Monet's views will live forever.In recent posts (here and here) I've noted that making a short-term judgment on the value of a work of art is problematic. It takes time, years, to truly evaluate the worth of any particular work of art and making lists or handing out awards without allowing adequate time for reflection is a sure path to the wrong film being named Best Picture at the Academy Awards or the wrong book winning the Pulitzer Prize. As I've written, it's hard in 2011 to understand how the movie Shakespeare in Love won the Best Picture honor over the movie Saving Private Ryan. Few now, I would guess, would rank the former higher than the later. Yet that was the surprising result at the 1998 Academy Awards. And it's not just in "popular" culture that this happens. When James Joyce's Ulysses was published in 1922 it was deemed obscene by many and banned in the United States and United Kingdom. Today it is universally hailed as a masterpiece of modern literature. Time has made the true value obvious. So time is key, but time only allows for a work to be properly evaluated. What are the characteristics of a work of art that make it great?
I'm not a professional critic or scholar and I'm not all that interested in the technical analysis that you may find in academia, which is sometimes esoteric and often focused on details and minutiae. The thoughts and insights of men like Harold Bloom have their place certainly, but I'd like to discuss some broader ideas.
I enjoy watching new films, listening to new music, reading new books, seeing paintings for the first time, and experiencing the broad range of man's creations. I like it even more when those works draw me in, dazzle and amaze me. But initial reactions can often be misleading. It's great to be moved by a work of art, but a critical reality for me is if the works stays with me afterward. Do I think about it, what it means, how it affects me? Does the reality of the work grow over time? Do I wish to experience it again? And when I do experience it again, does it still impress, or does it impress even more? Consider a couple of examples, and I'll stick with movies. In the theaters I saw the movie Traffic about the vicious cycle of illegal drugs supply and use in America. I was blown away. I thought it was a rare instance of truth on film. Well, months later I saw it again on DVD, and I was less impressed. I see it now as no doubt a good movie (I still think it was the best movie from 2000), but as a bit heavy handed in places, didactic to some extent. It's good but it isn't the great film I first thought it was. Time allowed me to reflect on what was presented, compare it to the facts about America's drug issues, consider the characters and situations. Time overruled my initial reaction.
Conversely, I saw the movie Blade Runner many many years after it was released in theaters, and after it's reputation had been established. I was not impressed. It seemed slow (not usually an issue for me) and while not without interesting aspects, I was a bit bored. Still, in the years that followed the movie stayed with me. I became fascinated by certain images in the film, by the questions about identify and what it means to be human. When I re-watched the movie, I realized it was a great film. Time changed my mind.
Substance and Style
Hamlet continues to intrigue and puzzle us.So what is it about a particular work that gives it value, that makes it stand the test of time, that keeps people coming back. Well that's an immensely complicated question, one countless brilliant people have been trying to answer for millenia. I'll try and keep my answer simple, a work of art needs to be an intentional creation of substance and style. For my interests, substance means an expression of truth about our world, and especially about humanity. Style is the method, form, and techniques used to express that truth. I don't want to waste your time writing a long explanation of what I mean, but consider a few key ideas:
- Joyce wrote that art needs to be static, that is (to my understanding) it must be objective. An artist must express the totality of a subject, not just one perspective. As a result, expressions and creations that are intentionally biased have less artistic value. Politics is not art. Propaganda is not art (though it's delivery may demonstrate great style). The politics and propaganda of the moment fade with time.
- Art should cause a person to think and not to act. This is why nude paintings and sculptures are art but pornography is not.
- Art should affect the emotions as well as the intellect. Emotions are as fundamental to humanity as our intelligence, and as I've noted the range of human emotions is remarkable. Music, movies, literature, all forms of art are part emotion. The emotional response to Beethoven's music is a strong today as it was 200 years ago.
- Art should demonstrate great command of the medium. Technical proficiency, harmony of composition, originality, virtuosity, a sense of a complete and finished work. Shakespeare's characters and expansion of the English language, Joyce's adventures in exploring the form of language, the power of Mozart's and Beethoven's music and the mastery of wide techniques and styles, Monet's perspectives, are a few classic examples. When art is done well, it seems timeless, or put another way, it never gets old.
- The art and artists that best embody these elements are the ones that stand the test of time: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce, Mozart, Beethoven, Da Vinci, Michelangelo. What recent or current artists seemed destined to live on forever? How about The Beatles, maybe Orson Welles, or hopefully one of my favorite authors, John Fowles. As always, time will tell.
A modern masterpiece.