In a previous post entitled “Ground,” I suggested that if anything meaningful is to be said about the arts or music, then it needs to be grounded. The main point of that post was to establish that we need grounds for substantive dialogue. Before suggesting a possible ground for art, let me define what I mean by a ground. Baldly put, a ground is a basis for belief as well as a basis for argument and action. You’ve probably heard someone respond to another person by saying, “You have no grounds for saying that.” When someone says something like this, then he’s accusing the other person of lacking a foundation for his claims. For example, if I accused my friend of being thoughtless and inconsiderate towards his mother, he might retort by asking, “On what grounds do you say that?” I might respond by saying, “You never open the door for your mother, help her out with the chores, or spend time with her.” In this way, I provide evidence (or grounds) for my accusation. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have any business making those sorts of claims.
So what are the appropriate grounds for saying something meaningful about the arts? Or let’s make this more specific. What are the appropriate grounds for saying something meaningful about music? Most people seem to think when it comes to music we should live by the motto: to each his own. Which is simply a way of saying that what determines whether music is good or not depends on the listener. For instance, if Jack likes reggae, then reggae is good. That’s about it. Our problem is solved. Distinguishing good music can be boiled down to the choices of personal preference.
But wait a second. In the above, what are the grounds for saying that reggae is good music? (By the way, at this point I’m not making any judgments about music, so don’t worry if you really enjoy reggae. For now, I’m not knocking any style of music.) Now if we look at the reasoning presented above, we’ll find that the ground for claiming that reggae is good music is personal preference, namely, Jack likes it. So the question is: Is personal preference an adequate ground for what constitutes good music?
Well how do we answer this question? So far I’ve demonstrated how to “spot” the grounds for saying, believing, arguing, etc. for something, but I haven’t discussed what makes a ground suitable. But this shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. Let’s take the first example and look at it again, the one about my inconsiderate friend. Let’s say, like the first time, that I accuse him of being thoughtless and inconsiderate. And, similar to the first time, he responds by asking, “On what grounds?” Except this time, instead of providing evidence that supports my accusation, I simply say, “I just like to think that you’re an inconsiderate dead-beat.” Clearly, this wouldn’t be satisfactory grounds for making my accusation. Personal preference, in this case, just doesn’t cut it!
Think about it. How often is personal preference an adequate justification (or grounds) for what we think, do, believe, say, etc? It isn’t. To give some examples, typically we don’t think that personal preference justifies a terrible diet, e.g., eating too many Oreos too often. Or we don’t think personal preference excuses laziness, e.g., missing work or not giving things your best. To be blunt, something isn’t good because someone likes it! Mightn’t I ask how music is any different? Why does personal preference give us a basis for making the music we listen to good, while not giving us a basis for most other things?
Now we’re a bit closer to finding a ground, but we still have a ways to go.