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The PICTURE: The Value of Not Knowing

When did people become so unwilling to get in a little over their heads?

I don’t know enough. Certainly not in comparison with what I would like to know. When a discussion about classical music demands even a rudimentary understanding of music theory, I am lost. And I lack the skills necessary to follow even a moderately demanding newspaper or magazine account of developments in science. When it comes to literature, a subject about which I know a few things, my knowledge is anything but encyclopedic. And, frankly, my knowledge of the visual arts, although pretty solid in some areas, is weak in others. I wish this were otherwise. I doubt there is much I can do about it. But there is one thing that consoles me. I know there are people who know about all of these things—who can speak about classical music in technical terms, who can make judgments about the latest developments in microbiology or astrophysics, who have a wide-ranging familiarity with Polish literature, who know Italian Romanesque architecture inside and out. And I do not need to understand exactly what they are saying or thinking to know that it matters.        

And why does it matter? The health of a society can be measured in many ways, and many of them are not susceptible to any kind of cost-benefit analysis. The arts and the sciences are essential because they deal with essences, and sometimes even with quintessences. We all know that the arts can boost tourism and that the sciences can fuel technology. But a poetry magazine can also be vital, as can a mathematician’s elegant equation. A society must be judged not only in terms of how it deals with practical matters, but also in terms of how it deals with matters of the imagination. People will sometimes smile ironically when New Yorkers who rarely attend the opera or a Broadway show speak animatedly about the illness of a conductor, or the emergence of a new ballerina, or the abrupt closing of a musical. Why does it matter to them? The answer is that the cultural news reflects the condition of their community. In New York, a ballet dancer’s broken ankle can be as worrisome as a drop in the Dow. At least it ought to be.

In a world where everything demands a dollars-and-cents value, I want to insist on the importance of the things about which we understand only enough to know that they are unquantifiable. Among people who work for newspapers and magazines, there has for years now been a furious debate about the importance of music criticism and literary criticism. Fewer and fewer publications employ full-time or even part-time critics. The altogether honorable arguments made in favor a greater emphasis on critical writing are almost invariably presented in terms of some kind of cost-benefit analysis. Music criticism in newspapers is said to help support local musical events. Book critics are good for the publishing industry—and, more generally, encourage higher literacy levels. True enough. But there is a larger argument that needs to be made. The state of an art form—whether classical music or contemporary fiction—is in some complex and mysterious way related to the state of society as a whole. Most of us may not see the connections. And even those who understand the inner-workings of an art form may be hard put to explain those connections. But we cannot even begin to see how it all fits together if nobody is explaining what went wrong in last night’s performance of Don Giovanni. And there are times when a music critic, in order to explain the strengths and the weaknesses of a performance, is going to need to speak in technical terms—in precisely the terms that most of the audience will not understand.

When did people become so unwilling to get in a little over their heads? Everything in the media world is nowadays evaluated in terms of how rapidly and completely it can be absorbed by the public. The online magazine you are reading at this very moment, like so many online publications, will tell you which New Republic articles are “Most Read” or “Most Commented” today. At some publications, I gather writers are now paid at least in part on the basis of how many hits their articles receive. The online articles that are barely read are counted failures. The longer articles in the print magazines that almost nobody has the time to read—isn’t that the refrain we’re always hearing?—are even more suspect, because money has been expended to print them and mail them. But what if those articles discuss artists or writers or ideas that are discussed nowhere else? What if those articles contain essential information about the state of some aspect of the arts or the sciences? I am glad that they are there—even if there are many that I will never read; even if, in the unlikely case that I do read them, I cannot understand them. It is always good to be reminded that I don’t know enough.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.

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