Art as a Contest of Superlatives
by Creon Critic
Are Rimbaud and Baudelaire better than Byron and Longfellow? Clearly not. Rimbaud and Baudelaire had the great disadvantage of writing in French. Clearly not God’s language. The language of poetry is English.
And are Byron and Longfellow better than Shakespeare. Clearly not. Shakespeare is the ur-text of English poetry and everything that comes before or after him can only hope to be second best.
The primary reason for reading Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Byron, Longfellow, and Shakespeare? Not to engage with the ideas they present. Not to marvel at the authorial voices, wordplay, or what Stephen Fry refers to as the sound-sex of it. No, the primary reason for reading these authors, the highest calling of artistic criticism, remains list creation. Listicles of art works, art forms, and individual artists.
Observe: Michelangelo’s Pietà is better than Richard Serra’s the Matter of Time. Architecture is better than sculpture, so the Chrysler Building surpasses the Pietà. And, as we saw earlier, English being better than French helps us come to conclude Shakespeare is better than Rimbaud.
Who is number one? That’s the question that should preoccupy us when engaging with a work of art. Imagine a giant tournament bracket pitting each artist against every other artist. Il pleure dans mon coeur, sorry Verlaine. Not number one. I wandered lonely as a cloud, sorry Wordsworth. Not number one. How else to determine a poet laureate but a knock down, drag out fight?
The individual contests most probably resemble Epic Rap Battles of History episodes. The task of the art critic: keeping score. A fantastically large ledger of who surpasses whom.
And thus this artistic analysis of poetry can be carried over to music. Thus through a series of deductions, which need not detain us here, classical music is found definitively to be the best form of music. The Great American Songbook, unimportant. Jazz, similarly unimportant. The music of places that aren’t in Europe, most definitely not important.
And poplar music? Well, turning to Shakespeare, I call popular music,
A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of thy addition.
Popular music holds the title of lowest of the low. On the whole failing to innovate, failing to criticize, failing to engage with the society in which it exists. Armed with the authoritative tournament bracket, the music critic can discard, among others, the efforts of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison. Popular music holds onto the label art only by the tips of its fingernails.
And thus we have the primary task of artistic criticism and engagement with the arts. Creating enumerated lists of who is best, second best, third best, and so on. Old Masters in. Abstract expressionists out – after all, my three-year old could do that. An ordered taxonomy of the arts from which to instruct the ignorant. To answer definitively, whose art precisely is the best art? And further, far from art criticism as a tool to explore the variegated world of human expression, far from art criticism as jumping off point to craft one’s own journey through the multifarious, multifaceted genius of humankind, it is better to think of art criticism as a weapon. As a cudgel. Art criticism as a blunt instrument to insult, to chastise, and to lay low all those unexposed to the dogma, the perpetual Truth about art.
(The foregoing prompted, in part, by a discussion at Ordinary Times. In case it is somehow unclear, I think it’s perfectly ok to do listicle making for fun. But if you wander into Charles Murray territory, earnestly proclaiming the West is the best (e.g. Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950), then this contest of superlatives take is tailor made for you.)