‘What makes a work of art truly great?’

Jay Nordlinger thinks aloud on art:

What makes a work of art truly great? Durability, most people would say. A great work lasts — lives on and on — rather than sparkling and then fizzling out. Also, a great work should touch the heart or stir the mind. And maybe point to something higher, or deeper.

When is it safe to call a work of art great? Sometimes never. But if you are confident of your judgment, safety is not a consideration. WFB liked to quote Stravinsky, who said that it takes 50 years, after a work’s creation, to assess that work properly. I don’t know. With some of them, you know quickly (one way or the other). But Stravinsky and Buckley had a point nonetheless.

What role does great art play in society? Some societies prize it more than others. The same is true of individuals. Not everything appeals to everybody. WFB was not much for sports. Some are not much for the Great Outdoors. Woody Allen said, “I am two with nature.” I know people in classical music who are always trying to make classical music popular. “Don’t waste your time,” I say. “There’s a reason they call pop music ‘pop music,’ you know: It’s popular.” Classical music will never be popular. But that’s all right: There will always be a minority who cherish it, and keep it going.

So, in your view, the arts are something that people can take or leave? There is not a societal need for art? Look, I think society would be poorer without art, because art enriches the soul. It breathes beauty into life. It can take us above the muck (or not). But this is a matter of individual choice, or leanings. There will always be art-lovers in society — always — and others who are indifferent. The others will probably be in the majority.

You can’t make everyone conform to your tastes. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. I’m always quoting Homer — not the Greek poet, but Homer Simpson. When Apu was worried about impending fatherhood, Homer said, “Kids are the best. You can teach them to hate the things you hate. And they practically raise themselves, what with the Internet and all.”

People are always trying to get others to love what they love and hate what they hate. Well, good luck.

But everyone should have an appreciation of art, right? “Should” is an interesting word. In one sense, we should all have pretty prom dates and Corvettes. I think everyone should be exposed to art — and sports and science and everything else.

What would you require in schools? Many things, a variety of things — a smorgasbord. Again, exposure. I think of Marian the Librarian, describing her ideal man: “If occasionally he’d ponder what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great …” That’s enough, I think. They need not be fanatics, like some of us. Lead a horse to water — many waters — and let him drink what he will.

Some people think that arts are necessary, societally, as a protection against tyranny. I think that’s a nice idea — but way off. There are lots of artists who are SOBs. That includes great artists. They are not automatically liberal democrats, far from it. Think of all those Nazis, and all those Communists! For that matter, think of Hitler and Stalin, personally! There have seldom been two greater art-lovers. Everyone knows about Hitler’s devotion to Wagner. But he really loved The Merry Widow, that fizzy, adorable thing. He saw it over and over, and bestowed awards on the composer, Lehár.

In order to be appreciated, does art need to be relevant to a person’s life? I don’t know what that means. I think “relevant” is one of the great nonsense words of our time. Is Bach’s B Minor Mass relevant? Relevant to what? It’s great. Is greatness relevant? As I see it, art can be liked and loved. It can instruct us, console us, thrill us, elevate us. But this mania, this fashion, this craze for relevance (whatever that means) is bizarre.

It is also a perversion of art, possibly. I suspect it goes hand in hand with attempts to politicize art. A lot of people think that if something isn’t political, it does not really matter. These are shallow people. By “relevant,” they may well mean “political.”

What’s the relevance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? The last movement features a hymn to brotherhood, true. But the Ninth is also … you know: a symphony in D minor. Music. Such art has a power beyond words, beyond human concepts.

I think that’s right: art seeks transcendence; points beyond itself.

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