Things you are supposed to like

I’m trying to like Beethoven’s Great Fugue.

“This piece alone completely changed my life and how I perceive and appreciate music.”

“Those that claim to love Beethoven but not this are fakers, frauds, wannabees, but most of all are people who are incapable of stopping everything for 10 minutes and reveling in absolute beauty, absolute perfection. Beethoven at his finest.”

“This is the absolute peak of Beethoven.”

“It’s now my favorite piece by Beethoven.”

These are some of the comments on the page. Articulate music lovers with excellent taste praise this piece to heaven. Plus, it was written by Beethoven.

It bores me.

The first two times I listened to it, it stirred no feelings in me except irritation and impatience for its end. I found it devoid of small-scale or large-scale structure or transitions, aimless, unharmonious, and deficient in melody, rhythm, and melodic or rhythmic coordination between the four parts, none of which I would care to hear by themselves (which is a key measure of the quality of a fugue).

Yet I feel strong pressure to like it. Liking Beethoven’s Great Fugue marks you out as a music connoisseur.

I feel pressure to like other things as well. Bitter cabernets, Jackson Pollack paintings, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the music of Arnold Schoenberg, and Burning Man. This is a pattern common to all arts. You recognize this pattern in a work when:

    1. The work in question was created by deliberately taking away everything that most people like best about that art form. In the case of wine, sweetness and fruitiness. In the case of Jackson Pollack, form, variety, relevance, and colors not found in vomit. In the music of Alban Berg, basic music theory. In every poem in any volume of “Greatest American Poetry” since 2000, rhyme, rhythm, insight, and/​or importance of subject matter. In the case of Burning Man, every possible physical comfort. The work cannot be composed of things that most people appreciate plus things connoisseurs appreciate. It must be difficult to like.

    2. The level of praise is absurd. The Great Fugue, Beethoven’s finest? I’m sorry; my imagination does not stretch that far. “Burning Man changed my life completely”—I liked Burning Man; but if it changed your life completely, you probably had a vapid life.

    3. People say they hated it at first, but over time, grew to love it. One must be trained to like it.

    4. People give contradictory reasons for liking it. One person says the Great Fugue has a brilliant structure; another says it is great because of its lack of structure.

    5. Learning to like it is a rite of passage within a particular community.

      Here are some theories as to how a work becomes the darling of its medium or genre:

      1. It is really and truly excellent. This would explain features 2 and 5.

      2. It is a runaway peacock’s-tail phenomenon: Someone made something that stood out in some way, and it got attention; and people learned to like things like that, and so others made things that stood out more in the same way, until we ended up with Alban Berg. This would explain features 2 and 3.

      3. When an artistic institution enshrines good art as exemplars, it increases the status of the small number of people who can produce good art. When an institution enshrines bad art as exemplars, it decreases the status of people who can produce or recognize good art. As institutions grow in size, the ratio (# people advantaged by enshrining bad art /​ # people advantaged by enshrining bad art) grows. This would explain all five features.

      4. As people learn more about an art form, they can more-easily predict it, and need more and more novelty to keep them interested; like porn viewers who seek out movies with continually-stranger sex acts. If ivy-league universities had departments of pornography, they would scoff at the simplicity of films lacking bondage, machines, or animals. This would explain features 1, 3, and 5.

      5. Practitioners of an art appreciate technique more than content. This is why authors love Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Delaney’s Dhalgren; they’re full of beautiful phrases and metaphors, ways of making transitions, and other little tricks that authors can admire and learn to use, even though these books aren’t as interesting to readers. This could explain feature 5.

      (Don’t assume that the same theory is true for each of my examples. I think that the wine hierarchy and Alban Berg are nonsense, Jackson Pollack is an interesting one-trick pony, Citizen Kane was revolutionary and is important for cinematographers to study but is boring compared to contemporary movies, and Burning Man is great but would be even better with showers.)

      I could keep listening to the Great Fugue, and see if I, too, come to love it in time. But what would that prove? Of course I would come to love it in time, if I listen to it over and over, earnestly trying to like it, convinced that by liking the Great Fugue I, too, would attain the heights of musical sophistication.

      The fact that people come to like it over time is not even suggested by theory 1 - even supposing the music is simply so great as to be beyond the appreciation of the typical listener, why would listening to it repeatedly grant the listener this skill?

      I have listened to it a few times, and am growing confused as to whether I like it or not. Why is this? Since when does one have to wonder whether one likes something or not?

      I am afraid to keep listening to the Great Fugue. I would come to like it, whether it is great art or pretentious garbage. That wouldn’t rule out any of my theories.

      How can I figure out which it is before listening to it repeatedly?