Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Personal Taste and Great Art

Frequently, what we decide is great art is what suits our tastes. That is why a piece of music you can't relate to makes someone else ecstatic.

Ever have it happen that someone else gives their highest recommendation to a book or movie, and when you try to read it or watch it, you don't even finish it?

That's personal taste at work.

In a larger, longer term view though, there is a concensus of opinion formed.

For example, Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime. Today, the originals command a fortune, and countless people have reprints of his art in their homes. Stravinsky's Rites of Spring was not liked by many people, and provoked a riot when it premiered. Today it is very popular, performed by many orchestras. Many books we now enjoy reading were not popular when they were first published. For example, Kurt Vonnegut's first books, Welcome to the Monkey House, Player Piano, and Sirens of Titan, were not immediately successful, although Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five became popular and today he is considered a great contemporary author. Herman Melville's Moby Dick was not considered a masterpiece until long after he died. It may be hard for us to believe now, but there was controversy in the beginning as to whether photography, such as that of Ansel Adams, should be considered art.

Obviously, over a period of time, more people accepted these creations as groundbreaking and worth study, and have become standards in their fields as well as inspirations for newer generations of artists.

We choose what we like, but what society as a whole sees as great is often different than what we like. Certain styles of art, novels, music and movies will in time be regarded as great, while others may simply languish as lightweight decorations and entertainments that were popular for a while. We may not know which is which until later. For now, it may be enough that you like it, and it makes you feel good to look at it or listen to it. And for now, that is the only purpose it needs to serve.

Only time will tell whether it has the power to move people in future generations. For now, the fact that it has the power to move you is enough.

Art is always in the eye of the beholder.

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