Living in a largely relativistic world, the idea of something being intrinsically better than something else may seem a little passé. Yet, it abounds. We debate our favorites and compare movies and books and which is better. We watch awards shows and rage (inwardly or outwardly) at the results, claiming that such and such was robbed (read: Boyhood). I firmly believe that it’s possible to distinguish great art (literature, film, sculpture, painting, music, etc.) from the dregs of the art barrel.
Maybe I hold on to this belief because I’m a bit of a snob and like to look down my nose at lesser works and those that praise them as brilliant (if all that matters is personal preference, I can’t really be pretentious and that would be a tragedy). Maybe it’s because I study literature and seek validation, by searching for discernment that those unacquainted with the intricacies of the field lack. Maybe it’s because I hold on to some absolutes and reject complete relativism. Whatever the reason, I think there are undeniable great works of art. Now the question becomes, how do you distinguish the great from the good.
I’m not sure exactly what sort of criteria should be used to make this judgment. Nor am I suggesting that there’s no place for low-quality art (I thoroughly enjoy several things that are absolutely terrible quality wise—Speed Racer, The Castle of Otranto, Troll II, Pacific Rim). I am suggesting that a set of criteria could be created that helps determine what is great (obviously this won’t be a fool-proof process, as subjectivity will inherently be involved, but I do believe that overall, a consensus of greatness could be reached).
Naturally, you’re probably wondering what qualifies something as truly “great” in my eyes, since I’m adamant that such a thing exists and rightly so. Here are my arguably subjective qualifications for determining the objective greatness of art (probably most applicable to film and literature, since I have much more experience and expertise in those fields than music, painting, sculpture, etc.).
- The work extends beyond the confines of the medium. Something about it makes connections on a deeper level and helps the work exist outside time. Truly great pieces will be great from any context. For this reason, I would dispute the greatness of Citizen Kane (heresy, I know, but that’s nothing new to me…). While the film is incredibly significant historically and has some excellent performances, it drags and lacks that little something that helps it achieve transcendence.
- The experience doesn’t end when you finish watching or reading. The art stays with you, hanging out in your thoughts, drawing you back to it over and over. There’s more to be gleaned from the reflective experience than necessarily the initial engagement with it. The piece continues to influence you long past the initial interaction with it. Nightcrawler and Atonement (the book) are recent examples of this from my experience.
- This relates to the idea of transcendence, but is more about the ability of the film to connect with audiences across the spectrum. Practically everyone will be able to connect in some way with the film, even if it doesn’t match their lived experience, the film feels universal. Boyhood felt this way, in that even though my life has been quite different from Mason’s, I felt as though the film captured something universal and powerful about growing up.
- Personal and Intimate. At the same time as being universal and reaching all people, it feels like it was made just for you. There’s some deep personal connection and intimacy that is created between the work and the audience. The balance between universal and intimate can be hard to obtain, as it may lose the power of the personal while trying to appeal to everyone, or may seem to not resonate with anyone by ignoring the universal.
- Technical Genius. The art is well-crafted. Great performances, beautifully shot or written. Fantastic dialogue, otherwise perfection of the craft at stake. The artistry is palpable, almost to where you can taste it. Some may rely solely on this for determining the greatness of a piece, but I think that misinterprets the purpose of art.
- Breaks the Mold. Truly great art breaks from the established norms. Something can be a work of technical genius, beautifully capturing performances and feelings, but if it remains within well-established boundaries then it fails to elevate itself to true greatness. There are risks involved here and there may be a tendency to overcorrect and take huge risks without needing to, destroying the integrity of the piece. There just needs to be something that sets it apart from the huge swath of movies, books, art created every year.
- Truth is arguably contained within the other ideas mentioned, but I think deserves separate mention. I don’t mean that everything should be preaching some hidden (or not so hidden) agenda, but that the greatest works of art contemplate great questions of existence in some way or another. The pursuit of truth is a key factor in elevating something to greatness.
I think a taste for greatness needs to be cultivated to a certain degree, although I also tend to believe that truly great things will appeal to practically everyone, albeit for a myriad of reasons. It’s kind of like food. If all you eat is junk, then when you eat a gourmet meal, you probably won’t appreciate it. There needs to be some understanding and appreciation for the finer things before the greatness can actually be recognized.
Personally, I also distinguish between what I would consider the greatest pieces and my favorites. There is some overlap, but favorite for me suggests a longer connection and typically repeated interactions. Some of the greatest pieces I can only watch or read once or twice because of the intensity of the emotions that they create. I think there’s room to recognize that something is ‘great,’ while asserting that it didn’t really resonate with you.
Let’s not settle for good, because there’s something more than good—some things are GREAT.