Friday, February 25, 2011

True Art

by Conroy

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.
Michelangelo's perfection.
  • 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.


    1. Conroy,

      This is a fascinating topic. Note that Citizen Kane, widely regarded as the greatest film of all time, never won Best Picture; instead, How Green Was My Valley won -- also beating out The Maltese Falcon and Suspicion. There were political and commercial reasons for the failure of Citizen Kane both at the Academy Awards and at the box office; but once the backlash waged by Hearst and his entourage against the film subsided, it was able to gain a wider audience. I think, though, that the artistic merit of the film was recognized at once; it just took time to quell opposition to the film. And of course, because it is a great film, further study of it led to greater appreciation and recognition.

    2. The Man,

      Yeah, politics seems to too often influence the voting in what are supposed to be objective and highly meaningful awards, be that the Academy Awards (not all that important) to the Nobel Prize (very prestigious). The history of the Nobel Peace Prize recipients is a case study in skewed politicization.

      Sticking to movies though, a point that I've brought up with you, Sight and Sound does the best job of polling critics and directors to develop a list of the 10 greatest films of all time. The separate critics and directors lists are compiled once a decade. The current lists (2002) include 16 total films. How many of them won the Best Picture Oscar? Just three, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, and The Godfather: Part II.

    3. Conroy,

      You mention originality as an aspect of the command of an artistic medium. How important do you think originality is? Shakespeare, for example, was clearly a master and a genius. But his works perhaps illustrate creative imitation more than originality.

    4. Shakespeare was a genius if for no other reason than he changed the very language he wrote in.

    5. The Man,

      I have to qualify my response to your comments regarding Shakespeare by noting that you are far more knowledgeable on the man and his work than I am. But, to your point about his originality, I offer the following:

      1. Shakespeare often (always?) developed his plays based on source materials; he didn't develop them from whole cloth. That noted, he clearly reworked the stories and characters as he saw fit. His reinvention remade works that would have been long forgotten into masterpieces.

      2. Shakespeare's characters are his own. I'm hardly the first to note that Hamlet, Falstaff, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Romeo, Iago, and many others are interesting, distinct, and well, very human. I'm a believer that creating "real" characters is the highest accomplishment for any author.

      3. Shakespeare was more inventive and prolific in experimenting and expanding the English language. I doubt any other person, in any language, has ever had such an affect on their mother tongue. Certainly this aspect has to be considered original?

      4. Beyond simply commanding and expanding the language, Shakespeare could turn a phrase. So many of his expressions have seeped into our daily conversations that you hardly realize they are his invention: sea change (I like this one); all's well that ends well; fight fire with fire; in my mind's eye; love is blind; shuffle off this mortal coil; vanish into thin air, and many many more.

      Still think Shakespeare is not original?

    6. Conroy,

      I agree with all four of your points, which prove that Shakespeare was inventive, creative, prolific, etc., but not that his work exhibits originality so much as creative imitation. Consider your first point. Thousands of lines in Shakespeare's plays are taken from source materials and are unacknowledged. He also took titles, plots, and major characters. By today's standards he was a plagiarist. (Although, he seems to have originated almost all of the dialogue on his own. North's translation of Plutarch, for instance, does not include Antony's funeral oration.)

      But there's no doubt that Shakespeare vastly improved the source material from which he worked. And there's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of plagiarism. There certainly was nothing wrong with it in Shakespeare's time, when improving an existing work of art rather than originating a new one was the mark of creativity. In fact the classical doctrine was that true originality came through imitating and improving earlier models. Chaucer and Milton and Eliot did much the same thing. Just as Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra revised North's translation of Plutarch's description of Cleopatra, so Eliot revised Shakespeare's in Part II of The Waste Land.

      Creative, inventive, brilliant? Yes. Original? Not so much.

    7. The Man,

      I'll concede the Shakespeare's stories, plotlines, and character demonstrate "creativity, inventiveness, and brilliance". I think these are forms or originality, but that's open for discussion (clearly).

      I must insist however, that his use of language, both in new words, metaphors, and apothegms does demonstrate originality.

      Again though, your knowledge of Shakespeare is both impressive and intimidating. We need to do a couple of posts discussing our perspectives on the Bard.