You are on page 1of 24

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait:

An Inclusive Long-Term Approach to Aesthetic Judgments

Keane Southard

MUSC 5842
Professor Caballero
December 14, 2010
Southard 2

In the evaluation of works of art, and consequently our ability to enjoy them, there has generally

been too much focus on the short term and on limiting the amount of information to consider when

evaluating them. Yet, in order for a fair and appropriate judgment of a work of art to be formed, there

needs to be a shift in focus from our current obsession with short-term consequences to a healthy

fascination with the long-term journey and an inclusive view of related information. This entails

opening ourselves up to a wider frame of reference in terms of both time and knowledge, and revising

artistic evaluations every time more information concerning an artwork is discovered. This kind of

evaluation will create more reasoned judgments about artworks, can greatly contribute to our

enjoyment of great works of art, and could potentially have profound societal effects beyond the artistic

realm.

It seems that this focus on the short term and neglect of the long term is a product of a general

trend in Western societies throughout the past century. As we have gained new technologies and more

options in everything we can choose, we have become a culture obsessed with immediate gratification.

We have discovered how to create more options and choices than ever before: more flavors of ice

cream to choose from, more kinds of music to listen to, easier global communication and travel, which

means that we can meet more people to choose friends and spouses from, more medicines to take

(along with more diseases), etc. The only thing we haven't been able to make more of is time. It is true

that these advances in medicine have resulted in our living longer (a trend that is now beginning to

reverse); so we have added more time at the end of our lives, but we still have only twenty-four hours

in a day. Most of the decisions we have to make occur within the same time frame as before, except

that we now have many more choices to evaluate before we make one. Even more importantly, we

have so many more choices in nearly every aspect of our lives. This affords us less time for each

decision we make even when we have more and more choices. Consequently, in order to make these

decisions more quickly, we must ignore some of the pertinent information available to us. We simply
Southard 3

don't have the time evaluate many of our decisions as carefully as we should.1

Considering the United States, many of the problems we are facing today are a result of this

focus on the short term while ignoring the long-term ramifications. The financial crisis of the past few

years was fueled partly by consumers relying so much on credit and not being able to pay off their

debts. Our healthcare system is so broken because of our focus on treating symptoms of disease

instead of making lifestyle changes to prevent long-term illness. Our debates on the morality of

abortions could be largely avoided if a critical long-term consequence of sexual intercourse, which is

the possibility that pregnancy and the beginning of creating another human being may result, were not

blinded by an overwhelming short-term consequence, which is physical pleasure. The climate crisis, as

well as most of our other environmental problems, could have been largely avoided if we had paid

attention to the long-term effects of using finite and highly pollutant energy sources, stopped our

mindless economic consuming and disposing of products and resources, and switched to clean energy

sources despite the short-term inconveniences of higher energy prices and initial investments. These all

could have been avoided if our collective focus had been on the long term instead of the short term.

This short-term focus has also invaded the arts and the way people evaluate works of art. With

so many more choices to make in so many different areas of their lives, most people have less time to

devote to art, if they even devote any time to it at all. At the same time, there are more artists today

creating more art than ever before in the history of the world, and never before has all this art (in

varying degrees of quality) been so easy to find and enjoy. The advent of the iPod and portable mp3

players has enabled people to be able to carry around days' worth of music in their pocket. This, along

with our daily bombardment by music through advertisements and various media, has shortened our

collective musical attention span. Our lack of time due to our multitude of choices has diminished the

1. Much of the information in this section comes from the following source:
Barry Schwartz, “Barry Schwartz on the Paradox of Choice,” TED Conferences, LLC,
http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html posted September 2006.
Southard 4

amount of time we can and usually do spent listening to a piece of music. If, after a few seconds of

listening, someone doesn't like the song that is playing on their iPod, he or she can easily skip to the

next one and continue to search for something immediately appealing. In addition, oftentimes people

do not explore new art out of their own volition, but will only perceive a new work based on the

positive recommendation of a friend or critic. Even then, a work of art, especially within the

performing arts, is usually only perceived once. Then right after a performance, we immediately ask

others “Did you like the piece?” Yet, in the case of music, and if the work is of significant length, the

ability to fully grasp and understand the work on a single hearing is extremely difficult if not

impossible. Jerrold Levinson argues, “Music of any extent consists of a series of successive events,

which cannot be apprehended simultaneously in a single perceptual act. The parts of an architectural

facade can be taken in more or less in one sweep; the parts of a symphony cannot.”2 Even by going to

an art museum it is easy to see how often people stop for a couple of seconds at a painting or simply

give it a glance as they walk by. Most people don't have, or want to devote, the necessary time to reap

the rewards of art. They instead see it solely as a distraction or entertainment.

These quick aesthetic evaluations are not unique to listeners of music but also by professional

artists as well. Some musical ensembles and conductors put out a “call for scores” and often get

overwhelming numbers of musical scores sent to them. These usually are in such a quantity that they

are unable to spend enough time listening and looking at each work in order to decide what are the best

works of art to program. A temporal art form, such as music, can only be fully experienced and

appreciated in its own time frame. It cannot be compressed, stretched, or cropped (aside from

reasonable tempo fluctuations) without losing a significant portion of its intended experience. The

sheer volume of art that exists today is so huge that if one sat down to listen to all of the different

musical works that had ever been written and recorded in a genre, such as works for pipe organ, and

2. Jerrold Levinson, Music in the Moment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 2.
Southard 5

did not rise until finished, he or she would probably be stuck in that chair for several years.

This is the quandary we find ourselves in: we have been forced to make quicker decisions and

aesthetic evaluations because of the overload of choices in our world, yet the greatest artworks demand

that we take our time and gather information about the work as well as repeatedly perceive them. As

we perceive a work multiple times, study it, learn more about its construction, its historical

background, the environment it was created in, look at it from different angles (literally and

metaphorically), etc., we end up with more knowledge about, and are in a better position to judge, the

artwork, which in turn reaps better aesthetic returns for the perceiver.

If we want to know what the universal masterworks of art are, the best way is to simply wait a

long time. The test of time does a wonderful job of accurately sorting the flops from the fads from the

masterpieces; determining whether artworks sink like a rock, sink slowly like a ship with a leak, or

float like a well built freighter. A flop is evaluated as poor and is forgotten very quickly. Both a fad

and a masterpiece usually enjoy immediate success and are generally judged as aesthetically wonderful

right from their inception. The difference is that while a fad appeals to its first perceivers, either

through an attractive artistic surface or by playing to the particular tastes of a specific generation or

cultural segment of a society, it fails to provide the same meaning and aesthetic attention to future

generations and changing cultures. Masterpieces, on the other hand, tap into universal aspects that are

understandable by and aesthetically relevant to all subsequent generations despite changing cultures

and societies. These works are rediscovered by new generations who find these works to have

significance in their own lives even though they may have been created in a world and culture much

different from their own.

Masterpieces don't even need to have short-term praise and acceptance to qualify as a

masterpiece. Only long-term acceptance by many subsequent generations is necessary. Just look at the

late works of Beethoven, the symphonies of Mahler, or the music of Charles Ives, all which were not
Southard 6

recognized as great works of art by the wide majority of people while their music was newly

composed, yet now are recognized as universal masterworks.

Part of this lack of immediate critical acceptance can be explained by these works using

unfamiliar musical materials and styles. Leonard B. Meyer states that, “because expectation is largely

a product of stylistic experience, music in a style with which we are totally unfamiliar is meaningless.”3

In order to glean meaning from a piece of music, we need to draw off of “past experience” and

previous knowledge, which applies both to information obtained from within the work and outside of

it. He explains that,

The phrase 'past experience'...must be understood in a broad sense. It includes the immediate

past of the particular stimulus or gesture; that which has already taken place in this particular

work to condition the listener's opinion of the stimulus and hence his expectations of as to the

impending, consequent event...The phrase 'past experience' also refers to the more remote, but

ever present, past experience of similar musical stimuli and similar musical situations in other

works. That is it refers to those past experiences which constitute our sense and knowledge of

style. The phrase also comprehends the dispositions and beliefs which the listener brings to the

musical experience as well as the laws of mental behavior which govern his organization of

stimuli into patterns and the expectations aroused on the basis of those patterns.4

Susanne K. Langer is in agreement that these unfamiliar aspects of a work of art must be gradually

assimilated into a person's and culture's experience before their meaning and an informed aesthetic

judgment can be made. She says, “A form, a harmony, even a timbre, that is entirely unfamiliar is

'meaningless,' naturally enough; for we must grasp a Gestalt quite definitely before we can perceive an

implicit meaning, or even the promise of such a meaning, in it; and such definite grasp requires a

certain familiarity. Therefore the most original contemporary music in any period always troubles
3. Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 35.
4. Ibid., 36.
Southard 7

people's ears.”5 If this process had not happened, perhaps today we would not have the pleasure of

understanding and enjoying the great works of Beethoven, Ives, and Mahler.

All of the above aesthetic conclusions brought about by the test of time are shared evaluations

held by society as a whole, but this doesn't work same way for individuals. Suppose someone created a

painting just for you, but you didn't like it and then threw it in a chest. Yet forty years later, you finally

opened that chest back up to see it again and this time you think it a masterpiece. In this case, your

judgment can still be quite flawed. Perhaps, in your older age, your positive viewing of the painting is

only the product of your current state and forty years of new experiences, yet forty years later on you

could hate it again. This could make the work now a fad of this current time.

The point I am trying to make is that time itself does not automatically refine judgments, but it

is the collective work of a large number of people over time. This is what either elevates it to the status

of a masterpiece or drops it into the footnotes of history (if it is lucky). This process comes from many

people repeatedly perceiving it, some studying it in depth, some attempting to perceive it through

differing angles and approaches in order to reach the work's depths (or lack thereof), and by some

simply living with it longer.

This is how a consensus on a work is reached through sufficient time, but this process can also

happen individually, although in these cases what results is an opinion that needs to be defended, and

that opinion may or may not turn out to be the overall consensus years down the line. In addition,

whereas the consensus on a work can be reached without certain individuals actively perceiving and

studying an artwork, because that process is taken up by other people, individuals only come to their

refined and improved judgment of a work through their own repeated perceptions and further study.

You can't be looking at a painting and learning more about it if it is sitting in a chest for forty years.

This brings me to another issue concerning the acquisition of more knowledge about a work of
5. Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1942, 1951, 1957 [third edition]), 263-64.
Southard 8

art. Even if the actual artwork is sitting in your chest, you undoubtedly could be learning more about it

without needing to look at it. You could be reading articles written about it (if these exist) or asking the

painter him or herself questions about the creation of it, what kinds of materials were used, his or her

ideas, etc. However, all this other information is only useful if the person gathering the information

can, at the same time or later, perceive the artwork with this new information in mind. Alan Goldman

explains that, “knowledge that can inform one's experience of a work includes that of the artist's

intentions, techniques, attitudes, problems overcome, and so on. Such knowledge is aesthetically

relevant only when it does inform one's experience of the work.”6 New information is useful in helping

us to perceive the artwork in a different way, perhaps gleaning significance and substance that we did

not comprehend before, or helping us to see through what we first found to be compelling. These new

insights are what enable us to make a better and more refined judgment of a work of art, but we must

be able to use this knowledge in our act of perceiving.

Immanuel Kant in his book The Critique of Judgment, in contrast to the approach I am

promoting, argues that in order to properly judge a work of art one must perceive the work

disinterestedly.7 That is, you must perceive the work without any attention to information or ideas that

are not in the work itself. As Peter Kivy explains, Kant believes that we should view works of art with

“a pure judgment of taste” where all “prior beliefs, concepts, and other conceptual predispositions”

must be put aside so that the only thing left of the artwork to evaluate it upon is its form.8 In this way,

subjective aspects of the perceiver are ignored, and anyone able to perceive an artwork disinterestedly

should come to the same aesthetic evaluation. This is Kant's way of objectively evaluating works of art

in order to come to universal agreements about their aesthetic worth.

6. Alan Goldman, “The Aesthetic,” in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, ed. Berys Gaut and Dominic
McIver Lopes (London, New York: Routledge, 2005), 265.
7. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1928).
8. Peter Kivy, Introduction to a Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 54-55.
Southard 9

Kivy gives a modern example to further explain Kant's view. Imagine that two people, Mr

Positive and Mrs Negative, are viewing a sunset. “Mr Positive says, 'My, what a beautiful sunset,' and

Mrs Negative gives the opposite opinion. Mr Positive then adds, as if to win Mrs Negative over to his

view, 'This sunset truly is displaying forth the glory of God,' to which Mrs Negative, not to be beguiled

by such maudlin sentimentality replies, 'This sunset is the result of the appalling air pollution extending

over the entire State of New Jersey.'”9 Kant would argue that neither person has achieved a pure

judgment of taste because, as Kivy explains, “each of their judgments has been tainted, so to speak, by

an extraneous belief about the sunset.”10

But this example brings up several problems with Kant's view. Indeed, Mr Positive and Mrs

Negative have not divorced themselves from information they possess that is related to but not part of

the “work” itself (although it is debatable whether a sunset can even be called a “work or art” in the

first place). But is it even possible for them to do this? In my own personal experience, I don't believe

I have ever been able to achieve a disinterested state when perceiving anything, not just art, although I

can't say I have tried very often. Perhaps it happens when one perceives the first artwork of his life

(although this could be “spoiled” if someone has told you her opinion of the work even before you

perceive it), yet it seems that every other artwork that is perceived after that initial one must be

“tainted” in some way. There is a possibility that this state could be achieved through a practice such

as Buddhist meditation, where meditators are sometimes able to push all other thoughts out of their

mind and focus on a single thought. As I have a very limited knowledge of this practice, I'm unsure

whether this meditation would be able to be applied to perceiving works of art or not, but it seems

plausible to me. However, it still seems that, for most of us, achieving this state of disinterested

perception is extremely difficult to do and rare to come upon. In other words, in regards to the state of

aesthetic perception and ability in people today, I believe the act of perceiving disinterestedly at all
9. Ibid., 54.
10. Ibid., 54.
Southard 10

times is impractical.

Of course, even though it may be impractical, it does not follow from that that Kant's view is

incorrect or is not what we should be striving for in our aesthetic judgments. But there still remain

other problems with Kant's approach. Considering again the sunset example, Kivy explained that each

person's judgment was tainted “by an extraneous belief about the sunset” but what does he mean by a

“belief”? Kivy claims that both people have “injected a strain of the personally 'idosyncratic' into the

judgment, making it no more universal than any other judgment based on feeling.”11 His definition of

belief here, at least as it applies to Kant's theory, is that beliefs are subjective. But let's take a look at

the beliefs of Mr Positive and Mrs Negative again. Mr Positive's belief seems to be that the sunset “is

displaying forth the glory of God” which is his reason for judging the sunset as “beautiful.” If anyone

is even slightly aware of the philosophical arguments on the existence of God, it is clear that this view

by Mr Positive is quite subjective, in that it is probably impossible to prove that this sunset is

displaying forth the glory of God. This statement's validity is set on the shaky premise that God exists

in the first place. Clearly, this can be classified as a subjective view and subsequently a belief.

But what about Mrs Negative's “belief”? It seems that her belief is that the sunset is the result

of air pollution, and that this causes her to judge the sunset as the opposite of Mr Positive's, presumably

ugly. But is her premise subjective? It doesn't seem so, as the presence of air pollution is something

that can be objectively confirmed. Of course, Mrs Negative may have no evidence for this claim. She

may be mistaken, and this would make her judgment invalid. However, if she does have evidence, it

can be indisputable. This presence of air pollution does not constitute a subjective belief but is instead

based on other information that can be indisputable. We are then left to assume that her belief is that

she thinks that the air pollution is “appalling.” However, in contrast to Mr Positive's belief, this is a

claim that has much more evidence to back it up, such as the environmental and health effects of air

11. Kivy, Introduction to a Philosophy of Music, 54-55.


Southard 11

pollution, its usual appearance and how the majority of people view its presence, and is much less

controversial than Mr. Positive's belief. While still subjective, it is a belief that is supported by better

evidence and is more universal than judgments based on feeling.

Another problem is that of whether or not it is important to take into account the existence of

the object itself. Should we ignore the fact that the sunset is in fact not simply the sun, but the result of

the sun seen behind air pollution which is creating the “object” of the sunset? Kant would say this

should be irrelevant to our aesthetic judgment, yet Goldman argues otherwise:

In opposition to Kant's characterization, we are interested in the real existence of the objects we

perceive aesthetically. We would not enjoy a performance of an opera in the same way if we

knew that the singers were only moving their lips to a recording, or if they were only life-sized

holograms; similarly if members of a symphony orchestra were only soundlessly moving to

computer generated tones.12

I believe that Kant is right in that subjective information related to a work of art should be disregarded,

or at least minimized and backed up with supporting evidence when used. Aesthetic judgments that are

built on flimsy subjective beliefs are not going to be strong. On the other hand, we shouldn't ignore all

outside information that pertains to the artwork in order to reach a disinterested state in which we will

be able to focus on the artwork itself. There is objective information related to an artwork that is

important, as well as subjective beliefs that can be significantly supported with other evidence, that

should be taken into account in order to better understand, enjoy, and judge an artwork. This related

information often comes about through interaction and contemplation of the artwork over a long period

of time.

Levinson believes that we should limit the information we use in evaluating a piece of music

since certain related information does not have any impact on aesthetic judgments. He espouses a view

12. Goldman, “The Aesthetic,” 264.


Southard 12

of musical appreciation that relies solely on the relationship of sequential musical events and that

ignores large-scale structural implications. He states that, “Rationally justifiable features of large-scale

organization have no direct relevance to either the appreciation or the evaluation of a piece of music.”13

This exclusionist view ignores the fact that many listeners who have understood these large-scale

constructions, such as practitioners of Schenkerian analysis, have gained more appreciation of a work

through these means. Perhaps Levinson himself is not one of these listeners, but it is wrong to deny,

with something as subjective as appreciation, that no one else can benefit from this kind of analysis.

To better understand the benefits of more time and information in the judgment process, it will

be helpful to present an example from my personal life. This involves the culinary arts, which is

unique among art forms because it happens to be tied up with, for better or worse, the necessary

survival act of eating (unless you happen to be on a feeding tube). When I was a child, I was an

extremely picky eater. I chose what to eat (when I had the choice) largely based on my sense of taste.

In general, anything that was not immediately pleasing to my senses did not make it into my mouth a

second time. At this point, I was making my judgments of food based on the short term and on a very

small amount of information from actual experience with different foods. This approach to evaluating

food remained mostly unchanged until my early twenties. In the time in between, I did learn some

things about nutrition, and this drove me to eat a couple more foods than I previously did, but this was

not a significant change. During this time, most of the food I ate was not purchased or prepared by

myself, but by my parents, cafeteria workers, and restaurant or fast food chefs. But when I first started

living on my own and had to purchase and prepare most of my own food, I began to think about food in

new ways. Being a frugal and financially efficient person, I wanted to make sure, because I was

spending my own money to put food on my plate every day, that I was making the best decisions in

buying food that I possibly could. I began to learn more about the food I had been eating all my life,

13. Levinson, Music in the Moment, 11.


Southard 13

such as the nutritional content (or lack thereof), what ingredients (listed and unlisted) were in them, and

the agricultural, environmental, health, financial, and social consequences of creating and eating these

foods. After gathering and evaluating all these new pieces of information, I revised my judgments of

many foods because my criteria, while still partly dependent on my taste buds and my short-term

aesthetic enjoyment, were more heavily influenced by the long-term effects of the food's nutritional

benefit to me, and their environmental and physical impact on the world and animals.

In Western societies today, the main criterion for food evaluations in general, and subsequently

food choices, is taste, while nutrition, health and environmental effects are relegated to a much smaller

role. The result of this focus has led to huge problems, particularly here in the United States. Because

most businesses in the U.S., including food production and distribution companies, seek to grow their

company and always increase profits as much as possible, combined with the fact that every living

human needs to eat food everyday in order to function in the short term, the focus of food production

has been in creating tasty foods that are cheap and require little or no preparation while sacrificing

nutrition, the environment, employee safety, etc. The poor of this country, like everyone else, need to

eat each day in order to function and, because they must be extremely frugal with their food purchases,

are usually forced to purchase the most filling food for the lowest price. These are often highly

processed and ready-to-eat foods, as opposed to fresh fruits, vegetables, and ingredients to make meals

from scratch. In the short term, these foods keep people satiated, their taste buds happy, and their

wallet in better shape. These same food choices are often made by those who have access to and can

afford better food choices for many of the same or similar reasons. But the long-term effects of these

food choices (if you can even call them choices for the poor) both individually and collectively cause

epidemics of extremely prevalent and preventable diet-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes,

and breast, prostate, and colon cancers, which burden the individual and all of society with huge

medical costs on top of crippling physical costs. Collectively, these short-term-focused food choices
Southard 14

have had catastrophically detrimental effects on our environment. Of all these many problems, the

biggest problem that our world as a whole has to face as a result of short-term-focused decisions is

probably climate change, where animal agriculture, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization

of the United Nations, is responsible for eighteen percent of human-induced greenhouse gases.14 These

are just some of the long-term problems caused or exacerbated by short-term-focused food decisions,

and we would all be better off if consumers, food producers, distributors, and our government shifted

their focus to the long-term effects of food choices.

While I believe a long-term approach should be used when dealing with all kinds of art, I want

to look at music specifically, as this is the art form I know best and most intimately. Today, there are

many ways for a listener to take their acquaintance with a piece of music from a one-night stand to a

long-term relationship. Before the 20th century, after going to hear a performance of a piece of music,

there were very few ways to re-experience that work again. If you were musically trained enough, you

could get a hold of the musical score or transcription and perform it yourself (if it was a solo work and

you happened to play that instrument well enough) or organize a performance by friends and

colleagues, or take time to study the score. If you did not have enough, or any, training in music, you

had to wait around for the next performance of the work in order to hear it again. With the invention of

sound recordings in the 20th century and their increasing prevalence and affordability, it is easier than

ever to listen to musical works over and over again. In most cases, there is no need to wait for a live

performance in order to hear a work again (although a live performance is still in many ways better to

hear than a recording). It is easier than ever to live with a musical work and give it long-term attention

in order to make a more reasoned evaluation of it. You can even find different recordings by different

performers (or even occasionally the same work recorded twice by the same performer in different

14. The Humane Society of the United States, “An HSUS Report: The Impact of Animal Agriculture on Global
Warming and Climate Change,” http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/hsus-the-impact-of-animal-agriculture-
on-global-warming-and-climate-change.pdf (accessed December 13, 2010).
Southard 15

ways) and listen to these works in different contexts, such as in your car stereo, with headphones, on a

walk through the woods, lying down in a quiet place with your eyes closed, etc. All these different

ways of listening can bring about new insights, new layers of meaning, and further enjoyable and

pleasurable aesthetic substance.

Owing to ever expanding research within the field of music, there are more resources than ever

to learn about music and musicians indirectly through books, journals, newspapers, and the internet.

For most pieces of music and composers, it is easy to find background information on the composer's

life, training, style, and the circumstances under which a certain piece was written, what inspired it,

what the composer was trying to convey (if applicable), the style it was written in, etc. There are also

lots of written analyses of works that the trained musician can use to dive deeper into a work. With the

exception of the last, all of these resources are available and useful for the listener that is not musically

trained.

Yet even though a listener is untrained, this does not mean that they can't become musically

trained, and furthermore, if they are so taken by music, I believe they should make the effort to gain

theoretical and possibly technical knowledge about music. Even if someone believes that they simply

have no talent for music, (meaning they can't play an instrument or don't have a nice voice), or think

they are tone deaf, they can still learn much by studying history and theory. I happen to have next to

zero artistic ability when it comes to drawing or painting, yet when I got interested in understanding

abstract painting, I didn't just sit back and say “Well, I can't paint, so there is no point in learning more

about these artworks.” Instead, I found a book, and I read about art history and the construction of the

works and how planes, lines, colors, and movement work within a composition. There is much to be

gained from theoretical knowledge that informs one's listening process. Mark DeBellis explains, “It is

not the acquisition of an understanding of connections among distinct features [the trained listener]

hears, but a deepened perception of a property for what it is, that is central to his increased
Southard 16

appreciation. And with this comes a deepened pleasure in the music.”15 He adds that, “Analysis can

contribute to the formation of new and interesting objects of listening experience.”16

There also seems to be a kind of stigma in the perceived ability to learn the basics of music

theory. Most people seem to think you either can or you can't learn music theory, but this is completely

wrong. I've taught music theory to non-music majors for the past two years and it seems obvious to me

that, if someone is willing to put forth the effort, they can learn the basics of music theory and enrich

their listening and overall aesthetic experience, even if they can't whistle a tune. Peter Kivy agrees

with me: “Anyone who enjoys, who appreciates, classical music, or any music, for that matter, can

acquire music-theoretical knowledge, if he or she is of a mind to do it. In that sense there is nothing

'elitist' about knowing the basics of musical grammar.”17

It is important now to address a question that is still unanswered. Disregarding the ignorant and

those who do not have certain choices, many other people are aware of the problems that exclusive

short-term thinking brings and the benefits of considering the long term. Yet why do many people

continue to eschew this way of thinking and evaluating? A lot of it has to do with the uncertainty of the

long-term future. For people who can afford to buy more expensive yet more nutritious and

environmentally-friendly food, yet still eat unhealthy and environmentally-destructive food, there is a

fear of losing the short-term benefits and hope for missing the long-term problems. “Only” one out of

every two Americans will have heart disease in their life, so if I am lucky, I can still eat the unhealthy

foods whose taste I love and still avoid these long-term health problems. Maybe scientists will finally

come up with a pill that will enable me to eat all these unhealthy foods and still not get heart disease. I

don't want to give up my tasty meat and have to eat something bland all my life like celery in order to

hope that this sacrifice will lower my risk of heart disease enough that I will not get it. For listeners of

15. Mark DeBellis, Music and Conceptualization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 129.
16. Ibid., 149.
17. Kivy, Introduction to a Philosophy of Music, 83.
Southard 17

music, the added effort of looking at and analyzing a work does not guarantee the results of finding

further meaning and substance in a work. Why go through all the effort of learning background

information, music theory, etc., if I don't even like the sound of a work in the first place? I could put

forth hours (or years) of effort diving into the work just to find nothing more that can satisfy me

aesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally. This is especially true if it is a work that is not already

held to be a masterpiece. If you listen to a masterpiece and you don't find it a great piece after the first

listening, you may be more inclined to go back and listen again or analyze it in order to try and find

what everyone else seems to find meaningful in it. But even this general knowledge that it is a

masterpiece is a piece of information outside of the work that you would then be considering. If you

listen to a work that is not already acknowledged as a masterpiece, such as a world premiere of a

recently composed work or an obscure piece from a past century, and you judge it poorly on the first

listening, you are less likely to think that there may be cause to revise your first judgment. I don't

believe these thoughts are necessarily conscious, but I believe they provide a good explanation for why

people still prefer the short term.

Even though it seems that oftentimes we must sacrifice short-term benefits for long-term gains,

these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We can have our cake (or perhaps something healthier)

and eat it too. In food choices, I've found that you definitely do not have to sacrifice taste for better

nutrition and lower environmental impact. After about four weeks of eating new foods and not eating

old foods, your taste buds change not only to become averse to the old foods, but to fully appreciate

and discover the natural flavors of the new foods. Because of the internet and the variety of cookbooks

today, there is no shortage of recipes for good tasting dishes using these better foods. By changing

your food choices, you will have to give up some of your favorite tastes, yet there is no shortage of

other great tastes to take their place.

While the long term is where we should set our focus when dealing with works of art, the short-
Southard 18

term benefits need not be lost and often still play an important role, albeit a much smaller one. The

short-term is crucial to act as a “hook”; something to draw you in and lure you to come back to that

work in order to start digging deeper into it to find more substance, aesthetic pleasure and satisfaction.

The short-term aspects are what will lead to the bearing of the sweeter tasting fruit down the road.

Let me give a personal example. In my early years of composing as young teenager, most of

the classical music I had heard had been compositions from 18th and 19th centuries that were firmly

within the system of common-practice tonality, and I had very little experience listening to atonal or

20th-century contemporary classical music. Consequently, the classical music that I liked was tonal,

and the little atonal music I'd heard I didn't like. When I began taking composition lessons with a local

composer, one of the first things he did for me was to give me a recording of Charles Ives' “Concord”

Sonata for Piano. I took this recording home, sat down to listen to it, and my first reaction was that it

sounded like someone was sitting on the piano keys and randomly hitting notes with no rhyme or

reason to it. Needless to say, I didn't like or understand it. Most likely, it was my lack of understanding

and inability to make sense of the work that caused my low evaluation.18 Despite this initial reaction, I

listened to the entire forty-minute work all the way through, and there were a couple fleeting seconds of

music that I did actually enjoy on the first hearing. These were the little snippets of hymns that Ives

uses (and in this case they are used by themselves without anything else going on at the same time).

These were little beautiful moments of tonal music that I could latch onto, moments that I wished at the

time had lasted longer, as they are very briefly heard before they are suddenly interrupted by the

predominating modern harmonic language. These little moments fascinated me, and I wondered about

why they were subjected to being placed in this “bad” piece. Because of this, and because my teacher

had found such meaning and substance in this piece, I listened to it several more times. Each time I

listened, there seemed to be more little bits that I “understood” and that I could find meaning,

18. See footnotes 3, 4, and 5 above.


Southard 19

significance, and beauty in. The more I listened, the more I came to understand. It was as if this

“understanding” was a virus that had infected this piece and was gradually spreading throughout the

entire work. For the next ten years, up to the present day, every time I have listened to this work I

understand more and more of it, and I predict this process will continue through the future. More

substance has been revealed to me and my evaluation and love of the work goes up a notch with each

listening. I have received such satisfaction from discovering, learning about, and listening to this piece

that I now consider it an absolute masterpiece, far from the unintelligible nonsense that I first perceived

it as.

But how did I come to “understand” this piece? Was it simply through listening to it over and

over that its secrets revealed themselves to me? I think this is partly the case. Repeated listening made

me more familiar with the materials, and I began to hear patterns as well as where material was being

repeated and manipulated. But in my life outside of listening to this piece, I was also listening to more

contemporary music, learning music theory, performing new works, and simply growing up and having

new experiences.

But I don't think I would have sat through listening to this piece over and over unless there was

something that I could understand immediately: those fleeting tonal hymns. In the short-term, those

gave me something of significance, and so I came back to listen to the piece again just to search for

more moments like those. This search yielded some new bits that I enjoyed, which led me to listen

again, and so on. This is what I think we should desire of our art, that it be like a journey that never

ends, where we are always drawn back to it because we want to learn more and we know that we will

because the masterworks of art are always inexhaustible.

However, if a musical work doesn't initially have something that appeals to you, you should

give it another listen if possible. After a first hearing, it is difficult, if not impossible, in most cases to

tell whether its lack of appeal (or its abundance) is due to the content of the work itself or to the
Southard 20

context, including the performers, acoustics of the hall, the man coughing every two seconds who sat

behind you, the dinner you had eaten right before that didn't sit well in your stomach, etc. I advise that

the short term be defined, when dealing with musical works, to three or four listenings. At this point, if

you have yet to find signs of gold on the ground or from digging a couple inches below the surface, you

are better off not to waste your time and to head to other musical terrain for hopes at striking it

aesthetically rich.

It must be also noted that recently there has been a lot of research done on the validity and

accuracy of snap decisions and judgments. Research has shown that sometimes there comes a point

where gathering more information, particularly in making decisions that will have important

consequences as opposed to relatively harmless aesthetic evaluations, becomes detrimental to our

ability to make good choices. But Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, even while arguing that

oftentimes our immediate judgments and evaluations within the first two seconds of perception can be

accurately and confidently relied upon, acknowledges that in order for us to have correct immediate

and unconscious decisions, a lot of time, effort, work, and study needs to be put in first.19 In other

words, we need to put in long-term effort in order to later have the convenience of reaching good

conclusions in the blink of an eye. This may be the explanation for why Langer, while it is important to

note that her criteria for good art includes the presence of “significant form,” argues that,

Intimate acquaintance with all sorts of music does give some versatile minds a power of

grasping new sound; people so inclined and trained will have a 'hunch,' at least, that they are

dealing with true 'significant form' though they still hear a good deal of it as noise, and will

contemplate it until they comprehend it, for better or worse. It is an old story that Bach,

Beethoven, and Wagner were 'hard to hear' in their own time.20

19. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Little, Brown, and Company,
2005).
20. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 264.
Southard 21

A music listener, such as a critic, must have years of experience and practice discovering great musical

works before he or she can have a “hunch” and correctly judge a new work just by hearing the first few

moments or a single performance. If we don't have this background, we risk making false snap

judgments.

Perhaps the best analogy to the approach that we should take when perceiving works of art is

that of our dating and romantic relationships. A first perception of a work of art is like a first date. In

that first date, you are hoping that you are going to meet someone so great that you could end up

spending the rest of your lives together. If in that first date you have a good time and find some things

you like about him, you may go out on a second date to learn more about him and seek more

enjoyment. If you did not find anything you liked in that person on the first date and didn't enjoy the

evening, perhaps you will not want to go on a second date, or perhaps you will be willing to give him

another chance because you figure your low evaluation may be because he was nervous, or you felt

sick, or you didn't like the restaurant. As you go on more dates, you learn more about that person, his

interests, level of intelligence, quirks and peculiarities, and you see him in different situations and

contexts. This all adds to your evaluation of him. Either there is someone really wonderful and deep

underneath his immediately attractive surface, or there is no substance underneath his sugar coating. If

you continue to discover and learn more about this person and enjoy this process, the uncovering of a

complex and beautiful physical, mental, and emotional being, you could very well commit your entire

lives to each other in order to perpetually uncover and fall deeper in love with the bottomless well that

is another human being.

This is the ultimate appreciation of another person, and this is the same kind of relationship we

should seek from our art. The advantages that we have over the dating analogy are that we don't have

to worry about whether the artwork feels the same way about us (even if you argue that the work does

contain emotions) and we are allowed to be aesthetic polygamists. We are allowed to have life-long
Southard 22

relationships with as many art works as we deem worthy and enjoy them all.

To summarize, there is no need to exclude any relevant information when making judgments on

works of art. Information can be continually gathered over a long time-span and judgments, which are

directly proportional to how much pleasure we receive from a work, should be revised with each

subsequent acquisition of knowledge. Goldman even argues that, in some cases, related information

that lies outside the artwork is critical for its basic understanding in the first place:

Even removing certain works from the context of practical affairs prevents proper aesthetic

appreciation of them. Much contemporary art reflects the techniques and themes of a

technological, mass productive and materially obsessed age, and the mundane and practical

aspects of life in this age. Ignoring the context of practical life loses the point of these works.

Older art too may better be appreciated in its narrower practical or concrete context. Taking

part in a religious service, using a cathedral for that purpose, can heighten rather than distract

from the aesthetic experience of the building.21

In listening to music, Carlo Caballero argues for approaching and listening to pieces in various ways:

While I think listening tends to be multivalent and simultaneous in musical experience, I cannot

readily deny the value of understanding various possible modes of attention separately...In

adopting an inclusive rather than exclusive view of what constitutes 'listening to classical

music,' I hope to invite a range of inquiries—to open as much space to observation as possible

rather than rally everyone into a well-ploughed acre.22

Since the domain and definition of art is ever-expanding and constantly growing, neither should the

perceiver's relationship with art be bounded. It should be inclusive rather than exclusive (but obviously

this only pertains to information that is in some way related to the artwork). In a great work, more

21. Goldman, “The Aesthetic,” 265.


22. Carlo Caballero, “Back to the Listener: Kivy's Theory and Its Limits,” (working paper, University of Colorado,
Boulder, CO, 2010), 16.
Southard 23

information can contribute to a higher evaluation, and subsequently more substance and a deeper and

more gratifying experience for the perceiver that can continue throughout a lifetime. In less than great

works, whatever substance is present can be wrung out of it like an orange, leaving the perceiver to

judge whether the wringing was worth the juice. Caballero writes further, “The knowledge of the

[musical] topic and its constitutive gestures matters for an affective experience. Without them, the

piece is diminished. I would go so far as to say that the more impure our delectation of the piece, the

deeper our emotional experience becomes.”23 In addition, artists themselves should adopt a long-term

view when creating their works. They should expect their art to be perceived eternally instead of

exclusively for the prevailing tastes of their time and place. Failure to adopt this view denies

perceivers the best possible riches that art can provide.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, the tendency to focus on the short term and

disregard the long term not only hurts art perceivers, but nearly everyone in Western societies. In fact,

it seems that this is a typical case of Art imitating Nature or, more accurately, Art imitating Life. If we

accept this view as the way art invariably is, that art is simply another thing to be consumed for

pleasure and then discarded, then art, as Plato saw it, aspires to be as good as nature but will always

fail. These are not the limits of art that I am acquainted with, for I know that art can do the nearly

unbelievable. As Oscar Wilde's character Vivian brilliantly argues in “The Decay of Lying,” art is most

powerful as a great lie. It should not strive to copy life as it is, but instead be visionary. It lies by not

telling us the truth of this world, but instead can show us a beautiful vision of what this world should

become. When this happens, Art does not imitate Life, but Life then imitates Art, as Vivian explains.

Wilde's character says, “Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type

imagined by painter or sculptor, or realizes in fact what has been dreamed in fiction.”24 What I propose

23. Ibid., 17.


24. Oscar Wilde, Intentions [including “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist”] (London: The Unicorn
Press, 1947), 35.
Southard 24

is that by focusing on the long term in art, through creation and perceiving, we may be able to change

our whole culture from a short-term focus to a long-term focus. This is the true power of art; the power

to deeply affect individuals but also fundamentally change the core beliefs and attitudes of society at

large.