Wednesday, August 27, 2003

"Greatness" Revisited

My god, was it so long ago, or so soon? Two weeks ago, I posted an essay on the elusive artistic quality called "greatness," and unwittingly stepped into a current culture-blog debate. It turns out other people like Terry Teachout and Aaron Haspel had already written substantive posts on the topic. Had I known how redundant my own musings would prove, I would have saved them for another time.

Well, to summarize: Terry Teachout focused mainly on his personal response to a work of art, while the self-proclaimed God of the Machine took a critical scalpel to his effusions. It appears that Teachout had violated Haspel's first commandment of arts criticism: Thou shalt not gush. All the same, I sympathize with Haspel's irritation. If you want to claim that a work of art is great, you'd better give me some reasons that pertain to the work itself.

Now in this grand debate, Michael Blowhard has placed me in the "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" school with Teachout. I don't think that's quite the case; as far as I can tell, my views are much closer to Haspel's than Teachout's. (Frankly, I suspect that if a criterium of recognition won't work for pornography, it probably won't work for great art either.) Perhaps I went too far with my emphasis on response, obscuring the importance of informed connoisseurship. In that case, let this post serve as a corrective.

First, my rambling essay on greatness was cobbled together from a few e-mails I sent M. Blowhard on the subject some months ago. M. Blowhard's position was that "greatness" was some remote quality determined by a committee of high-and-mighty academics, and thus not relevant to him. My own position was -- and is -- that greatness in art is a life-or-death question not only for artists, but for any advocate of the life of the mind.

Alas, I didn't attempt to explain greatness per se, and I'm not sure I could explain it if I tried. After a few weeks of deliberation, I offer the following attempt: All human expression is dependent on form and technique, so that the limits and possibilities of our expression constitute a technology of sorts. Great art pushes that technology in a new direction, so that informed connoisseurs who encounter it find themselves questioning and exploring these frontiers of expression. Did that help, gentle reader? I'm not sure it helped me, either.

But my basic point is that great art is worth experiencing, even worth searching for. And for me, this isn't simply a matter of "knowing it when I see it," because I don't always know it when I see it. Sometimes I don't know it until many years later. In my literary studies, for example, I've been especially slow to warm to Whitman's poetry, Emerson's essays and Melville's Moby Dick. Yet warm to them I did, to the point where I cannot imagine my life without their art.

Great art is ready when I am, though I have not always been ready for it. Still, I find I am more ready now than I used to be; I can take deeper pleasure in what I encounter than I once did. That may be my best justification for art: the good, the bad, the ugly, and yes, even the great.

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