Epics and extravaganzas are on the wane. Tom Shone is relieved ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009
“What is a masterpiece and why are there so few of them?” asked Gertrude Stein in 1936. An answer has finally arrived from an economist, Tyler Cowen. In his new book “Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World”, Cowen argues: “The current trend…is that a lot of our culture is coming in shorter and smaller bits…When access is easy, we tend to favor the short, the sweet and the bitty. When access is difficult, we look for large-scale productions, extravaganzas and masterpieces.”
His point is not that great works are in decline, blotted out by clouds of grey mediocrity massing on the horizon. It’s that when communications are slow and information scarce, we favour works of art that aggregate and summarise and synthesise. A glance at the list of all-time top-selling records reveals that those albums that bestrode the 1970s and 1980s like colossi—from “Dark Side of the Moon” to “The Joshua Tree”—are now relics of the past. The last band to attempt one, Guns N’ Roses, almost killed themselves in the process, spending 17 years on an album, “Chinese Democracy”, that promptly went phut.
The list of Best Film Oscars tells a similar story, with epics like “The English Patient” and “Titanic”, which ruled the Nineties, giving way to small, left-field, indie hits—“Crash”, “No Country For Old Men”, “Slumdog Millionaire”. When Scorsese finally won his Oscar, it was not for his wayward epics but for his scrappy cop drama “The Departed”.
There’s a type of masterpiece that Henry James identified as “loose, baggy monsters”. One of the few recent novelists to try one was David Foster Wallace, whose death in 2008 prompted an online challenge to get through his grunge epic “Infinite Jest” over this summer. “A thousand pages ÷ 92 days = 75 pages a week,” declared InfiniteSummer.org. “No sweat.”
It all depends what you mean by masterpiece, of course. An exhibition has just opened called “The Louvre and the Masterpiece”, which “explores how the definition of a ‘masterpiece’…[has] changed over time”. Once, a masterpiece was declared by the members of a guild: the apprentice locksmith tried to create the greatest lock he had ever made, using the best materials and the most ornate design, and thus gain acceptance from the guild. As there were hundreds of guilds, some with thousands of members, a masterpiece was a feat no rarer than a great set of exam results.
It was the Romantics who put the term on its lofty pedestal—a product not of perspiration but inspiration, touched by genius, possessed of greatness—and the modernists who duly yanked it down again. “Masterpieces of the past are good for the past,” declared the dramatist Antonin Artaud, in his book “The Theatre & Its Double” (1938). “They are not good for us.”
We live in deflationary, mock-heroic times, preferring to up-end the term—“minor masterpiece”, “a masterpiece of concision”, “a masterpiece of the filo-pastry chef’s art”. The naked M-word induces embarrassment, even boredom. “Who wants one damn masterpiece after another?” asked the Guardian’s Adrian Searle, reviewing a show of French and Russian paintings at the Royal Academy. “Man to man, this is awfully close to a masterpiece,” wrote Anthony Lane of the New Yorker about “The English Patient”, behind his hand, as if wary of the limits of connoisseurship in the age of the $100m marketing campaign.
In the popular arts, the qualities that make for a masterpiece—the stylistic innovation, the self-consciousness, the ability to transcend genre—often militate against the humbler skills that made the artist popular. When critics call “Vertigo” Hitchcock’s masterpiece, they are praising it for being his least Hitchcockian film: it is slow, melancholy and almost joke-free. Even the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper” has worn thin. “As a musician, I’m burnt out on it,” Aimee Mann recently confided. A consensus has formed around “Revolver”, less ambitious but more intimate, as the better album.
Not the masterpiece, but the better album. It’s a distinction to hang onto as we head into our short, sweet, bitty, downloadable future. I’m not grumbling that “Citizen Kane”, Welles’s chilliest film, is considered his masterpiece; I’d just rather watch “A Touch of Evil”. I can see why people revere Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but I prefer “The Shining”, precisely because of its pulpy roots. And when the New Yorker calls “Funny People” Judd Apatow’s masterpiece, we know what it means: not as funny as his previous films.
"The Louvre and the Masterpiece" Minneapolis Institute of Arts, October 18th to January 10th. www.artsmia.org
Picture credit: Treasures of the Dominicans: Missale Wratrislaviense, the 15th-century Latin manuscript at the exhibition in the Dominican Monastery in Kraków/bazylek100. (via Flickr)