Democracy of ideas

Despite the pretensions of polite society, the basic truth that "might makes right" is very much alive today. Instead of playing itself out directly in brutal fisticuffs, it frequently revolves around civil litigation and backroom lobbying, but it is widespread nonetheless. If anything, the resulting sublimation only makes it less honest. Popular democracy adopts this basic truth in a straightforward way, based on head count, and with it the idea that anyone's voice is as valid as anyone else's. One can justify the position philosophically in one of two prototypical ways: One can speculate that, were we to fight it out, the side with greater raw numbers would win, or posit that the answer which appeals most to the majority is the best choice in an ideal world. Neither is really true, as much of the time the majority is made up largely of people who do not particularly care, and so other more nuanced solutions can satisfy more people more thoroughly or prompt less resistance from those whose views are less well represented. Of course, this statement is only theoretical, as there is no clear mechanism for finding such a solution. In the case of art & music, the economic situation reflects the backdrop of democracy, as essentially every dollar is equal, and again the entire process works itself out against the context of a majority which does not particularly care about the choices. They will buy what is popular, because it is popular.

As described previously, even if one accepts the view that each person's artistic choices are initially equal, the fact that they will begin to align and reinforce each other means that ultimately they are not equal at all. The history of art & choice presents a structured context against which subsequent individual choices are placed. For instance, it affects nothing if one regards Beethoven as a dreary hack composer, because the opposite decision has already been made, and our musical culture has been conditioned by it. One can perhaps talk hypothetically about how the decision should not have been made, but even if everyone today decides it was foolish, it was indeed decided, and so the effects will linger regardless. Everyone's opinion on art exists within such a historical context, and consequently the arena into which it is injected is pre-contoured and certainly not flat. (To elaborate the physics analogy, even if the opinions are little balls entering at random angles and with equal energy, i.e. divergent equally-weighted opinions, they will not end up evenly spaced on a plane which bends to them in a noninstantaneous manner. Earlier balls will condition the paths of later ones, resulting in clusters.) If one insists that this not be true, and that everything be considered equally nonetheless, what one is really doing is insisting on stripping all prior knowledge from the situation, and in short on the exaltation of ignorance. By its nature, democracy can easily do this by refusing to prioritize knowledge.

What might this mean in practice? Suppose that one puts two recorded performances before the public: one which sounds exactly like a previous performance, and one which is innovative in some way. Presumably the more familiar one will be chosen by the majority, because familiarity is comfortable. What would the choice mean beyond that? Nothing at all, because the former performance is still without any particular value, seeing as how a previously existing identical one could have been used in its place. It has given nothing to the world. Whether the latter has contributed anything or not remains an open question, but at least it has a chance. One frequently hears that this is an "elitist" attitude, and that one should be "open-minded" and simply enjoy whatever is enjoyable. Perhaps so, but what of understanding the context into which any particular artistic event is injected? Being a "blank slate" can be valuable at times, but is this how the artistic world as a whole should function? As the democratic principle extends to more human endeavors, it begins to condition credibility in general, and with it the broader reception of art in society. We are told quite explicitly in some circles that everyone's opinion is equal, but it would be nice nonetheless to believe that art can still grow, that it can express new things and not rely only on rehashing clichés.

Of course, in some sense, new expression is not really possible, democracy aside. The elements of the human condition have been expressed, and so one is simply updating their context, or perhaps stringing them together in a different way. In some respects, this is not so different from the above, and the public deserves some credit for its collective taste. One can go on to posit that what separates a serious artist from a not-so-serious artist is that the former is aware of and acknowledges his sources, bringing us back to the issue of understanding the context of artistic creation. Democracy aside, there is a niche audience for this kind of understanding, and it is not one which is likely to disappear, even if the majority elects to legislate against it. From that perspective, democracy and its associated mediocrity are an essential part of the context of art & music in our era. It can lead to curious situations, especially on the Internet (where it only seems to be intensified), in which those with no idea or sense of what is being expressed or discussed are eager and confident when it comes to passing judgement. Ignorance is stigmatized increasingly little, and consequently there is increasingly little reason to hide it. In some ways this is good, but when ignorance is regarded as a strength, the situation becomes treacherous. Such a situation may even be the logical conclusion of democracy, since ignorance of any particular issue is the natural state of the majority, and democracy encourages people to feel good about being in the majority for no reason other than being in the majority. There are consequently more & more people with nothing to say (and there is certainly nothing wrong with that in itself), who nonetheless crave stimulus while regarding creators condescendingly.

Perhaps the current situation finally exposes the truth of art, however. The artist is driven to create, so what is the purpose of respect? It is like respecting the sun for shining. And what is the point of lingering on an individual creation when another will download the following second? We now have the ultimate throwaway culture, because there is nothing to actually throw away, nothing but electronic ephemera, quickly forgotten in a haze of continuous stimulus. Individual ideas & events become not so much equal as equally insignificant. Democracy is expressed in statistics, and this emphasis on numbers is only underscored by the rapidly increasing population and social isolation many people feel even within their own communities. So what of a democracy of ideas in the loftier sense? Perhaps we can have that, by exposing the shallowness of personal vanity. Lao Tzu says that one cannot set out to improve the world, that it does what it will do, and that there is no merit to knowledge self-consciously held up as superior. The implications of democracy enforce this point as well as anything can, even if they never seem to rise above it. In a true democracy of ideas, we might look to the benefits of free-ranging & open argument, but unfortunately such a state prioritizes those who like to go on arguing.

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Todd M. McComb