The Demise of Greatness

The handful of artists who finished the circle of life in the ’60’s were the last great artists–ever.  I’m thinking of Hemingway, Faulkner, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot and perhaps a handful more.  I think that Thomas Pynchon just made the cut.  In art, Picasso, Matisse, Jackson Pollock and a few others, lesser known.  And in music, Aaron Copeland is about it in the US, and in England Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughn Williams, and the Russian Stravinsky –there are a few others I have left out.  In their day, Hemingway and Eliot were about as big as one could get.  Now, both of them are being reconsidered in academic circles.  From being as great as one could get, they’re now not so great.  Hemingway was too macho and I don’t know what the problem is with Eliot, but he’s on his way out, if he’s not out altogether.  Adulation may be one indicator of greatness, and both Hemingway and Eliot had it.  But are we prepared to say that Falco is great due to his adulation in the ’80’s, or that Smash Mouth in the ’90’s, or who knows who today?

Now, in academic circles, advocacy issues are becoming criteria for import.  I do not say for greatness, because that very category is dissolving.  So, for example, Clara Schumann in  music, Mary Shelley in literature, and others add their names to the important due to revisionist gender concerns.  Other names are emerging from other advocacy issues.  But the real problem with greatness is due to contemporary critical theory.  Contemporary critical theory is deconstructing the whole notion of greatness itself.  The idea that art can be great is attacked also for advocacy reasons.  Greatness implies elitism, and today it is passe to be elite or to be an elitist.  I remember a student in a class I was taking at Harvard saying that our professor was being elitist for asking us to read Baudelaire in French.  I pointed out the irony that she was saying this in Harvard University.  A friend on mine in another grad school, who was deeply steeped in post-modern critical theory, said that everyone in every walk of life is an artist.  I didn’t know what he meant.  But one night when I was drinking a beer I suggested to him that I was being an artist, drinking beer.  I believe that it was then he told me that one day he would kill me.  We lost touch and he never made good on his remark.

Today in universities, pop culture is a bona fide discipline.  On a flight recently, the scholar sitting next to me gave me a feminist critique of Friday the 13th.  Even in the theological school in which I work, Jesus and pop culture is a course offered.  Pop culture is fun and all.  I have been known to watch the Police Academy movies.  But I wouldn’t dream of paying money to an academic institution in which they would teach me about it.  (I’m not saying that there are or have been courses on Police Academy in universities.)  And although I have been known to watch Police Academy, I would never put it on a par with Richard the Third.  But if there is no greatness, and if contemporary critical theory places all art on a level plain, what are we left with?  We are left with the demise of the great.  I don’t see our way to identifying a great poet today.  Remember Run DMC?  Did that band create today’s great poetry?  Please do not take me the wrong way.  The great philosopher/sociologist Eric Michael Dyson elicits much meaning from the lyrics of Jay Z.  But as he himself says, his class at Georgetown on Jay Z is not just hearing “dope lyrics.”  He uses Jay Z to shed light on pressing issues of race in American history.  But even Dyson is not making an aesthetic judgment on Jay Z as a poet.

In fact, I’m not sure that critics can make aesthetic  judgments today at all.  Sure, publishers make decisions on what material they want to publish.  And governments appoint poet-laureates.  Philosophy has reasoned itself out of existence, and Rorty wouldn’t accept an endowed chair in the University of Virginia philosophy department for that reason.  And now I believe that art has criticized itself out of existence.  I suspect that there is no longer criteria for deciding greatness in art.  No word “great” at all in the lexicon of language.  So the likes of Hemingway and Eliot may be the last of the great writers.  And even they are losing their standing in university estimates about who we ought to read.  Are we at the point where Marvel Comics are leading authors of our day?  Will the next generation compare Iron Man to Prince Hamlet?  If the next generation will even know who Hamlet is.

IN COVID-19

Subjects wrap themselves in poetry

Today, practically every consideration pales

In comparison with

Tens of thousands infected, thousands dead

Hospitals past capacity, protective gear spent, exhausted

Medical professionals sick, exposed

Failed containment

Considerations pale in comparison with COVID-19

You used to be IT if you had

A Cabbage Patch Doll

And liked Ben and Jerry’s ice cream

Or were hip in the bar

There was even a word for it—

“Trendy,” and yet people were

I wasn’t anybody until I went to Harvard

Yet, things in this world matter

Mean something even in COVID-19

It’s hard to play Mozart piano sonatas, now

But they matter, and my new book of Confucius’ Odes

(Ordered online, in social isolation)

The wind blows a lot of chaff away

In these days

As it carries the virus

Through the entire world

And wraps words around itself

Life Is

“You’re going to have a hard life,”

My boss told me, in my 20’s

I’ve had dreams crushed, my heart broken

But who hasn’t

I’ve lived impoverished a long time

I didn’t feel it as a Harvard student

When I got my Ph.D.

I was worse than impoverished, deeply in debt

And I felt it

I’ll likely never get out of debt

I wrote and published a book

When I was poor

I lowered myself to begging a few times

Was relegated to the back seat of a lot of cars others owned

All the while I played and wrote music, poetry, lyrics

 

Some people live a comfortable life

To them, a good life

But shit happens, even to them

Some people are rich and complacent

Some people are very rich and dedicated to acquisition

I have known a few years of comfortable middle-class

And bought expensive art prints

A piano, an amp, guitar

A couple crystalline rocks

I travel places with my partner

 

My life has been hard at times

And I have known accomplishment, and contentment, and bitterness

I have no regrets

Trends, Styles, and the Self

It seems that every time period is plagued by trends and styles.  I am old enough to have seen many come and go.  In my teens, it was “Do your own thing; be an individual; peace, love.”  I watched some of the music, now rock classics, yield to the sensitive, bland, forgotten music of the late ’70’s.  I remember fading out of pop culture in the late ’70’s and listening to classical music (symphony, not rock).  Then came the ’80’s with money, power, cocaine, preps and Yuppies.  I rebelled against these values angrily, though I was, myself, a prep at Harvard.  I can’t find a trend that dominated the ’90’s.  But today, it seems that LGBT is the centre of gravity, along with eco-justice, women’s issues, and pop culture.

I’d like to think that in universities there is free intellectual inquiry.  But this is not the case.  There are styles and trends there too.  Back in the late ’50’s, symbolic logic was the rage.  Philosophers and even anthropologists wrote their ideas in those strange (laughable) symbols trying to look all mathematical and scientific.  That eventually got debunked.  Then I remember existentialism coming around.  When I was in grad school and when I graduated from grad school, it was all gender issues, power dynamics, wealth and poverty issues, and Nietzsche was the prevailing world-view, along with Richard Rorty.  I watched Derrida and deconstruction come and go in about a decade.

The thing about trends is that there is power behind them.  If a person wants to talk to others in society, he or she needs to buy into the current trends.  The alternative appears to be isolation.  And if a person wants to publish, one needs to write and think in the terms that are current.  But I believe that everyone has an intuitive sense of the true.  I believe that Emerson called it the Oversoul.  We know when a given trend is ridiculous, or doesn’t fit with human experience we know.  We sense the vacuity of certain ideologies.  I believe that’s why I turned to classical music in the late ’70’s, for instance.

Some people dedicate their lives to following trends.  It is their quest to recognize the prevailing trends immediately so that they can be in the vanguard.  In the ’90’s it was goatees, in the mid-2000’s it was mountain-man beards.  Maybe in Hollywood or fashion this is a necessity to survive or to make a fortune.  But I suppose there is enough of the old hippie in me not to worry too much about trends and to follow my Oversoul.