On Artistic Greatness

Greatness means many different things to many different people and certainly conceptions of greatness vary from field to field. Most of our associations with greatness are no doubt based upon feelings rather than rational reflection. If we don’t have a mutually acceptable concept of greatness, then you can hardly agree or disagree with me about the Beatles’ greatness.

Think about any of the “great men” of history. How many of them, when you really get down to it, live up to your own personal conception of greatness? If you, like me, value human life above all other things, then doesn’t it make it hard to honestly look at the careers of the supposed great men with the admiration we were taught?

We want to admire the so-called “great men” because we were taught so, but also because we like to admire deeds that seem irregular and are impossible for the average person.

This is also true to a certain extent in the arts, as we tend to overly praise or, more recently overly condemn, our idols. We don’t want to examine these strongly held beliefs. We just want to hold on tight to our first, or best remembered, impressions.

For years I used to be unable to admit the obvious problems in many of Stanley Kubrick’s films because I had convinced myself he was the Greatest American Director of the 20th Century. I had developed fairly compelling rationalizations for this position, but it was based on emotion, and not even emotion connected to the movies themselves. Rather, it was my obsession with Kubrick that set me apart. In my mind, I was culturally superior to my high school peers. Once I knew more about Kubrick than anyone else, I was in a position of strength from which I could partake in virtually all conversations about movies – the huge number of films I had seen, no doubt, also helped – and I came off as having the right opinions as compared to other people who didn’t even know who Kubrick was.

I had the same obsession, I must admit, with the Beatles. But I maintain that the Beatles’ greatness can be established beyond my personal – previous – obsession, that there is a way to come to a concept of greatness relatively free of sentiment or nostalgia and that the Beatles career bears the scrutiny that the “great men” of history do not.

Since there are so many people in the world, I think a conception of greatness must be social. Greatness in the arts – in all areas – cannot be based on the opinions of a couple scholars or critics, though these voices should not be ignored. These experts are important, particularly if they have been trained in their particular field, unlike so many music critics.

My particular notion of greatness rests primarily, though not exclusively, on transcendence: the notion that something lasts beyond its time, that future generations find value in a thing created for an earlier generation. This is the only test I know of that is – relatively – free of in-the-moment subjectivity, though it is still problematic. It is subjective in that it remains subject to whims of populaces, but more importantly, it is something that can only be judged through hindsight.

This criterion obviously presents a problem for the critic attempting to proclaim a new release a masterpiece. (Though I would suggest that a masterpiece is likely lurking among those bucking trends rather than those following them, contrary to the views of the contributors to Exclaim!). Such a guess can only be a best guess, and I think the truly good critics admit to such things.

I may think and insist that Tomahawk’s Anonymous will eventually be regarded as perhaps the greatest update to native American music of the early 21stcentury – if anyone ever listens to it – but it is far more likely that future social preferences will prove me wrong in my guess.

This approach also suffers from the problem that sometimes things are rediscovered: just because some generations ignore someone’s work does not necessarily have bearing on its value.

So the standard of transcendence is not perfect on its own – what standard is?

  1. First, add to it references to cultural history. Are there clear indications – through an examination of other cultural artifacts – that the artifact under study has had an impact on its contemporaries and the inheritors of that culture – in other words, is it influential?
  2. Second is the idea of aesthetic quality. One reason I have a hard time giving in completely to some supposed punk classics, such as Flipper’s Album: Generic Flipper, is because, despite their influence, they lack a certain quality, which I think of as aesthetics. This is certainly the most subjective criterion.
  3. Third is the criterion of trailblazing: has this been done before?

So to put this in practice, we can, for example, with near-absolute certainty, conclude that Bob Dylan was the greatest English-language songwriter of the second half of the twentieth century – and I would argue the whole century, but that is a lot harder to prove – because

  • his music has lasted from generation to generation (transcendence);
  • he has had numerous imitators (influence);
  • there are few popular music lyrics in the last 50 years to rival works such as “Masters of War,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “It’s Alright Ma” and on and on and on (aesthetic achievement);
  • and finally, Dylan got everyone in rock music to go from singing about “Cars, cars and girls” to singing about anything (trailblazing).

This concept of greatness will be the basis for my argument in this book.

But I also think about greatness in terms of a scale. Greatness does bear a relationship to its opposite. In that context, I’ve developed a ten point scale, that builds from the worst, at 1, up to greatness. I don’t intend to use this scale in the book, but I think it helps us when we can assign numbers to things.

Think about these qualities when listening to the Beatles’ music. Personally, I would rank the vast majority of the original British Beatles albums 10/10.

  1. Pure, unadulterated shit. The worst of the worst. Transcendentally bad, as in, so bad that even 50 years later people think “wow that is terrible” with the qualifier “even for the time.” Though I can think of few musical equivalents – I am pretty sure I have only ever rated one album 1 out of 10 – there are numerous movies that come to mind, such as Manos: The Hands of Fate or Pod People or Nazis from the Center of the Earth.
  2. Terrible but not legendarily terrible. Perhaps there are signs of competence or energy or some inspiration. But not many signs.
  3. Run of the mill bad. Much of Top 40 radio – now and since its beginnings – falls into this category; however I don’t give it enough time to judge it properly. (I believe that all albums must be given at least three listens to get their fair shake.)
  4. Below average. A few redeeming qualities but something about it really isn’t working.
  5. Average. A lot of this stuff makes it on to the radio and plenty of it doesn’t. Nothing to write home about but nothing to complain about either. Most competent bands fall into this category for me.
  6. Above average. Better than what I might hear over any 40 to 70 minutes if I tuned into the radio.
  7. Good. Worthwhile discussing and talking about but still lacking in certain aspects, be it songwriting, arrangements, performance or production.
  8. Very good. Few things – if any – to nitpick over.
  9. Near transcendent. Strong cultural impact but with a few flaws or flawless with little to no sense that it bucked a trend or changed anything culturally.
  10. Transcendent. Regarded as great art by generation after generation. Or profound cultural impact despite its current neglect.

So there you have it. That’s how I think about music and movies and I wish more people thought this way – or at least had as clearly articulated ideas of great vs. terrible.

It is my belief that we can’t really know the good without reference to the bad, so one of the side effects of over praising mediocrity is that we lose our idea of what is truly terrible – which, I think, helps explain why so much shit is popular. The bad things don’t transcend like the good things, and so we lack for reference points, which is why we need to write about and discuss the truly great and the truly terrible ad nauseam.

This distinction is relevant here because I think another reason why people have forgotten the greatness of the Beatles is because those of us who weren’t alive or weren’t consciously listening from 1962 to 1970 have no idea of how bad many popular music groups of the time actually were. I have a better idea than most people my age only because I listened to oldies radio for the first 15+ years of my life and have to suffer the acid flashbacks.

Find an oldies radio station that still plays music from the ’50s and ’60s. (If you’re not sure where to look, I suggest satellite radio.) If you think all of it is on the same level as the Beatles, then I have no idea what drugs you are taking, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want some.Most pre-Beatles and contemporaneous top 40 is really, really terrible, even with the qualifier of context. There’s a reason nobody listens to it now. It was music mostly made by amateurs with no regard for history and little interest in interesting music.

This is an excerpt from my new book, The Beatles Are the Greatest Rock Band of All Time and I Can Prove It, which is available in any e-book format directly from me – by contacting me through this blog – or in one of the following ways:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.