A number of stories this week tackled the meaning of greatness in art (even if they didn’t explicitly frame it that way). A changing culture requires changing definitions of greatness, but defining “great” has often been problematic.
- Wealthy patrons have funded great art throughout history. And of course the wealthy have had many different reasons for their patronage. One of the strongest was an appeal to having a hand in Great Art. But is the Great Art argument losing its appeal to today’s wealthy? “Classics and antiquity have lost cultural cache in the age of disruption, and there is no longer an aristocratic imperative to support noble projects of lofty ambition. Today we’ve neither dutiful Kings, Vaticans, or robber barons to seduce the hoi polloi into complicity with visions of the transplendent. Nor do the experiments in democracy we deem “states” seem to be doing much better, having withdrawn much of the already measly funding available for highbrow cultural endeavors.”
- What makes a play great, and how do we get them produced? Michael Feingold tackles the question: “I had better try to explain what I mean by greatness. It isn’t simply a matter of choosing a big ponderous theme, and spouting a lot of abstractions that will make academics write learned articles about your work. Nor is it a matter of an old play’s having survived long enough to become a ‘classic,’ a term we use far too loosely.” He suggests New York isn’t set up structurally to produce great theatre: “One problem that New York has always had with greatness is that our mainstream theater is a commercial theater, and what’s great does not always make money: Sometimes, especially when it comes in a new form, the disruption it causes actively drives the pleasure-seeking, affluent crowds away.”
- A great architect dies suddenly at 65 and leaves a (great) mixed legacy: Zaha Hadid’s kinetic career was cut short at a young age for an architect of greatness. Phil Kennicott: “Hadid embodied what many felt were the worst impulses of the most recent age of architectural exuberance: designs that indulged sculptural excess over logic and efficiency and the cultivation of celebrity status, which often seemed to insulate her from constructive criticism. She spoke the airy language of architectural theory, with all its utopian overtones, but she vigorously branded consumer products from candles to tableware to neckties. She worked regularly, and enthusiastically, in countries with authoritarian governments, designing them spectacular and expensive cultural centers and other vanity projects. Here are seven of her iconic buildings.
- So what makes great art? A timeless (and cliched) question to be sure. Many have stepped forward to give their answer. Of all those who attempt to answer, museums have some standing here. But have museums lost confidence in their role? “There’s a real lack of faith in both the meaning and power of cultural artefacts and their history. Because many museums are not interested in that anymore. They’re far more interested in making themselves feel better about a past they had nothing to do with.” And perhaps the question is getting more complicated. Google’s intelligent machines are now making art, and it’s no longer a stretch to wonder if machines might begin competing with humans in their ability to produce great art. Then who defines greatness? And how might our notions of art change as machines take us in different directions?
- JK Rowling is a masterful storyteller, a great author. But by whose definition? Because she wrote books that sold millions of copies? She wanted to find out, wrote under a pseudonym, and submitted her post-Harry book to several publishers. And got rejected. She was even advised by one editor to try a writing class. Of course the book (under pseudonym) eventually got published and sold reasonably well. But not nearly so well as when the real author was discovered and it became a huge bestseller. For fun, she has now posted her rejection letters as “a source of inspiration” to other writers who are struggling to get published.
- How do you compete with the great Metropolitan Opera? Why, offer something different, of course, writes Alex Ross. But different doesn’t necessarily mean worse – or better. And different can work. So what, exactly is the essential opera experience or “great” opera?
william osborne says
The perspective in your first might be a bit American-centric. An enormous part of postwar art has been funded by European governments, and probably represents the largest period of culture expansion and exploration in human history. Americans, of course, who have no such system of public funding so they tend to ignore this and downplay the effects of Europe’s system of public funding.
In America, public and private funding combined come to about $30 per capita.
By comparison Austria spends $324 per capita, Denmark $374, Norway $667, Germany $146, Italy $147, and Netherlands $333.
The average for these countries is $331 – 11 times higher than American spending, both public and private.
Americans convince themselves of their cultural vitality not only by creating a blinkered view of the world, but also by accustoming themselves to the massive cultural neglect within their own borders. Orchestras drop like flies, and genuinely functioning opera houses hardly exist even in in major cities, and yet we pretend its all just normal.