music around the same time that they hit puberty, and a lot of people's first crush is on a musician. I think it's a safe extrapolation that other forms of art are likewise reproductively motivated.

And that's why we seek out the difficult and the novel: the talented and the creative are the ones we're conditioned to want to mate with. It's not some deep, noble impulse of artistic discernment: we're just reading the signals from our fellow monkeys. These little games are just part of the biggest, oldest game we know.

My point being: stop being embarrassed -- or proud -- of your taste. There's no shame to being "uncultured", you've just decided to base your reproductive selection on one of the thousands of other signals available to you. And there's nothing special about being cultured either: it doesn't matter how deep you are into your chosen genre; you're just doing this best job of discernment you can of all the available data.

This also explains why I find people who are really good at web development incredibly sexy. But that's another post.