Deciphering Greatness in Art

After listening to and then promptly ignoring the advice of my peers, I decided to wade unwittingly into discussions on one of the most inflammatory of topics. No, I’m not referring to gender, race, class, inequality, education, or even religion. I am, of course, talking about the arts. Or more specifically, how we decipher notions of greatness in art. Gulp.

Taking inspiration from fellow Conatus News contributor Benedict Nicholson’s article on what constitutes High-Brow art , I felt obliged to offer some of my own reflections and musings as to how we understand notions of artistic greatness, and why these works achieve such status.

This is a surprisingly difficult and complex philosophical problem, which many aesthetes, philosophers and other thinkers have attempted to grapple with. What’s more, this aesthetic conundrum is made more complicated by the fact that greatness in the arts is rarely a question of comparing different genres or forms; distinctions can also be found within the same idioms: Mozart is treasured while Salieri is forgotten; Hendrix is revered over Woodstock contemporary Alvin Lee.

The aesthetician John A. Fisher believes the division between high and low forms of art is perhaps best articulated as a distinction between ‘serious art’ and ‘entertainment’ . Yet even Fisher acknowledges this line of thinking runs into difficulties as, historically, many works originating as ‘entertainment’ went on to achieve critical acclaim at a later stage (Dickens’ David Copperfield, while now considered a classic, was serialised in newspapers when first released). This distinction of ‘serious art’ and ‘entertainment’ seems really to be another manifestation of the art/commerce dichotomy: the belief that in order to reach the highest aesthetic standards, artistic works must be free from financial concerns and commercial compromise. This echoes the philosophies of critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, but can also be seen elsewhere, such as when the great Ludvig van Beethoven hurled away a novel by Sir Walter Scott, exclaiming: “Why, the fellow writes for money.”

Economist and polymath Tyler Cowen takes a different approach by distinguishing high and low art in economic terms. Art forms that rely greatly on equipment and materials, which Cowen defines as “capital-intensive”, have a tendency to produce ‘low’ (or ‘popular’) art. Conversely, genres with low capital requirements, which Cowen describes as “labour-intensive”, tend to yield ‘high’ (that is, works with the greatest critical acclaim) art. Cowen also counters the notion that art and commerce are incompatible, arguing instead that capitalism, far from corrupting art, gives rise to product diversity and allows artists to pursue niche tastes and art forms outside of the popular mainstream. Finally, Cowen also voices Fisher’s acknowledgment that what is considered low brow or entertainment today could well be viewed as greatly important in the future, reminding us that high art has never been a fixed concept.

But while notions of high art may indeed change and evolve over time, this isn’t to say that deciphering greatness in art is purely a matter of cultural conditioning or aesthetic relativism: universals in our aesthetic judgements have been observed cross-culturally.

One of the most thought-provoking and convincing thinkers on this topic is the late philosopher Denis Dutton. Unlike many discussions on artistic greatness, which have a tendency to revolve around a restricted set of elite works largely from the Western European canon, Dutton is able to draw upon his extensive field research on universal artistic tastes to identify cross-cultural features of creative brilliance in the arts. Building upon Aristotle’s premise that our underlying human nature profoundly influences our aesthetic judgements , Dutton, along with many other prominent thinkers including art theorist Ellen Dissanayake and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, recognises that the standard with which we assess artistic flare, far from being culturally learned, has a shared ideal across all societies. In his book The Art Instinct, Dutton presents four primary properties that characterise genius in the arts:

  1. Complexity –celebrated artistic works are rich with intricacy, allowing for deep and rewarding audience experiences. Furthermore, if the work’s dense themes are demanding and intriguing for its audience, what must that say of the cognitive and artistic faculties of its creator?
  2. Serious content – Fisher was on to something when identifying seriousness as part of what informs greatness in art. Serious content is a universal theme in distinguished artistic works, with love, death and human fate being the most prominent subjects.
  3. Purpose – In this context, Dutton defines purpose as authenticity – “a sense that the artist means it.”
  4. Distance – The greatest works of art require a sense of objectivity: the notion that artistic pieces should have no regard or concern for their audience’s wants and desires, nor should they seek to win over or curry favour with any persons, for “ingratiating itself with the audience is a main function of the polar opposite of authentic artistic beauty, which is not ugliness…but kitsch.”

Furthering the discussion on how to define high aesthetic achievement, David Hume’s ‘Test of Time’ principle is also worthy of a mention. Hume, along with his Enlightenment peer Immanuel Kant, understood well our shared human nature and the ways in which it shapes our artistic preferences. In his 1757 essay, “Of the Standard of Taste”, Hume alludes to the idea that for a work of art to be considered truly great, it must transcend time, place and culture:

“The same Homer, who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and at London…Authority and prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator; but his reputation will never be durable or general.”

Of course, there will always be debate and disagreements as to what constitutes greatness in the arts, and any sensible view of humans’ artistic preferences must concede these variations in taste. But for too long we have been sold the mantra of aesthetic relativism, and while this doctrine had noble intentions in its attempt to fight elitist and snobbish attitudes for which I have no sympathy, it is a deeply dishonest and intellectually obsolete argument. More importantly, it fundamentally fails to acknowledge our underlying and unifying human nature, which explains how and why great artistic works can travel seamlessly across cultural boundaries.

Far from beauty merely being “in the eye of the beholder”, our judgements on extraordinary aesthetic feats are profoundly influenced by our shared humanity. Rather than this being ignored or denied, it should be recognised and celebrated.

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