In defence of elitism

Nigel Denning, Tom Rosenthal (and David Hume) reply

Two writers respond to Daniel Walker’s article Elitists? What Do They Know… First, Nigel Denning

I read Daniel Walker’s article Elitists? What Do They Know… with bemusement. There’s only one rule, says Daniel, and that’s bigger than any: ‘be funny’. The view’s common within stand-ups: many will repeat it without acknowledging that it’s probably the biggest debate in comedy. And why would they? If comedy’s just in the giggles, why should it concern itself with things like debates?

Anti-elitists resent analysis and objectivity. Their point’s summarised by EB White: ‘Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies’. What EB forgot is that as comedians, our job is (obviously) to build frogs. It’s unwise to build a frog without knowing what it’s made of: your frog ends up saying ‘moo’ instead of ‘ribbit’, or being inadvertently racist. Who’d laugh at that?

Comedy, to people like Daniel, is ‘subjective’. ‘Subjective’ is a wonderful word, now almost always used to mean ‘I win the debate’, and almost always by the people losing it. My girlfriend’s as stunning as yours, though mine’s 86, and has toenails for eyes: beauty is subjective. Your canvas is as good as mine, though yours is the original Mona Lisa, and mine’s just ‘nuke the gypsies’ spelled out in swastikas: art’s subjective. ‘Subjective’ sure does make you sound like an arts graduate – but does it actually get us anywhere?

The moment we start saying all things are ‘subjective’, we hit difficulties. Everything without objective truth is equally good and awful. The Hamlet done by 1,000 typewriting monkeys is as valid as the Bard’s job. The elitist sees this conclusion, and says: ‘This can’t be right’. So they say, ‘Hamlet Mk.1 is clearly better than the monkeys’, and from this, they get rules. Objective rules. Why does Shakespeare beat the chimps? His sentences have verbs in, for one. His sentences have words in, for another (rather than just ‘ekj’ on a 40-page loop). The pages aren’t encrusted with the author’s own shit, for a third (I speak for the Penguin edition).

So, when the next play comes along, the ‘elitists’ have rules – perfectly sensible rules – that tell them when something’s better than others. A play with words is better than a play without. A play without pages bound by shit, is better than Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Starlight Express. When we say that some comedy is ‘better’ than other comedy, all we’re saying is that it better fits these objective ‘rules’.

Naturally, not everyone will agree precisely what these rules are – but that’s not to deny that, broadly speaking, some comedy is better than others. Again, it’s like morals. Just because some people might disagree on whether bestiality is moral, doesn’t mean that we can make the leap to saying that all morals are subjective, and the morality of murder depends on how we feel tonight. I understand that I’m comparing (say) Coming Of Age to bestiality, but it’s an apt metaphor.

This isn’t to say that anyone busting a gut to Horne and Corden is a cretin; we respect their right to laugh, live, and – yes – even interact with other, human animals. Simply, the point is that when elitists say something is worse than something else, they’re saying it with reasons beyond ‘my opinion means more’.

Hiding behind subjectivity is misguided: not only that, it can be positively harmful. Those with harmful views (racists, sexists) are allowed to push their views through the ‘comedy’ medium, with the audience and protections that offers – and no-one can rightly say, ‘that’s not funny’. Truly awful open mic-ers can feel they don’t have to improve – they can just wait to ‘find their audience’, which they deserve by right. Yes, Daniel, people think differently. But that doesn’t mean they can all be correct.

And from Tom Rosenthal:

I aim to alley Daniel Walker’s concerns with regards to the apparent elitist practice of comedy criticism. I’m a philosophy student so I’m allowed to. I also aim to illustrate the conditions on which reviewers can legitimately tell us what is good and what isn’t. This right good philosopher called David Hume’s going to help.

Our chum Daniel begins his searing exposé with the following: ‘Comedy, as with music, film and literature, are all subjective to taste.’

In his essay On The Standard Of Taste, the lad Hume [pictured above]makes a startlingly similar observation: ‘The great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one's observation.

The befuddled Daniel however then uses this assertion to ask us Chortlers how we can ‘say Comedy A is better than Comedy B’, suggesting that we can have our personal preferences, but that ‘technically speaking’, nothing sets one apart from another in terms of quality.

This is where Hume, myself and I’m sure most of the Chortle readership would disagree. We all want to be able to establish a standard by which a piece of art can be evaluated, while also allowing for the primacy and importance of our own personal reactions (which Hume calls ‘sentiments’). Otherwise there genuinely is no way we can expressly say Horne and Corden is worse than The Fast Show. You can’t even say it’s a bit worse.

Hume says ‘Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between assert an equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby [Horne and Corden] and Milton [The Fast Show]… would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Tenerife… No one pays attention to such a taste and we pronounce without a scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous.’

This, then, is a contradiction in our intuitions. Common sense recognises both the importance of sentimental reaction and also the establishing of a standard of taste. In response, Hume emphasises the importance of delicacy of taste, which is developed in numerous ways. While, accepting Daniel’s point, there is no precise method where a critic can attribute one work as being ‘good’ and another as ‘bad’, a developed sense of taste will allow the critic to more accurately mediate their own immediate sentimental reactions. This allows them to better deliberate and to ‘say Comedy A is better than Comedy B’. It also acts as a worthy instruction for those who lack sufficient taste, giving the pronouncements of critics importance and relevance to us Chortlers. Essentially, it gives critics more authority and legitimacy than Daniel is allowing for.

To answer the question of who in particular fits this particular bill, Hume offers us the noble critic. Get in. He wrote: 'Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.'

Exactly. Chortle’s Steve Bennett.

Going to gigs and watching comedy is important then, for how else could the critic be expected to better his knowledge than through observational enquiry? Likewise comparison, to have a greater database of experiences upon which to build an understanding and an assessment of taste.

Hume encourages the critic to experience art in a breadth of guises, allowing him or her to establish an understanding through which the delicacy of their taste can be utilised and their pronouncement on the work can be made. A few Edinburgh festivals should do fine. All such things therefore justify the legitimacy of what Daniel calls the critic’s elitism. Though sentimental response is totally subjective, there are ways by which person X’s opinion is far more legitimate, and therefore worth listening to, than person Y’s.

Therefore, while it might not be very nice of them, the critic that Daniel imagines to be saying ‘I-am-better-than-you’ has quite good grounds for doing so. Fundamentally there’s not a massive disagreement – both Daniel and Hume say that we cannot condemn somebody for their immediate sentimental response to Not Going Out. However Hume’s practical pronouncements on what makes a critic worth listening to (and your average Joe Public not) are pretty spot on in my opinion. Hope you think so too.

Some people will likely know that the philosophy of the essay is viciously circular and a bit rubbish deep down. Don’t be lame.

  •  Tom Rosenthal is a comedian. Website. David Hume’s full essay can be read here

Published: 27 Apr 2009

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