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Art: What Makes It Great?

Dorian Bandy

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Published: July 23, 2015 at 3:08 PM [UTC]

Nearly a year ago, I began my first-ever blog post by discussing the thrill of unearthing "new" old music; fighting against the hierarchy of the Western Canon; introducing virgin ears to the likes of Becker, Westhoff, and Pisendel; and generally promoting the idea that there's lots of great, unknown music out there, waiting to be rediscovered.

To some extent, I've been taught since childhood to accept the idea that greatness transcends genre. With a mother who lived something of a double-life in the '60s and '70s (classical music at Juilliard by day; one of the decade's great rock bands by night), I grew up hearing all possible variations on the theme that "great art is great art". A Sondheim musical can be just as great as a Hitchcock film, a Beethoven symphony, a Dostoevsky novel, or a Chekhov play -- to name a handful of Greats in performative/durational/dramatic media. And, to be honest, I still pretty much agree. I've seen Vertigo probably 25 times, and cannot even imagine being bored by it, any more than I think I could tire of Così fan tutte.

In some sense, this seems a contrapositive variation on Sturgeon's Second Law, with a slight emendation: "90% of the work in every genre is worthless, so, if you're going to criticize anything, don't waste your time (or mine) on anything but the great 10%". If you think musicals are just fluff, what about Sweeney Todd? Some claim that TV shows can't have layers of structural, narrative, moral, aesthetic complexity, but what about Breaking Bad? Note, though, that these (entirely reasonable) statements carry an implicit call to "genre relativism": again, the "greats" can be found anywhere, if only we're observant enough to see their "greatness".

Is genre relativism a bad thing? I want to say no, but I've recently been tempted to reopen the case. Is a great Steely Dan song really as great -- as in, every bit as good -- as a Bach fugue? I'd currently, tentatively, cautiously, suggest that it's not, and I'm quite frustrated with myself for thinking so! Both may be beautifully-paced and brilliantly-structured, but the levels of intricacy are incomparable. Even hearing myself say that, though, my inner genre relativist interjects, outraged, that, wherever intricacy is the criterion for greatness, the balance will tip in favor of Bach. Surely, in its own way, the great rock song can be just as great?

I usually write these posts with a philosophical agenda and strong set of opinions, but here I'm torn between the intrinsic and extrinsic approaches to artistic greatness. And it does, definitely, matter. To those who dismiss these sorts of questions -- juxtaposing pop songs and fugues; comparing the incomparable -- as meaningless and destructive, I respond that life is short. We should always wonder what to play/read/watch/hear/think about next, and whether it's worth it.

These comparisons are also on my mind because I've just finished reading J.F. Martel's new treatise, Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, a distressingly unhelpful text. Martel got me thinking again about the search for greatness, but his effort to weed out Art from "mere artifice" leaves me cold. Even a hypothetical attempt to take his claims seriously forces us to the absurd conclusion that only two of Beethoven's symphonies qualify as Real Art. Which two? Maybe the Eroica and Fifth? Alas, disqualified: political undertones. The Ninth? Nope, the German onstage band in the last movement smacks of the situational, occasional, "non-Infinite". The Second, Fourth and Eighth? Sorry, no satire allowed. The Sixth? You mean, with those vulgar depictions of bird calls and storms? Only the First (!) and Seventh make the cut. There must be a better way to seek greatness!

Still, having something to disagree with is always edifying. I have a better idea now of what I think Great Art "doesn't not" do. But what does it do? What makes some art great?

I've settled, for now, on: interpretability. This is the ultimate extrinsic answer. Great Art is what you see in it. This appeases the relativist in me, while also acknowledging that something may be out of joint when we grant the great pop song and great sonata equal footing.

This definition is still pretty genre-democratic. There are symphonies (Vanhal comes to mind) which could "in theory" be played in lots of different ways, but in reality only sound decent in one or two of them. If the performer's hands and listeners' ears are tied, I'd have no problem conferring higher greatness-status on the deeply ambiguous, highly-interpretable, tragicomic songs of, say, a Cole Porter.

Thus framed, if we deem a given symphony greater than a song, it isn't about size, scope, intention, importance, politics, age, oldness, or anything like that. The Steely Dan tune may suffer no deficiency of craft or structure. It may simply be a matter of hermeneutic wiggle-room -- that a particular sonority in Mozart can be played in a nearly infinite variety of ways, and as a result, can mean so many different things. (Though, ultimately...can it? Isn't meaning in classical music quite a lot more concrete than we often like to think? For that matter, might "interpretability" itself be a decoy?)

Having mused, I'd be interested to hear other viewpoints. Where is the greatness? Do you agree that it's a discussion worth having?

(Also posted on my personal blog)


From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 23, 2015 at 9:42 PM
Nothing to be ashamed or tentative about. A Bach fugue is better than any popular sing ever written. Its even better than most of the classical genre

There are absolutes.

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