Gershwin hated the term 'classical music'. He made no distinction between the concert hall pieces he wrote and those he wrote for broadway. As far as Gershwin was concerned there are only two types of music: good music and bad music. In fact, he went on to say:
Good music is good music, even if you call it oysters.
Each to their own
I discovered this gem at a recent piano concert performed by world-renowned Gershwin performer, Jack Gibbons. His rendition of 'Summertime' almost brought tears to my eyes and 'Rhapsody in Blue' was simply magical. But it is that little anecdote about music that has lingered most on the tip of the train of my thoughts.
Intellectual snobbery has always bothered me. There is great depth, insight, entertainment and fascination to be found in culture of every type and popularity. To declare something unworthy of attention or praise simply because it was created to appeal to the many, to be accessible to most, is to miss out on the point of art and creativity itself.
Jonathan Lethem (yes I have finally returned to him) argues that works of art exist simultaneously in two economies: a market economy and a gift economy. And whilst you may pay a fee to go to a concert or buy a print from a gallery, what you receive in terms of inspiration and feeling is received irrespective of that commercial transaction.
...a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people...art that matters to us - which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience - is received as a gift is received.
For me, the gift exchange goes even beyond this, sometimes especially when the artefact in question is particularly popular, mainstream or 'low culture' as those I argue against would say. The very fact that so many people are receiving and experiencing that gift from an artist, writer, film studio - any individual or collective creative source - means that it is impossible not to become entwined with that very moment of exchange on a social and shared level.
This is, perhaps, a difficult concept to articulate. But I do not think that I am alone in feeling a fascination, excitement and curiosity when I fall for something that so many others have fallen for too. What is in that gift that so enthrals us, that is able to entice or bewitch so many, so deeply? Does it in fact reveal something about us as the recipients even more than it does about the original piece in question?
That is my assertion at least. I do not reject music, films, books - anything - based purely on why it was written, or who it was originally intended for. I reject things that I find bad. And even then, it does not mean they are without a gift, or without the power to ignite a collective and communal glimpse into our culture and ourselves. It simply means that there is no gift there intended for me, or that I am open to receiving.
Keep it real
Perhaps it makes sense to bring this back to the tangible. Take old Robin Thicke and his 'Blurred Lines', which I addressed a couple of weeks ago. Some would argue that there is no artistic merit to his work. That it is banal pop music. But he gave me two gifts.
The first, a personal gift from creator and artefact to recipient, was joy. It delighted my senses and I have no shame in admitting that. The second gift was a way in, a crack in the surface of everyday life that let me stand back and think and look at where the society I live in stands on women and their sexuality. And that was largely thanks to just how popular his song is. Its position in the mainstream and the sheer volume of people who took part in an exchange with the song, is why the conversation started.
Personal v public
Perhaps this is the very reason I differ from some in my acceptance of all things whether left field or slap bang in the centre. A relationship with a piece of art - any sort of art - can be deeply personal. The best kinds usually are. But to me it is more than that. Much like Lethem argues that art exists simultaneously in two economies, for me it also exists simultaneously in two relationships with the same person.
Stick with me. What I mean is that while you may have a deeply personal experience and reaction to a song, a book or a painting, and while nothing will take away from or intrude on that deeply intimate bond, at the same time you are in an open relationship with everyone else who encounters that artefact and receives a gift from it. And to me that can give even more meaning to the first relationship.
Thank you for the oysters
So I stand in solidarity with Gershwin, and I salute his bold stance and his intelligent and insightful declaration that a label does not alter the gift we get from art. Its popularity alone has no bearing on its artistic merit. And that good is good, no matter what else you call it.
Personally I think we should just call the whole lot oysters, and see what happens from there.