Home > Books and culture > The Ribena test (Crossposted at CT)

The Ribena test (Crossposted at CT)

July 29th, 2005

In the July edition of Prospect Erik Tarloff reviews What Good are the Arts? by John Carey. Tarloff’s critique (subscription-only link I think, but give it a try) is summed up in the write-off

If I prefer Ribena to Château Lafite, does that make me a fool? No. It’s just a matter of taste—as it is for art. That is John Carey’s thesis, and it’s wrong

I haven’t read Carey’s book yet, but as far as I’m concerned, Tarloff is wrong. Not having read the book, I won’t assert that Carey is right, but he is certainly raising the right questions.

The difference between ‘Art’ (I’ll defend the scare quotes later) and mass-produced cultural products is, in most respects, just like the difference between Château Lafite and Ribena. One takes a lot of skill and indefinable talent to produce, and an experienced palate to appreciate , and the other is cheaply produced in bulk and reliably appeals to basic tastes we all possess[1]

In fact, this comparison is too favorable to ‘Art’ since a lot of stuff produced under that banner, and accepted by its official representatives, has none of the merits of Château Lafite, while lots of things that don’t make into the canon are subtle and complex.

Right at the end of his piece, Tarloff implicitly concedes all this. He says

I believe the difference is real. Having been lucky enough to have tasted and enjoyed both Ribena and Château Lafite, I do believe that for those willing or equipped to appreciate it, the latter provides a more satisfying and more complex nexus of pleasures. Yes, damn it, absolutely

So, let’s agree that in most areas of human endeavour, things can be done with skill and effort, in a way that will only be fully appreciated by someone who has themselves put in a fair amount of effort, or they can be done in a cheap and superficially appealing way, and that the latter will often succeed in the market. Until about the beginning of the 19th century, the term ‘art’ was used in relation to the first way of doing things, with no particular restriction. We still speak of the “Vintner’s Art for example.

It was only in the 19th century that an idea of capital-A Art came to be accepted. In its most extreme Romantic form, Art was the immortal and transcendent product of individual genius, free from and superior to, all social restraints. This transcendent spirit had only a tiny range of modes of expression: painting, sculpture, a restricted range of music, drama and, at a pinch, literature. In a watered-down form, this is still pretty much the official ideology of Art, and the one that Tarloff, with some obvious embarrassment, is trying to defend.

It’s not really possible to refute this theory, only to observe that, if you take it all seriously, the number of cultural productions that qualify as Art must be very small indeed. Maybe Ulysses and Beethoven’s 5th are immortal and transcendental products of genius, but this is an all-or-nothing category. Once you expand it beyond a handful of works, the problem of drawing the line becomes insurmountable. Is anyone seriously going to claim, say, that Monet is an immortal genius, and Manet a mere craftsman, or that Manet is in, but Renoir is out (feel free to substitute your own implied ranking).

And once you abandon the full-blown Romantic genius theory, there is no defensible position to fall back on short of the conclusion that Château Lafite is the product of art, and Ribena is not.

Having got to this point, what can we say in relation to the social significance of art? The values embodied in art are more important, and fragile, in some domains (broadly speaking, those associated with the capitalised term ‘Culture’) than in others. As far as private consumption goods like alcoholic beverages, or houses and their furnishings, are concerned, we can generally rely on individual preferences, expressed through the marke,t to strike a reasonable balance between cost and quality.

Culture is, in large measure, a public good (in the economic sense, that it is at least partly non-rival and non-excludable) and is much more complicated. As with other public goods, it may be under-supplied and may merit a public subsidy. More importantly, it doesn’t just emerge as a product of spontaneous order, in the way that market goods typically do. Individual cultural productions both constitute and are generated by, the culture as a whole. So, if we care about it, we have to take an individual and collective interest in what is happening. It’s for this reason, and not because chamber music is categorically different from champagne, that art matters.

fn1. Disclaimer: I don’t possess the required sophistication, and have never tasted Château Lafite, so I’m taking Tarloff’s example on faith, mentally substituting Wirra Wirra Church Block

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  1. July 30th, 2005 at 00:06 | #1

    I think the refutation of the Romantic position proceeds by simple evidence. Ask practicing artists who are achieving success whether they fit the model. Looking up from their quiet suburban lives, most of them would say it is a description of rock stars, not sculptors.

    There is a huge amount of pretentiousness about artistic production, particularly in the visual arts, but that has to do with defining yourself as an attractive commodity in a very peculiar marketplace, and with the crush of people around the edge. They can be genuinely emerging, collapsing away from creativity, or trying sincerely and failing cos they are no good, or just poseurs whose inadequate personalities need a dramatic and godlike role.

    But Art has always been with us, and it has always been recognised as great. Think of Aristotle, or the Irish harpists. The individual may not be valorised as producer of the work, and it may not be entangled with novelty and the idea of the new, but organised and sedentary societies have artefacts, songs and stories they take care to transmit.

    They all have the function of art. which is to do fundamentally with linking stuff together metaphorically, to find emotional connections and either/or/and some kind of resolution. We probably think of Vera Lynn with “We’ll meet again” as just kitsch, but I know it could make my parents cry as they struggled with loss and longing.

    The big problem is that reifying idea that you must have a superior sensibility to understand great art, and have a finer sensibiilty than the rest of us. If you belong to the clique that gets it, you belong to an elite.

    But the layers of meaning in a Renaissance painting contain huge ideas that are meant to be very accessible. The peasant entering the Doge’s palace with a submission was supposed to understand that the Madonna on the wall testified to the existence of a living God, that reflected her own experience of birth and mortality. But beyond that, the palace residents knew how to read the hart and the dove in the background, and the dream palaces through the window. And the princes knew that some artists were better than others, and paid for them, while also being happy that the work had a factory dimension.

    When they did their own portraits, they were not vulgar, and the commissioning lords had a fine understanding of the nuances of portraiture. Six centuries later, we still accept their evaluations and they are not just about technical skill.

    In the present day, once you recognise the art of Miles Davis, or Keith Richards, or Akira Kuwosara, or Joan Sutherland or Michael Leunig, you are acknowledging that genuine art can have huge mass appeal.

    It is an idea we only really walked away from in the twentieth century, when visual artists went on their long, challenging and valid journey towards abstraction.

  2. Peter
    July 30th, 2005 at 07:41 | #2

    Writing as someone who’s had both Ribena and Chateau Lafite, I have to say that the supposed superiority of the latter over the former is not as great as commonly alleged. Much of the perceived value of an expensive bottle of wine, IMHO, comes from knowledge of the price.

  3. the commenter formally known as anon
    July 30th, 2005 at 08:11 | #3

    I’ve always found that a splash or two of Ribena improves a glass of Château Lafite immeasurably.

  4. rollo
    July 30th, 2005 at 08:32 | #4

    Notice how the debate over the validity of aesthetic distinctions becomes immediately a debate about the validity of distinctions in a consumerist price hierarchy. The tacit assumption that name-brand wines can be judged on that alone deflects the more distrubing point of the real argument – that some things are better than others.
    Price has a pretty oblique relationship to quality in many things, wine among them.
    Making good wine is an art whose tools and materials – sun, rain, heat, soil -are variable, never fully predictable. Having made good wine consistently, having the likelihood of making good wine again, means trust can be established between vintner and purchaser – and after you clear away the wannabes and nouveaux riches who will pay for anything that looks to bolster their tenuous status as grand consumers (especially if it has gold on the label), what you have left over are people who recognize good wine and are willing to pay for it.
    But the real argument’s not about that, it’s about subjective choice – the consumer’s imperative – being the only valid relationship to anything.
    It’s important that the centrality of beauty be made obscure and marginal, that the synonymous nature of moral good and aesthetic beauty be deconstructed into relativistic meaninglessness.
    It’s the seductive come-on of retailers made into a religion.
    Your choice is all that matters. The customer is king.

  5. July 30th, 2005 at 11:52 | #5

    I am not sure if I would go to the lengths of saying “art has always been with us”; the notion of what consitutes art has been pretty flexible over the ages: to the Greeks painting wasn’t art as much as interior decorating. And consider Plato, who definitely antagonistically places artists and philosophers in opposing categories vis a vis the Republic (artists sing the praises of human valour courage and slaughter, and would therefore lead the republic to unnecessary suffering). In the rennaissance art was basically a marker of power and wealth. “Here lies the gallery of my ancestors”.

    I have in past maintained that there is merely a spectrum, between cheap popular Entertainments or Cheap Amusements at one end and High Art at the other. There’s no definite borderline between the two. I note that this comparison frequently enraged my artist friends. But I think that the current fancy in art towards the mimicry of popular entertainment forms shows a more definite, perhaps unconcious, acknowledgement of that spectrum.

    Debates about the worthiness of mass manufacture are surely dealt with with two simple blows; The works, “Fountain”, “Hat Rack” and “In advance of the broken arm” by Duchamp, the works “The Gift” and “Object To Be Destroyed/Indestructible Object” by Man Ray, and the essay, “Art in the age of mechanical reproduction” by Benjamin (of real interest here are also the drafts of that essay as well as the final form). Art is that which is made by those with the Aura of the Artist. All this debate has to stem from this highly problematic premise.

  6. Tomas
    July 30th, 2005 at 21:13 | #6

    “Writing as someone who’s had both Ribena and Chateau Lafite, I have to say that the supposed superiority of the latter over the former is not as great as commonly alleged. Much of the perceived value of an expensive bottle of wine, IMHO, comes from knowledge of the price.”

    Conspicous consumption is rampant both in wine and in art. Veblen is still highly relevant.

  7. James Farrell
    July 30th, 2005 at 22:46 | #7

    ‘In a watered-down form, this is still pretty much the official ideology of Art.’

    Is it really? On what do you base this, John? Nor can I see any evidence that Tarloff subscribes to the 19th Century Romantic cariacature of an ideology that you attribute to him. As for the all-or-nothing, Monet versus Manet straw man that you demolish above, who on earth believes that? I certainly think there’s something special about Beethoven, but that’s not inconsistent with thinking there’s a continuum – that is, Beethoven was a bit better than Mozart who was a bit better than Hayden and so on down to Louis Spohr. There’s always going to be a grey and contested area between the undisputed geniuses and undisputed non-geniuses.

    What I think got up your nose was Tarloff’s distinction between popular and high art. But though you made it clear that you have strong views n this issue – ‘a lot of stuff produced under that banner, and accepted by its official representatives has none of the merits of Château Lafite…’ – for some reason you didn’t want this to be your central argument. Maybe it’s because you made the point a few months ago. I suppose I should be grateful you didn’t explicitly bag opera this time.

  8. July 31st, 2005 at 18:24 | #8

    Art is simply the practice of a craft to a standard that has eternal and universal value ie classic craftsmanship that appeals to humans in all times and places. By definition the exquisiteve craftsmanship make the contemplation of the beauty of the object an experience worthwhile initself, independent of immediate utility.

    Judged by this standard, publicity and durability are intrinsice qualities of good art. Which is why a discerning and experienced public are essential to provide custody and patronage of the arts.

  9. c8to
    July 31st, 2005 at 21:51 | #9

    cant you privately subsidise your preferred public goods =)

  10. Katz
    August 1st, 2005 at 08:33 | #10

    degustibus non disputandum est

    Anyone who feels inferior because they enjoy Ribena more than any premier cru is exhibiting more about their own insecurities than the world’s follies. Grow a backbone.

    On the other hand, every bottle of Ribena (as far as I know) is the same as every other bottle. That uniformity is both the triumph and the tragedy of industrialisation.

    On the other hand, no two vintages and no two wineries are the same. Moreover, wine develops over time. Wine is therefore a living thing, a language.

    It takes an effort to understand the language of wine. The taste of the stuff is merely the end of an almost infinite number of journeys.

    The joy of drinking wine is to come to some understanding of some of those many journeys.

    Ribena can’t take the drinker on any journey. Ribena is a destination, and nothing else.

  11. ml
    August 1st, 2005 at 15:39 | #11

    Anyway it’s Ultra C which is the Chateau Lafite, or should I say Grange, of black currant cordials.

  12. James Farrell
    August 1st, 2005 at 21:08 | #12

    Ribena’s a good standby, but around our place we’re devotees of Maraska, a Croation cordial. If you happened to have happy memories of visiting your grandparents in a Croatian village, which I don’t, it would bring them all back, I’m sure. The sour cherry and raspberry varieties are equally delicious. You can get it at Woolies.

  13. what the
    August 1st, 2005 at 21:35 | #13

    I’ve had Châteauneuf-du-pape & Latour and well, unlike beer and ribena, they’re definitely not for breakfast.

  14. what the
    August 1st, 2005 at 22:25 | #14

    i read somewhere that it was frank sinatra who said i pity those who don’t drink, when they wake up that’s the best they’ll feel all day.

  15. James Wimberley
    August 6th, 2005 at 08:45 | #15

    There’s a subtle art object in the Reina Sofia modern art museum in Madrid, that cheered me up after the procession of Spanish schoolkids beign taken to genuflect before Guernica (commemorates a great crime, so must be a Great Work). Carl Andre – him of the white bricks – took an 18″ museum-shop resin model of the Winged Victory of Samothrace and sprayed it brilliant matt blue. The result is beautiful. Of course it’s art, even though you could make your own in your garage.

  16. simone
    August 22nd, 2005 at 03:45 | #16

    do you know how to make ribena? if so can you tell me? if driving me mad i wana make my own.

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