Back in the day, when I still thought good taste had nothing to do with opinion, I sat down with a dear friend of mine to watch the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera on video. Ed adored classical music, especially Puccini, and had such elevated sensibilities that he often preferred singers who were just a smidgen flat to more on-pitch, yet less idiosyncratic performers. He was so erudite that I thought he’d go ga-ga over Night, one of my favorite comedies and, in my opinion, an affectionate look at the opera world. If anything, he’d get the joke and, like me, want to see it over again in the future.
Once we got to the scene, however, where Harpo and Chico switch the sheet music for Il Trovatore with that of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” I knew my choice was ill-conceived.
“This is a travesty,” Ed said as the brothers tossed a baseball in the orchestra pit.
The takeaway: Not everyone likes the Marx Brothers. But there’s another takeaway, and it’s less definite. It’s the question of what’s good and what’s not, and how do we know if something’s art or junk?
Tommy Chong answered that hilariously in the movie After Hours as his character steals a statue containing Griffin Dunne’s hapless yuppie: “Art sure is ugly.”
It would be easier to assess if it always were.
The problem is, it’s not always anything. You can’t say: Art has this quality and this quality, so therefore it’s what it is. And it’s not always known at first sight, either; plenty of works are pooh-poohed when they first debut and only obtain recognition years later. The lexicon has no deadline.
To a certain extent, art should affect you greatly, as A Night at the Opera does to me; it makes me laugh, and I never get tired of watching it. Yet what of those who prefer other comedies—or those who like slightly off-pitch singers? Their opinions matter as much as mine … if not more.
I once attended an event where basketball legend Michael Jordan was asked by movie critic Gene Siskel what his favorite film was. “Friday,” Jordan ultimately said, to Siskel’s visible dismay.
I saw Friday. Some of it was amusing. Some of it was junky. Is that personal taste, or can I say with authority that it doesn’t hold a candle to Night? After all, Jordan liked it. Who am I to dispute him?
We live in a world where the word “genius” is applied indiscriminately, where a man can break bottles pointlessly on the street and attract a curious audience—as I observed with bemusement one day during a trip to Paris. Can anything be called art as long as there’s someone backing the claim? Is it just a popularity contest?
I don’t think so. But I can’t figure out why. All I know is that some people love the Marx Brothers, and some people don’t. I don’t understand their perspective, but I’m not them.
If I knew how to sing just a little bit flat, maybe I’d get the idea.