Art, Trust, and Betrayal
Say a band puts out a debut album which is deemed by critics to have a great deal of artistic merit, and which a small number of hard-core fans love. For their second album, the band puts out some crap that appeals to the lowest common denominator and makes a ton of money, but which retains its artistic pretensions (the latter point is important; the argument below doesn’t work if the band isn’t pretending that the second album is art too). Fans of the first album accuse the band of "going commercial" or "selling out." In effect, they claim (and at least affect to believe) that they are not merely disappointed that they didn’t get their preferred album, but rather that the band has done something that is in some meaningful sense a betrayal. Does this position have any merit, or is it just sour grapes from a bunch of snobs whose preferences lost out in the marketplace fair and square?
I want to offer an argument that the original fans are (or at least can be) right to feel betrayed. Most people regard art to be an important part of their lives. But artistic products are, by their nature, things that you can’t fully appreciate until you consume them. Moreover, they aren’t even "experience goods" in the traditional sense that once you’ve experienced them you know everything there is to know about them. Rather, art exercises its influence over you subtly and gradually, and in ways that you cannot fully predict or control. This means that you are, to some extent, at the mercy of artistic gatekeepers: it is inevitable that the people who feed you art, who tell you what is and what is not "good," have real power over an important part of your life, and that power is partially unaccountable in the sense that you will not necessarily ever know whether your gatekeepers have been acting as a faithful agent in your interest (i.e., acting to help you achieve the richest possible artistic experience), or whether they are taking advantage of you for personal gain. This means that you must trust other people to look after this aspect of your well-being, with the knowledge that they may have interests that diverge from yours. And where there is trust, there can be a betrayal of trust. And as a practical matter, it makes sense to direct your opprobrium at anyone you actually catch violating that trust, in the hopes that this will serve to deter some of those would-be betrayers whom you would not have caught. And by the way, pretty much the same argument goes for teachers.