What Should You Become a Connoisseur of?

Seth Roberts writes:

I believe connoisseurship arises from side-by-side comparisons of very similar items: close-in-time comparisons of two orange marmalades, for example. Or two vanilla ice creams. Or two cheddar cheeses. Or two merlots. Etc. It’s obvious that if you make these close comparisons you’ll become better at discrimination — e.g., better at discriminating varieties of vanilla ice cream. What interests me is the hedonic change: making these comparisons causes you to care more about the dimension. You get more pleasure from the good stuff and less pleasure from the bad stuff. Connoisseurs are basically people who will pay more for this or that than the rest of us. (When income or wealth is equated.)

That implies that connoisseurship isn't necessarily a good thing: You get more pleasure from the good stuff, but you get less pleasure from the bad stuff. I agree. I would call myself a connoisseur of rock music: I love listening to The Velvet Underground, but I hate listening to Pearl Jam. On the contrary, I don't mind listening to classical music all day long, but nor does it cause much pleasure (with a few exceptions).

The quoted text immediately reminded me of two classic academic texts I read years back.

The first is A Natural Perspective, a book on Shakesperian comedy by Northrop Frye. In passing, he mentions an anecdote about going to Greece, seeing lots of ancient Greek statues and thinking: "They all look the same." His point is that if you encounter an unfamiliar art form, you have a simple time noticing the similarities and a hard time noticing the differences (which seem subtle to you). I could immediately understand that point: When rap became popular in this country, I, like many people, thought: "It all sounds the same." After having been exposed to quite a bit of rap music over the years, I can now tell a good rap track from a bad one (although I wouldn't call myself a connoisseur in the sense of being an enthusiast about this genre).

The second is the article "De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum" by George Stigler and Gary Becker. In it, they devise a simple microeconomic theory of preference change. The basic idea is that the more you're exposed to something, the more you get to like it; to them, classical music and heroin are basically the same in this respect. That's a bit simplistic: I'm pretty sure I could watch ballet all day long and still not get to like it - there are other factors that are important, too. But it seems basically a good point.

To the extent that they are right, you have quite a bit of choice over what you become a connoisseur of. What should you choose?

1. A field in which connoisseurship brings about low nonmonetary costs. Good: Peaches. Bad: Heroin.

2. A field where the consumption of the average unit is cheap. Good: Chips. Bad: Ferraris.

3. A field where the good stuff is just as expensive as the bad stuff. Good: Novels. Bad: Wine.

4. A field the low-quality exemplars of which can easily be avoided. Good: Poetry. Bad: Graphic Design.

And to finish the post off, something Diederich Diederichsen said about pop music: Want to know which will be the next interesting genre? It's the one about which in the beginning most people say that every song sounds the same.

I have no idea whether he's read Northrop Frye.

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