How to Use Best Lists or: What's the Business about That Test of Time Thing?

I like to think of the history of art consumption as having three stages. First came the age of originals. If you wanted to see painting X, you had to be where painting X was. Then came the age of mechanical reproduction (to use someone else's term): You could go out and buy books that had reproductions of painting X in them. Not quite the same thing, but close. Third came the internet age. Now you don't have to go out and buy a book, but you can sit at home and look at painting X for free. Due to the suppliers' low cost of making the reproduction available and easy accessibility for the consumer, we live in an age of unprecedented access to works of art. And never mind if you think that all modern art is crap: "it's stocks of culture that matter, not flows".

This is an unusual situation. With respect to most choices, the problem is scarcity. If you have internet access and want to know which paintings to look at or which songs to listen to, the problem is abundance. In such a situation, the challenge becomes to close down possibilities and concentrate on the best.

That's where best lists come in. Writes Tyler Cowen (quoted here):
We must ignore the carping of the sophisticates. Well-educated critics may claim that pictures cannot be ranked, value is multidimensional or subjective, or that such talk represent a totalizing, colonizing, possessive, postcapitalist, hegemonic Western imperalist approach. All of those missives are beside the point. When it comes to the arts, dealing with the scarcity of our attention is more important than anything
The all-important question in this respect is how well the taste of the people who created the lists conforms to yours. This isn't too hard to tell, really. You can look at the stuff on the list which you already know - if I encountered a list of the greatest songs of the sixties lead by the Herman's Hermits, I wouldn't put too much trust in it. If you don't know any of the stuff on the list, either it's not for you or you're venturing out into a field you know next to nothing about, in which case you need to take a few chances.

Even if you've come to a decision on which lists to use, you're still facing a choice: Do you want to try all of the stuff on the list? Really? You want to give all of the 1000 most critically acclaimed films of all time a shot? Probably not. A simple heuristic here is to start from the top and see how far down the ranks you feel like going. Another heuristic is to concentrate on the new stuff.

That's the opposite of what we've been told. Time and again, we hear that to be considered truly great, a work of art must have "stood the test of time", so you should concentrate on "the classics". That's crap advice.

Let's try to explicate the "test of time" logic. The argument somehow seems to be that if a work of art is still considered very good today after having been around for fifty years, this somehow makes it better than a work of art than the one which is considered very good today but has been around for five years only. Which is self-contradictory. Sure, some works of art age better than others, but whether OK Computer will still be considered a great album decades from now is irrelevant for you because you're living today.

So far this sounds like an argument for not paying attention to age at all, but I want to argue that you should prefer the more recent stuff from a given list. Reasons:

1. The people who come up with these lists know previous lists, which have some age. A contributor to a list simply may forget to put a recent song on his list of The 1000 Songs You Must Listen to before You Die; he won't forget about "What's Going on" or "Maybelline".

2. Previous lists may also exert a subtle psychological influence so that our critic will rate a certain song somewhat higher than he otherwise would have if it's been on many lists.

3. The existence of previous lists and more informal versions of "a canon" focuses the attention of experts who, let's face it, don't nearly know everything that's relevant, while they tend to know quite a lot of the noteworthy recent stuff. How many music critics know (say) 70% of Chuck Berry's output from the first ten years of his carreer? Very few, I think. How many of them know 70% of Radiohead's output from the first ten years of their carreer? Quite a few, I think. This is relevant because the votes of the people who like Chuck Berry will be concentrated on a few songs, while the Radiohead votes will be dispersed.

4. Some experts will overrate old stuff due to respect for the "test of time" heuristic.

5. Some lists which look like "best" lists are actually "important" lists (e.g., the AFI 100). But even if they're not explicitly "important" lists, the importance of something will creep into the valuation of the work of art by many critics. Unless you get utility from knowing that the song you're listening to was the first UK top ten hit which had a sitar on it, that's irrelevant for you.

6. A related thought, which hinges on the assumption that the average critic is older than the typical consumer: Even lists which are "best" (not "important") lists are conspiciously full of breakthrough works like Sgt. Pepper's. People who listened to Sgt. Pepper's when it came out 42 years ago today must have been blown away because it used production techniques that had never been used before. The argument has been made that Brian Wilson would be fine today if he hadn't listened to that album. I, on the other hand, started listening to music seriously in the 80s, when all of the stuff that was revolutionary in the late 1960s had become common, and hence unimpressive. No wonder I don't rate Sgt. Pepper's as highly as someone who first listened to it with 1967 ears.

Or are you really trying to tell me "Maybelline" is a better song than "Paranoid Android"?

A few ideas to wrap things up:

1. Don't put too much faith in people's recommendations just because you like them. The people, I mean.

2. Rather, trust the aggregated taste of people who like stuff you like. Gnod is a useful online tool for this.

3. Don't be a completist! The Beatles are one of the greatest ever bands, but that doesn't mean you need to know "Piggies" or "What Goes on". And those aren't even their worst songs.

4. Don't be a completist! Just because you started a book, film or even song, there is no obligation to finish it. Time you spend with book A is time you don't spend with book B.

5. Enjoy!

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