You could study Shakespeare and be quite elite
And you can charm the critics and have nothin’ to eat
Just slip on a banana peel, the world’s at your feet
Make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh!
So sings Cosmo Brown to Don Lockwood in MGM’s 1952 classic film “Singin’ in the Rain.” The message, delivered to an actor who is worried people don’t take him seriously, is that the tastes of critics and the public aren’t always in sync with each other, and what really counts is making the masses — not the critics — happy.
The art of humor is as varied as music, and it’s one of the easiest places to see differing tastes. There’s the slapstick of, well, slipping on a banana peel — physical humor that’s been in the cultural mainstream since the late 19th century. In film, humor painted in broad strokes seems a bigger draw than subtle, narrowly informed humor: The Marx Brothers packed them in more dependably than Albert Brooks.
Taste is central to the way in which we make sense of all the arts. We each have our own tastes and, like our opinions, we’re usually quite pleased with the suitability of them. Any mention of taste reminds me of a trio of cultural distinctions en vogue back in the middle of the last century: highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow.
The militant highbrow, wrote Russell Lynes back in a 1949 book titled “The Tastemakers,” “is a serious man who will not tolerate frivolity where the arts are concerned.” But there is popular art in every genre that, for lack of a better description, traffics in frivolity, so the highbrow comes to regard that which is popular as automatically of lesser worth. It’s a cliché that the highbrow has nothing but disdain for popular art, but it’s also not far from the truth.
More substantively, there are two different kinds of art, and how we react to them goes a long way toward shaping our tastes. On the one hand is the art that meets you right where you are and reinforces what you already feel. Pop music does this by design. I remember one episode of the television show “The Simpsons” in which Bart says about one pop band’s gloomy music “making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.” Similarly, I recently heard someone complain that contemporary country music has only three ideas that producers and singers keep repackaging: beer, pickups and love. Yet it’s one of the most popular music genres.
Simply put, a great number of people like things they understand and respond to sentiments to which they can relate.
Compare this to art that requires you to do some work first. Music critic Ted Gioia recently published a book called “How to Listen to Jazz,” in which he explains how to appreciate its forms and complexities. I can’t quite imagine someone writing a book entitled “How to Listen to Country Music.” Why? Because most country music, like a painting by Norman Rockwell, is straightforward and instantly relatable. It presents itself with all the sincerity of Laurel and Hardy lugging the piano up the stairs.
Everyone has taste; it’s just that everyone’s tastes aren’t the same (although it would be easier for the entertainment business if they were). I’m willing to venture that there’s a cultural or artistic curiosity that leads some people to be less content liking what everyone else happens to like.
It’s this kind of curiosity, more than any specific knowledge or artistic taste, that’s really the most rewarding capacity for people to develop.