When I was in fifth grade, Miss Stern (our teacher, and it was really her name) said that a classic was a work that stood the test of time. The definition still seems apt to me –– but how much time should go by before a work deserves classic status?
Personally, I measure a classic by how well it survives a revolution. About once a century, it seems, there’s a revolution in the judgment of what makes a work of art worthwhile.
For example, the rise of romanticism was a revolution. Before the romantics came along in the 18th century, literature and painting and sculpture focused on rulers, historic heroes, holy men and women, and other famous and influential figures. The Romantics encouraged the idea that a humble peasant or scruffy meadow has its own nobility, importance, and even holiness, and deserves its own works of art.
Late in the 19th century and early in the 20th, another revolution came along. Until then, most people would have said that art has something to do with beauty. Writers, visual artists and musicians strove for an elevated, nearly flawless level of craftsmanship to create works that would appeal to the eye, heart and mind.
That’s not the case anymore. Artists of all media express how they feel, striving harder for raw truth and brutal honesty than for heart-tugging beauty.
There hasn’t been such an overturning in artistic judgment since this revolution, which art critic Robert Hughes called the shock of the new. No other way of judging novels, paintings, sculptures, and music has taken hold the way that honesty-over-beauty dominated the 20th century, or the way that romanticism grabbed the 19th. We’re still living under aesthetics developed before 1920.
So we don’t know yet if any work created in recent decades is truly a classic. After the next revolution in the arts, future audiences may not respect GUERNICA or THE GREAT GATSBY or CITIZEN KANE as today’s audiences do.
Instead, they may look at an obscure movie or painting or story and elevate it to nearly Shakespearian heights of prestige. One of the best things about revolutions in cultural taste is that they encourage audiences to re-discover works that the previous century’s prevailing viewpoint dismissed as unworthy of consideration.
So what makes something a true classic? When a work appeals to people whether they look at it through the romantic lens or in the 20th-century way or via some other viewpoint, then it’s a classic.
For instance, every generation for centuries has found something rewarding in Shakespeare or Mozart or Michelangelo. Aesthetic revolutions come and go, and every individual has his or her own opinion — but year after year, audiences still pay attention to Romeo and Juliet, the Requiem, and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Still, I have to wonder: what’s the next revolution going to be?