E S S A Y 2 / 6 : Who Should Play the Flute, or, Who Should Play the Flute?
I know you like to line dance
Everything so democratic and cool
But baby there’s no guidance
When the random rules
– The Silver Jews, from the American Water LP
Do you know the one about Aristotle and the flute? More or less, it goes like this:
Aristotle stands on a low flat rock, a horseshoe of students sit on the ground around him. The students wear holly wreaths on their heads and togas the color of their school, held closed by safety pins decorated with carved abalone rainbow trout. It is the first day of mild weather on the tail end of a long winter and the decision has been made to hold class outside on the banks of a bay. Aristotle holds a flute at his side and fingers it in a light breeze coming off the water. He clears his throat, calls attendance, everyone pledges allegiance, and class begins.
“Who should play the flute?” begins Aristotle. He holds the flute out for the students to examine. There is a pause. They narrow their eyes at the flute and turn inwards to consider their options as a group: The well-bred? The rich? A slave? A landowner? A soldier? No single option seems best. The students are a modern, forward thinking bunch. They are concerned with what is equitable and fair to their fellow citizens. There is much discussion among the wreaths. The shadow of a rogue cloud meanders from the new Springtime grass to the sand and out in the water, where it is overtaken by the shadows of the waves in the bay, marching together in a crowded and never-diminishing harmony.
An answer finally comes back from the students, who speak sing-song and in unison; “Anyone who wants to play the flute should play the flute.” They cross their arms. “Sure, sure,” Aristotle says, “It is a sensible answer.” The students smile and clap. Aristotle continues: “ Sure, sure — it’s even-steven. If anyone is allowed to play the flute then no one is left out. But your answer is an answer without a choice. It’s marshmallows in the mashed potatoes.” The students begin to frown, Aristotle continues. “This would be the same answer you would give if we were standing here talking about growing corn or fishing for trout. Your answer sidesteps the virtue of the flute itself. It does not consider the flute-ness of the flute: the thing that makes it it, the verso of the thing that makes not it not-it. Now, if the virtue of the flute is to just make noise, then the wind coming off this bay has just as much a stake in the playing of this flute as you or as me or as the most learned flautist, yes?”
There is another pause, longer this time. The students stand still, facing neither inward nor outward, each one alone in thought. Some finger their safety pins, some adjust their wreaths. The breeze whistles a bar of Morricone through Aristotle’s flute.
Aristotle gestures to the horizon above the bay. “At the end of your appeal to democracy today is a world of coddled dilettantes playing flutes badly all day long. Are you happy with that?” Aristotle goes on to remind his class about the horse the committee voted on, and points out that tepid water is neither refreshing to drink nor serviceable for cooking. He speaks quickly, his drawl comes out. Finally he asks again: “This time for all the marbles kids, who should play the flute?”
Class ends in great confusion as a sudden gust of wind whips the wreaths from the heads of the students and carries them up, up, up and out over the water, where they join the shadows of waves in the bay, still marching together in a crowded and never-diminishing harmony.
What an argument. Linear, righteous, fascistic, elegant as a swung claw hammer. “Come on people, “ Aristotle says, “let’s take this seriously. Let’s think about the virtue of this thing, set a standard, adhere to it, and ask others to do the same.” It is an argument of resource distribution according to the virtue of the resource first, the happiness of the consumer second. However it is an argument which assumes a limited supply of the resource, and so it is ultimately it is an argument of politics; who gets what, when, and how much of it do they get. Thankfully art is limited only by a person’s ability to respond to stimuli and so considerations of politics need not apply.
If there is a reason to view the making of Art with judgement and skepticism–and there is reason enough–it is not to safeguard resources. It is to uphold respect for the human facilities of empathy, curiosity, imagination, and creation, of which Art is one of the fulminated exhausts. It is a record we will leave behind and a gesture of goodwill to our future. So, who should make Art? Who knows. Folks will keep on making what they make, for good reasons and bad. It is the case instead that adherents of Art should be muscular in the naming of things and in the practice of making things; to use both sides of the claw hammer and to walk while chewing gum; to sometimes call things Art, to sometimes call things hobby, to sometimes call things dissatisfaction with more popular forms of distraction like sports and shopping; to celebrate the hearty, open-ended nature of Art but to care for it as though it may get all used up and leave in the breeze.
NEXT TIME: Essay 3/6: The Distance and the Manicure.