What separates art from mere production? There are many books, movies, albums, and other artistic efforts that have been extremely popular for a time, have captured the attention and adoration of an age, and then have been promptly forgotten except to those who are specialists within the field. Other artists have achieved modest popularity in their own lives, but their reputation has expanded greatly after their death, after the weighing and sifting of works takes place, and they are found to be works of lasting excellence. One of my favorite examples is that of Jane Austen, a novelist whose works were modestly popular, but by no means particularly so, while she lived, and yet after her death, her novels became viewed as classics, and are still read happily today . But why does this take place? What is it that determines the distinction between works that achieve immediate popularity and those works which endure as classics?
It seems fairly obvious what would make a work resonate in its own time, and that is speaking to the concerns and worldview of the time that the work is created in. Certain ages are marked by certain fads, and when one looks at various periods of time, one sees a lot of acts that seem very similar. The mid-60’s, for example, was full of British Invasion bands, while the early 1800’s spawned a whole slew of regency novels dealing with witty tales of courtship among the gentry and aristocracy. Likewise, contemporary Young Adult literature is full of dystopian futures or privileged schools for gifted outsiders, because what literate teen or young adult has not felt like some sort of special outsider in a world of mediocrity. Writers to a time often know their audience, or at least they know themselves and write to others like themselves, and works that are popular happen to resonate, whether intentionally or not, with the concerns of their peers. Since those of us who live in a time share similar pressures in the larger context, there are many works that will resonate with a specific time period but may seem embarrassing in later times. For example, it will be difficult for later generations to understand fully what was so compelling about hair bands of the 1980’s, or the Spice Girls in the late 1990’s, just like my father’s lime green polyester leisure suit was an embarrassment more than a decade after the end of the disco era.
Most art that is produced in a period will not endure. Much of it will be as embarrassing as old school photos with ludicrous clothing and hairstyles that seemed cool at the time but were clearly only faddish. When people from later times look back on the works of past generations, those works that simply spoke to the time will not endure, because that time will have gone, and the work did not speak to anything about humanity apart from the people of a specific context. As long as we are looking at our own time, we cannot tell the difference very well between those works that speak to our contemporary prejudices and those that speak to timeless aspects of humanity, because it is easy to believe that our own time represents some sort of culmination or apogee of all that has come before us. It is only in retrospect, after we have thrown away or burned the embarrassing artifacts of the past that we are ashamed of and settled down from our fashionable decadence to the tested and true ways of behavior that lead to lasting success, that we can look back on the works of the past and separate the gold from the iron pyrite, the diamonds in the rough from the glass beads, the paper that is only fit for recycling from that which is profitable to read for all time.
Yet in order to be recognized, a work must resonate with at least some audience, so that it is preserved until the time of sifting has taken place. A work that has no audience at all will not be readily picked up, because there will be too few copies of it to be found or appreciated by later generations. In order to become a classic, it is not necessary that a work be supremely popular in its original time. Rather, what it needs is for the artist or creator of that work not to be driven to despair by the lack of a response to that work. So long as there is enough conversation and enough attention given to work that the artist continues to create, even if that audience is not a large one, then that work and others like it will be present when tastes shift, and when a work is no longer hamstrung by not merely flattering the conceits of the age in which it was made, but is instead found to speak truth about a person who is worth knowing, and about a larger portion of humanity than merely its original audience. And it is that more general applicability and importance that makes a work great. The greatest works would be those that speak to all men at all times, and would be works in which it would be impossible for humanity not to find something speaking to them, even if that something was not exactly what they wanted to hear. Not all medicine goes down smoothly; there is much that tastes good to the mouth that is bitter in the stomach, and much medicine that we need that does not taste pleasant. But great art, like good medicine, has more important aims than merely pleasuring its audience, but also in improving it.
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