Shall I compare thee…?
Third in a series beginning with Art in the family.
A bit of clarification perhaps. I didn’t mean by what I said last time that every aesthetic judgment anyone makes will have those three ‘levels’, ie:
(i) What (or who) is inside a particular artistic category (eg ‘poetry’) and what (or who) is outside.
(ii) Whether there are subcategories within (eg) ‘poetry’, and if so whether some subcategories are ‘higher’ than others. (If both the sonnet and nonsense verse are subcategories of ‘poetry’, is the sonnet ‘higher’ than nonsense verse?)
I mentioned these more to acknowledge that an individual aesthetic judgment will often contain within itself component judgments like these.
The third level (or question, or issue) – personal taste – will also very often spread across the other two. It could be a matter of taste why one person regards greetings card verse as poetry while another person doesn’t. Or (perhaps for very different reasons) the song lyrics of Leonard Cohen or Jacques Brel; or (for yet more different reasons) Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer. These are personal taste questions (iii) but they are also category or domain questions (i).
Then as far as (ii) is concerned someone may be quite happy to admit Grand Opera, Wagnerian opera, Savoy Opera, Broadway musicals, and the works of the Really Useful Theatre Company into the category of ‘musical theatre’, but be at the same time quite convinced, again purely for reasons of personal taste, that a nice meaty Gesamtkunstwerk (whether by Wagner or anyone else) beats everything else into a cocked hat.
The subjective dimension seems unavoidable. This seems so whenever we want to apply the concept of ‘artistic category’ the way we need to when we call someone the ‘greatest poet’ or ‘one of the greatest composers’. We seem to lack purely objective criteria for the categories that really interest us, and the ones we can specify objectively do not quite do it for us.
For example, there is probably a way to specify objectively a set of English Renaissance playwrights which includes at least:
William Shakespeare Robert Greene Christopher Marlowe Thomas Nashe Ben Jonson John Fletcher Thomas Middleton Francis Beaumont
To qualify for a list like this we could stipulate they must be English; they must have lived between date x and date y; and they must have written plays which were performed in the theatre. We shall assume for the moment that there is a purely ‘objective’ way of specifying the condition must written plays which were performed in the theatre.
We then get the list (the one above, or a longer one), and we ask ourselves: ‘Who is the best on this list?’ and (let’s say) we answer: ‘William Shakespeare!’
But is this all we’re saying when we say that William Shakespeare is one of the greatest playwrights, writers, poets, dramatists? With apologies to admirers of (say) Christopher Marlowe, I think we’re saying a lot more than this. The list should be much longer – not just England, not just the 16th-17th centuries. Maybe not just verse drama?
The point I’m trying to get at in this laboured way is that I think this approach falsifies what we mean when we talk of the greatness of Shakespeare. We’re not just saying we think he comes top of some finite, objectively determined list. We’re not saying he’s won a competition. And we’re not describing his greatness in a way that leaves it completely open as to whether there might be one or more film or TV script writers who could well be tons better, but unfortunately didn’t meet the criteria so were left off the list.
For practical, historical, psychological and biographical reasons it might be hard to imagine how Shakespeare could have been what he was and done what he did outside the context of his contemporaries and the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre he thrived in. But we would want to say that at least part of his greatness is regardless of his ‘competition’. It is not just that he is greater than Marlowe, greater than Beaumont, Middleton and Fletcher; not just that he’s greater than Ibsen, Shaw, Racine, Strindberg and Chekhov. We want to say he’s up there with Beethoven, Dante, Mozart, Homer, Rembrandt…
And immediately we’re back at that ‘subjective’ puzzle. Not everyone would agree with that list. Some would add Goethe, some would add JS Bach. Some would take Dante off but add Wagner, or Virgil, or Picasso, or Michelangelo – and so it goes on.
There seems to be a subtle paradox lurking around here which is to do with the ‘craft’ of art. On the one hand the craft – the practical mechanics of what an artist, writer, musician etc does, and the physical context within which he or she does it – is inextricably bound up with, is almost, in a really obvious way, identical to the content of what that individual does. But on the other hand, in the work as we apprehend it, as we appreciate, enjoy, experience and live it, there seems to be something which transcends the craft – which comes near to making the craft incidental.
I almost want to say that it is this transcendence which is what marks out the truly great artist, but I am aware this is hovering dangerously close to the clouds of metaphysics. I want to say this transcendence has got something to do with why the ‘top of the class’ paradigm (which the grammar of comparatives and superlatives pushes us towards) is so misleading, so That is not it at all in a Prufrock kind of way.
But I don’t think I want to say that it is only the ‘great artists’ who do this transcending. It’s probably more that they tend to do the transcending more supremely well.
I shall worry about the hole I seem to have dug myself into next time.
© Chris Lawrence 2010.