What Makes Great Art Great?

chicken art criticDear Reader,

Sometimes, as I have mentioned before in this blog, I read, watch, or listen to artists that I find interesting. Usually, an interest in their work is the initial trigger. This was the case with Michael Cunningham. (Just to plug his work for a moment, if you have not read The Hours, I would highly suggest getting a copy, especially if you have an interest in Virginia Woolf, her work, and her legacy. It has a great way of adopting the language of Mrs. Dalloway, while also recreating Mrs. Dalloway to fit into the time period of the 1950s and the late 1990s. His other books are impressive as well, such as Flesh and Blood and Specimen Days. The only shame to writing The Hours so early in his career is that, no matter what book he seems to publish, the conversation always returns to The Hours.)

Anyway, I was researching Cunningham to see if he had a blog. He did, but it only had two posts and was written in July of 2012. Nevertheless, I read what he had to say. It was about his experience as one of the judges for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012. What perhaps makes this more interesting is the fact that, in 2012, the Pulitzer did not give out an award for fiction. As Cunningham explains, it was not as though there was a lack of possibilities. Though Cunningham had a more advanced role in the process, he still had to read 300 books and then narrow the selection down from 300 to 3. Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan, and Susan Larson (the jurors) did just that. They found The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and Swamplandia! by Karen Russell to be worthy of the prize. Yet still, for some reason, the Pulitzer Prize Board neither accepted one of their three chosen books, nor asked for a fourth book (as is sometimes done).

In the two articles, Cunningham discussed the process of trying to pin down a great book, which is understandably frustrating and complex. After all, the definition of greatness is subjective. Cunningham defined greatness partially as something that takes a risk. All three jurors seemed to be in agreement that they would “favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature” and were “willing to forgive certain shortcomings or overreachings in a writer who was clearly attempting to accomplish more than can technically be done using only ink and paper”, which is an interesting argument just in itself.

Cunningham labeled himself “the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences” and says that he “could forgive much in a book if it was written with force and beauty, if its story was told in a voice unlike anything I’d heard before, if the writer was finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years.” He defined Maureen Corrigan as the one “drawn to writers who told a gripping and forceful story”, adding that “she wanted something to have happened by the time she reached the end, some sea change to have occurred, some new narrative continent discovered, or some ancient narrative civilization destroyed.” Susan Larson was apparently a “tough-minded romantic” who wished to “fall in love with a book in more or less the way one falls in love with a person”, faults and all.

While the entire two articles are worth reading (Cunningham goes on to explain more about the process and what made their selections worth the prize), what struck me were these three ideas by themselves. They are three very different ways at looking at books, or even art, in general. Of course, it makes sense why at least three people were asked to be jurors: greatness and its definition(s) are hard to grapple with. Even beyond explaining it, what is greatness and how does it differ from art that is just “good” or “acceptable”? How do you know when you have found it? If you were going to find the greatest book/CD/film/painting/etc. created in the last year, what would be your guideline(s)?


Jumbled Writer

*Photo Courtesy of savagechickens.com.


8 Responses to What Makes Great Art Great?

  1. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

    I’m not going to answer your questions, because I have to go write my daily blog post before going to work. But, as is your post, your questions are thought-provoking and … more than just “good” or “acceptable.”

    All the best,

  2. What a great question. I’m finding my reading is limited (as I write too). Sometimes I just want a book that I find fascinating and such a page turner I neglect everything just to read the book to the end. Other than that – I’m either reading books to review (often not topics I’m interested in) or I’m reading books to learn (mainly history). But since I love history – it’s enjoyable to read about things I don’t know about too. Do you find yourself getting caught up in research – you don’t have time to read everything you want?

    • Yes, research can be interesting, as long as the topic itself is worth studying (which is completely subjective). I am not a fan of all history, but there are certain time periods that I enjoy reading about. If only we had time to read everything.

  3. I would certainly agree that in both books and movies, the actual narrative thread or subject matter are ultimately less important than the way in which they are written, cast and plotted. I have enjoyed many books that are on subjects which would not ordinarily interest me, purely because they were written so beautifully that they pull you into the narrative. Equally, a film can be fabulously well made and written by the best screenwriter in the world, but if the lead is played by, oh I don’t know…, just to pull a name out of the air, Tom Cruise, then I’m just not going to give a toss about the character, so won’t enjoy the film. Although to be honest, Cruise could be directed by someone as great as Kubrick and still make a complete stinker.
    Oh, wait…

    • That reminds me of a book called “Salt: A World History” by Mark Kurlansky. If you think it is a book written entirely about salt, you would be correct. But, from what I’ve heard, it’s utterly fascinating. I suppose he found a way to make it worth the read.

  4. It’s hard to explain, JW. First, there’s a undefined attraction I get with the book. As I start reading, I can consume myself in the story without feeling like I’m working at it. Secondly, I can relate to the characters either in a positive or negative way but still form some sort of an attachment to them. Lastly, the story gives me something to remember. If I can’t remember most of the book a year down the road, it wasn’t one of my all-time favorites.

    • I agree that if I can’t remember it, it wasn’t that great. I am going through a book right now that I “read” last year, yet the only thing I could remember was the title.

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