Sunday, 18 June 2017

Now it belongs to the ages

What is art? What makes a great work of art - be it a painting, a film, a play, a piece of music? What is the journey that a work of art must make to achieve greatness?

Creating a great work of art (GWA) is a like launching a satellite; it requires a great deal of effort to escape the clutches of gravity and enter earth's orbit; but once up there, it can (though not always forever) stay in orbit. A work of art has to withstand the test of time and be critic-proof.

Getting into orbit is the tricky bit. Your work can achieve it by being ground-breaking; having something entirely new to say, or to proclaim a timeless truth in a new way. Great art can make it into orbit by being technically perfect, when no critic can point to any flaw. But 'ground-breaking' for the sake of being there first - probably not. Example: early video art. The Shock of the New. Take at look at the cover of that great album, Remain in Light by Talking Heads (1980).The music stands the test of time (The Library of Congress deemed it "culturally, historically, or artistically significant", selecting it for preservation in its National Recording Registry). The album cover merely reflects an early attempt at playing around with digital images.Ground-breaking at the time, but not one of rock's great album covers.

An essential of a GWA is that is has to speak to the truth of the human condition, to reach into the consciousness of the reader/listener/viewer who says - yes. "This is how it is". It could be a new realisation, it could be an eternal truth retold in a way that adds new insights, builds on what we've hitherto understood - a flash of light through a facet of the diamond.

Not all great artists are acknowledged in their lifetimes - Vincent Van Gogh being the prime example. Other works are discovered - but the discoverer is important. John Kennedy Toole created a literary masterpiece in the comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, before he committed suicide. It was only thanks to the determination of his mother to see her son's book published, eleven years after his death, that A Confederacy of Dunces saw the light of day.

Photographer Vivian Maier also went to her grave unrecognised. An obsessive-compulsive, she left boxes and boxes of negatives that only ensured her posthumous greatness because the right person, John Maloof, bought them at an auction and instinctively knew what to do, taking the time and trouble to have prints made, and exhibited and published.

To be up there in orbit, to belong to the ages, an artist must stand behind a body of work. A painter cannot reach the pantheon of greatness without numerous canvasses, a poet cannot do it on the strength of but one short poem; a film-maker can rarely achieve greatness with one. Artists that burn brightly but briefly tend to be remembered in footnotes rather than in book titles.

At the height of Beatlemania [note: word not underlined by Google's spellchecker], my parents and their generation were mainly of the opinion that this was a here-today-gone-tomorrow phenomenon. They were wrong. Though I never was a Beatles fan, by the time the band released Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I was certain - as a nine year-old - that this wasn't something ephemeral.

The role of the critic, be it an academic who deems a piece of art worthy of study and deserving of study, or a media critic to bring it to popular awareness and acclaim is vitally important. The greater the number of academic papers, the greater the likelihood that their subject will still be considered a GWA in the distant future.

Better to be liked by a select group cognoscenti down the centuries than to be like by the crowds and then forgotten in the next generation. The right mix of popular and critical acclaim should veer towards the latter.

The emperor's new clothes effect sees some once highly-regarded works tumbling out of orbit. Fashions change. Political views change. But great art speaks to each successive generations, in different ways - ways in which the artists had not even contemplated. And THIS is the most important quality of a GWA - transcendence. It transcends its creator's intent, it conveys a depth and range of meanings that will continue to resonate.

[The title of this post is a line from one of the great Simpsons episodes Brush with Greatness (Series 2 Episode 18). Professor Lombardo, inspecting one of his student's paintings says "Not another stroke! - Now it belongs to the ages."]

This time last year:
More Brictorian Liverpool

This time two years ago:
Łódź - city of tenements

This time three years ago:
Liverpool reborn

This time four years ago:
What goes round comes around: retro is cool - again.

This time five years ago:
Warsaw's southern bypass by this time next year?

This time six years ago:
Stand Easy! - a short story

This time nine years ago:
God Save The Queen - I mean it, Ma'am

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