On “Great” Art

P_Ang’s comment here got me thinking about so-called “great” artists.  I guess I’m a philistine, but I think even the greatest artist is, at best, the sum of his best work.

You don’t really need to read Melville, for instance, despite what they tell you in high school.*  You need to read Moby-Dick.  With the possible exception of “Bartleby the Scrivener” — and that mainly for historical interest, in my opinion — the rest of Melville is disposable genre stuff.  It’s good disposable genre stuff, if you like that kind of thing, but all you’ll get out of, say, Typee is a typical mid-19th century adventure yarn.

Ditto Dickens.  For the record, Dickens bores me to tears, but I acknowledge he’s an important figure in the history of literature.  That doesn’t mean you’ll benefit from reading every word the man wrote — he got paid by the word, so he wrote a lot of words.  Pick one, skim it, and unless you’re a specialist (or a masochist), you’ve got all the Dickens you’ll ever need.

And since you’re already calling me a philistine, I’ll admit to another, probably greater sin: I generally don’t read other stuff by “great” authors because I like the one I first read.  P_Ang apparently is no fan of Joseph Conrad, but… I’m really not, either, despite what my response to him implies.  I’m a fan of Heart of Darkness.  I haven’t read his other stuff because I like Heart of Darkness so much.  I’m sure that, say, The Secret Agent is a nice, well-written genre bit, but it’s no Heart of Darkness.  Conrad wasn’t some kind of life-altering genius, but his best work is — it’s lightning in a bottle, and you don’t catch that very often.

And even those who do catch it more than once don’t do it every time.  Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in English for a reason, but even he cranked out some real clunkers — I know I’ve seen Love’s Labour’s Lost, for instance, but the only thing I remember was speculating on how bad those actors must smell at the end of the show, wearing all that felt outdoors in the heat of summer.  King LearHamletMacBeth, and Othello are indeed heartbreaking works of staggering genius, but there’s a reason nobody stages King John or The Comedy of Errors.**

Moreover, this only covers art from eras from which a fair bit survives (there’s actually a fair amount of Elizabethan theater out there, but it’s terrible).  Past about the Renaissance, what’s “great” is largely what survives.  You don’t need to read The Golden Ass because it’s a great Roman novel***; you read it, if you must, because it’s the only Roman novel.  And that’s not even talking about the plastic arts — I’ve been through a great European museum, I’ve seen a lot of “masterpieces” in person, and I’ll go on record that a lot of them are pretty “meh.”  They’re historically important, not transcendentally elevating.

Now, this is not to say there’s no such thing as great art.  The very best art really can transport you; it really does say something important, and timeless, about the human condition.  But the art is in the art, if you follow me — the old image of the genius being touched by the finger of God while creating one work is the truth.




*Or “told you,” I suppose the case now is.  Melville was as white as his whale, so no doubt  he’s been replaced by Jay-Z or somebody on the required reading list.

**Hell, we didn’t even read those in my college Shakespeare class, and we read damn near everything the man ever wrote, including all the sonnets.

***Or whatever it is.  Please go ahead and sperg out in the comments about what counts as a “novel,” and who wrote the first one.  I didn’t get nearly enough of that crap as a Lit major back in college. [/sarc].

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4 thoughts on “On “Great” Art

  1. P_Ang

    Wooo! My name in lights…I’m a blog-published author now! Thanks for the mention

    But seriously, most of my dislike of Conrad comes from “The Secret Agent”, “Lord Jim” and “N-word of the Narcissus.” I suppose when you read the crap first you tend to skim through the better work. Really, Joyce was probably the only one I just gave up trying. When you’re an evolved monkey on Mary-Jane I hear “I am the Walrus” actually has deep, personal meaning, and now I know when you’re a Tenure-snorting, liberalism-addicted Man-monkey Joyce is like a soothing needle in the heart of the Ivory Tower.

    Speaking of “great Art” and questions…I have a friend who’s all about SCIENCE (the capitalized one), REASON, and MATH. Mathematically, shouldn’t there be another William Shakespeare out there? Or is there something detrimental about modern (capital LIB) culture that has prevented that mathematical probability from occurring?

    1. Severian

      I’m sure there IS a Shakespeare out there. Nobody writes sonnets anymore, or plays in blank verse, so our modern Shakespeare wouldn’t work in theater. He’d have to use a modern medium — TV, say, or the movies. Is there anyone out there who elevated his medium from “entertainment” to “art form?” You could make a case that someone like Stanley Kubrick was “the Shakespeare of film,” which makes him the modern Shakespeare (note that I personally am not arguing this; I’m saying it’s a valid argument to make though).

  2. another jim

    The only writer that I have come close to reading everything was Mark Twain. But I admit that A Connecticut Yankee, Life on the Mississippi, and The Innocents Abroad remain hills to high to climb. The first half of life on the Mississippi is wonderful, but he should have stopped at that point.

    1. Severian

      There’s nothing wrong with reading every word a particular author wrote, if you’re doing it because you like his work. There was a time that I myself had probably read 75% of everything Stephen King ever wrote, and that dude wrote a LOT. But unless you’re an academic specialist, there’s simply no need to plow through the entirety of an author’s work. “Reading Shakespeare” isn’t a magic Elixir of Culture. You won’t become suave and sophisticated because you plowed through all the sonnets; you’ll just become bored.

      Read what you read, and like what you like. One should read A play by Shakespeare — or even see a faithful film adaptation — because it’s a part of our rapidly dying culture; ditto with reading ONE Dickens, a Romantic poem or two, and so on. If you like it and want more, read more! If not, not. So long as you know enough to say “Yeah, this beats Jay-Z (or whoever) by a country mile,” you’re good.


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