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January 21, 2011

artistic excellence as a function of historical time

The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini has compiled his top ten list of all-time greatest classical composers. As explanations for his choices, he offers judgments about the intrinsic excellence of these composers along with comments about their roles in the development of music over time.

These temporal or historical reasons prove important to Tommasi's overall judgments. For example, Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, when played between works composed in the 20th century, "sound[s] like the most radical work in the program by far." Schubert’s "Ninth paves the way for Bruckner and prefigures Mahler." Brahms, unfortunately, "sometimes become entangled in an attempt to extend the Classical heritage while simultaneously taking progressive strides into new territory." Bach "was considered old-fashioned in his day. ... [He] was surely aware of the new trends. Yet he reacted by digging deeper into his way of doing things." Haydn would make the Top Ten list except that his "great legacy was carried out by his friend Mozart, his student Beethoven and the entire Classical movement."

It seems that originality counts: it's best to be ahead of one's time. On the other hand, if, like Haydn, you launch something that others soon take higher, you are not as great as those who follow you. Bach is the greatest of all because instead of moving forward, he "dug deeper." So originality is not the definition of greatness--it is an example of a temporal consideration that affects our aesthetic judgments.

One might think that these reasons are mistaken: timing is irrelevant to intrinsic excellence or "greatness." It doesn't matter when you make a work of art; what matters is how good it is. But I'm on Tommasini's side and would, like him, make aesthetic judgments influenced by when works were composed. Why?

For one thing, an important aspect of art (in general) is problem-solving. One achievement that gives aesthetic satisfaction is the solution of a difficult problem, whether it is representing a horse in motion or keeping the kyrie section of a mass going for ten minutes without boring repetition. The problems that artists face derive from the past. Once they solve the problems of their time, repeating their success is no longer problem-solving. To be sure, one only appreciates art as problem-solving if one knows something about the history of the medium. That is why art history and music history enhance appreciation, although that is not their only purpose.

Besides, in certain artistic traditions, the artist is self-consciously part of the story of the art form. Success means taking the medium in a productive new direction. This is how traditions such as classical music, Old Master Painting, Hollywood movies, and hip-hop have developed. It is not the theory of all art forms in all cultures. Sometimes, ancient, foundational works are seen as perfect exemplars; a new work is excellent to the extent that it resembles those original models.

The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns was a debate about whether the European arts and sciences should be progressive traditions or should aim to replicate the greatness of their original Greco-Roman models. The Moderns ultimately won that debate, not only promoting innovation in their own time but also reinterpreting the past as a series of original achievements that we should value as contributions to the unfolding story of art. Since we are all Moderns now, we all think in roughly the way that Tommasini does, admiring Beethoven because his contemporaries thought his late works were incomprehensible.

Meanwhile, classical music and Old Master painting have become completed cultures for many people. Their excellence is established and belongs to the past. Beethoven was great because he was ahead of his time, but now the story to which he contributed is over. The Top Ten lists of classical music are closed. I am not sure this is true, but it seems a prevalent assumption. Maybe we are all Ancients now.

January 21, 2011 2:41 PM | category: fine arts , philosophy | Comments



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