Q: What’s Good?
Well, hey, to determine what’s good, we first have to define it, right?
Good can mean morally good: that is, what a society decides is moral. Right now, in this moment – on a Tuesday in March- it is good to sit inside by yourself, and bad to go outside in large groups. Usually, the opposite is true. It’s good to help others and bad to hoard toilet paper.
We think that being a good person is to be of service to others, and to do what is moral, which we pretend is a constant and not something we made up.
500 years ago, it was good to follow church doctrine and bad to question it, as Martin Luther found out. It was also good to give virgin brides away to strange monarchs, but which someone would probably ask about today.
1000 years ago, it was good to burn heretics at the stake, and it was good to be strong. The whole world was amassing armies and conquering land. China invented paper printed money, which is what power is based on now.
A second meaning of good is the aesthetic meaning. This can either mean something that you personally enjoy, or something of superior quality. The first meaning is subjective, and the second is a societal construct, but we confuse them with each other, and also with the moral meaning of good.
To say that something is aesthetically good is to say that based on my background, life experiences, and context, I value it. My peers, who might have similar background and life experiences, may also value it, which makes me value it more.
In The Last Man On Earth and in the Good Place, characters value objects that nobody else appreciates. Phil’s hoard of art in his mansion, or Eleanor’s excitement over a bedpan made famous in a wrestling match: they now have to explain to the people around them what makes these things good, which means they’re not.
The second meaning of aesthetically good is that something is well-made, as in: is the new Avengers movie any good? Well, does it have a bunch of characters in shiny outfits and a scary CGI monster? Is Robert Downey Jr. snarky in it? Does Thor not understand something about Earth despite living here kind of a long time and we all laugh at him, even though he’s handsome? Do the Avengers splinter off and fight and get mad at each other but then they come together and fight the CGI monster and they’re friends in the end? Is there a rock song in it that was expensive to get, but which is played a little too loudly during a very exciting scene? Well, then, that’s what we expect, and it’s good.
When you say an Avengers movie is bad- what were your expectations? Did you hope that a character would arrive at a universal truth about human suffering, and that the actor portraying that character would get an important award? That’s not the yardstick we measure Avengers movies by.
In performance, to be good is to conform to the current fashion- a hundred years ago, a good singer would sing in a high, reedy voice, and now we like a wide tone and someone who does a lot of vocal switches, which we used to call yodeling. Good acting in Shakespeare’s time was planting your feet at shoulder width and yelling your lines as loudly as you could.
Sometimes we get confused about the two meanings of “good” in art. This is the thought that because you did not personally enjoy something, it’s not good- but in the surfer relativism of The Big Lebowski, that’s just, like, your opinion, man. Your thoughts on a thing does not really affect its value. If people ever really understand that, Twitter will wither and die.
What’s Good In Fine Art?
Most art needs context of some sort to be judged- Jackson Pollock paintings are considered good because they were the first really well-known abstract paintings, and because he died only a few years after his best work was made. The value of the paintings his widow was selling to MOMA shot up because, as she pointed out, there wouldn’t be any more, and that sale created the market for modern art in America, and his peers got rich. If we showed the paintings to an alien or a Maori tribesman, they probably would not consider them good, because they don’t look like anything in particular, but sort of look like lots of things, and why are you putting colors on a fabric square anyway?
The last episode of the Good Place finds every character trying to achieve their definition of good: Tahani believes that being able to do everything beautifully is good. Chidi thinks understanding everything is good. Eleanor determines that being good is helping others.
Jason achieves his definition of good the earliest, as he gets the perfect score in Madden playing as the Jaguars, but reaches yet another level of perfection years later, through achieving inner peace and oneness with nature.
I’m a middle-class white woman raised in the South with both religion and MTV, so things I think are good are:
The musty smell of clothing in vintage shops, and the smell of old bookshops.
The moment in a song where the drums lock into syncopation with the guitar, and it sounds like a little machine ticking along.
Black clothing and things that are shiny, because my visual aesthetic was made by 80’s postpunk music videos and has never developed after that.
Cookies n’ cream milkshakes.
Petting a dog who has just dried off from a bath and is very soft, and he’s still unhappy that he got the bath, but being petted afterwards makes it worth the bath, sort of.
They’re not universal, except maybe the dog one, but to me, they’re good.