The Arbiters of Taste

In 2002 right wing Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that his government believed that ”human beings are made for personal choice. We don’t need experts and arbiters of taste to decide for us. (…) The people should not accept raised fingers from so-called experts who think they know best. Experts may be good enough to communicate facts. But when it comes to personal choice we are all experts”.
That started a debate about how lack of knowledge (experts) leads to obscurantism and that obscurantism leads to tyranny and conflict. And that was when the Prime Minister started to sack the experts in the administration.
A product of this debate was a television programme teasingly called The Arbiters of Taste in which a host and three ’judges’ discuss books, films, plays and other cultural events of current interest. The arbiters change but are all somehow connected with the cultural sphere; authors, filmmakers, musicians, artists, humanists, journalists etc.
Last night was expected with excitement by Marie and me since singer-songwriter, troubadour and object of my general dislike Lars Lilholt was to judge Peter Konwitschny’s staging of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

Lars Lilholt
I did not write on that photo. And I’m not going to translate…

And already here we reach one of the big problems of The Arbiters of Taste – that most of the arbiters are not experts on what they judge and some of them are not experts on anything but their own belly buttons. In this case Lars Lilholt who had never been to an opera before.
That resulted in this introductory semi-nonsense – and those half-sentences are not my invention:

You see I’m a novice, and now I go there, I sit down and then it takes me 20 minutes to realise that there are surtitles, I couldn’t find meaning, I thought it was strange stuff and the music you see… Wagner he’s… heavy right? and it just moves – I can’t find a melody. The first 20 minutes – and then I begin to discover that there is a text and then it grows, well in the beginning it reminded me of Monty Python – I thought: what is this? And then it just stayed with one and it has stayed with me and when we get to the 3rd act – now they have painted music for so long and then we get to a melody – and that was when my fur just stood up straight you know, when they began with *sings in English* “Here comes the bride daa da da daaaaaaa”, that one I knew you know, that is a hit and I had no idea it was Wagner and then…*sighs and looks like he’s had a revelation* then I just whistled to the music… And I wasn’t alone.

Now that is what I call intelligent and rewarding communication of ideas. And I really enjoyed the host’s disgusted face when listening to this – it looked a lot like Marie’s (when she occasionally took away her hands otherwise covering her face in contempt and embarrassment).

Lars Lilholt wasn’t alone. He was joined by author Shadi Bazeghi and historian Ulla Tofte. Ms Bazeghi was perhaps even more rewarding. She simply refused to talk about the staging since she had some serious stuff to tell this Wagner dude:

It was so badly written! It was nonsense! It made no sense!

I’m not kidding about the exclamation points. She was angry, that one. What I enjoyed most when she was speaking was when Lars Lilholt tried to calm her down (in some cosmic-peace-vein I suspect) by putting in things like “opera…opera is on acid” and “I don’t think you should put so much into the story“. Right about that one, Lars.
Ms Bazeghi continued:

The content is so outdated. And making some modern scenario with a bunch of middle aged men and women with pigtails playing teenagers in some class room doesn’t make it modern.

This is where Ms Bazeghi plainly told us that she hadn’t understood anything. She hadn’t even tried to put herself into it, she had just been bored and that had made her angry and unwilling.
Fortunately Ulla Tofte was there to save my evening. She was the only one who had actually thought just a little about the staging and she rejointed the ‘out of date’ hobbyhorse of her co-arbiter by saying that Konwitschny moving it in time made the characters much more recognisable to a modern audience. I couldn’t agree more. Besides Ms Tofte made great lines like:

Personally I felt that four and a half hours of Wagner is so much more exciting, scary and sensuous than all 24 episodes of 24 Hours.

What I especially fell for was that you for once had an active opera chorus that made the whole staging live, instead of what we usually see: some gospel choir-like group who have lost their voices, standing in a corner dressed in purple garbs booming every once in a while.

All in all the programme just made me think: are they trying to prove the Prime Minister’s point? That we will do better without these arbiters of taste? Or are they on the contrary trying to show him what society will be when we are out of experts? I am not sure.

For those of you speaking Danish, you can watch the show here.



January 27, 2007. Opera, Reviews, Television.

One Comment

  1. confidentialattachees replied:

    I refuse to believe that the TV-station, which happens to be my favourite, is humouring our Prime Minister, I can’t bear to think that that is the case. I really, really hope that they are, as Anna suggested, simply trying to show him the ultimate consequence of what he proposed back then in 2002. Kind of like “You made your bed, now lie in it! Lie there, Prime Minister! Watch pointless discussions within an arbitrary assembly of unqualified people on cultural subjects for ever and ever and ever!” *evil laughter*

    But I think they’ve proven their point by now. The show’s been on the air for how long? Two years now? Three? In any case, I wish they’d go back to producing regular cultural programmes like they used to. One programme about movies, one about books, one about art etc.

    I’m not saying that the arbiters that have appeared on the show are all unqualified numbskulls or cultural illiterates, or that I am indifferent to their opinions. Quite on the contrary, the programme has been graced with some sharp minds every once in a while, people that I admire. It’s just that I’d much rather hear them expressing their viewpoints within their own fields, and I wish that this TV-station would give them the opportunity to do that, instead of wasting them on this McCulture Feature-thingy.

    Because even when the programme does work, even when they have managed to assemble three different people who happen to be capable of expressing themselves meaningfully on the subjects in question, there’s never enough time to get to the bottom of the diversities in viewpoints and argumentation before they have to move on to the next subject, and the show gets that coitus interruptus feeling to it. At best.

    And as anyone knows coitus interruptus is the worst and least safe kind of protection on the market. We haven’t been protected from potential influence that the opinion of another individual will always be, but we haven’t gained the satisfaction of reaching a kind of understanding of the differing viewpoints or of the subject-matter.

    Is that what you want, Prime Minister? Well, is it?


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