In sports, we know, statistics can help. They can show us that, although any number of players may qualify as our personal favorites, only a handful of players are plausible candidates for GOAT status. And yet, definitive answers remain elusive.
Yes, Messi’s ball control and creativity are superior to Ronaldo’s. But Ronaldo’s physicality and mental toughness, his performance in “clutch” situations, are stupendous. Which qualities matter most and how do you measure them? It’s subjective.
As an art critic who happens to be hopelessly besotted with soccer, all this fascinates me. Because I think you can flip the insight — that greatness in soccer is mostly objective and yet still has a strong subjective element — and apply it to art: Greatness in art is mostly subjective, yet it still has a strong objective element.
Like the word “elite,” “greatness” seems to be more than okay in sports, where we’re constantly hearing about “elite athletes” and acknowledging the greatness of figures like Maradona. But greatness is not at all cool in the arts, where it is increasingly suspected of entrenching historical injustices and where it conflicts with the prevailing idea that everything about art is “mere opinion.”
I understand those objections. And I recognize that debates about greatness can quickly get tedious. “Among the words and phrases I would like to have eliminated from art critiques, commentary, and news reporting,” wrote one online commenter in The Post last year: “great, greatest, greater, best, finest, most unique . . .” I hear versions of this complaint all the time. And I sympathize.
In every work of art, as in every game of soccer, there are so many things beside “greatness” that capture our interest. But the greatness question persists, and I wonder: Can we really do without it?
Antipathy to the concept of artistic greatness is a sensible reaction against hyperbole and sweeping statements. In a field that hinges on subtlety and specificity, to be constantly invoking the word “great” feels lazily general.
Lately, what’s more, open talk about greatness is seen by some as a White, male plot to entrench sexist and racist ideologies. Because the criteria for measuring greatness are all expressions of those ideologies, right?
Well, yes and no. Greatness is not an absolute. It is defined simply by influence and supremacy in relation to others. Its criteria are constantly evolving. But yes, to the extent that they are inherited, standards of greatness are often severely tainted by past prejudice.
Recognizing this indisputable fact can make dispensing with the concept seem like the most virtuous and equitable response. But it won’t work.
We might wish it otherwise, but high-level creativity exists apart from resolutions to be virtuous and equitable. You can try to reduce art to the notion (some would say democratic but I would say narcissistic) that it starts and stops with “self-expression.” But talented people are always going to want to transcend self-expression and try to write the best song, the most stunning poem, the painting that gets everyone talking. Any attempt to suppress this impulse is simply not going to fly.
And there’s an even bigger problem. Let’s say justice and equity are, in fact, our main concern. To be demolishing the concept of greatness in art at the exact historical moment when our museums, publishers, dealers, critics, curators, orchestras and collectors are belatedly opening their eyes to the talents and achievements of women artists, artists of color and whole cultures formerly consigned to inferior status is not just unfair, it’s outrageous.
In sports, you don’t actually need statistics to demonstrate the greatness of a Serena Williams, a Messi or a LeBron James. You just pay attention. You look at the way they play and, soon enough, it becomes obvious and undeniable. You might like other athletes more, for any number of good reasons, but that has nothing to do with it.
In the arts, greatness is no less obvious. You just have to look, to pay attention. On any given day, you may not be in the mood for George Eliot, Jane Austen, Beethoven, Bach or the Beatles. In a deeper sense, they may not be your thing. When you think of what is meaningful to you, heavy, “canonical” names may not really figure. That’s okay. I often feel the same way. For all his music’s many moods, I suspect my inner life would be unendurable if it had nothing to feed on but Beethoven. But great art doesn’t actually need your vote, or mine.
If you want to test out the concept, choose something commonly regarded as great: a Rembrandt self-portrait, Melville’s “Moby Dick,” the “Mahabharata,” Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” Firdausi’s Iranian epic the “Shahnama,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Try to set aside your personal proclivities. Give it time, if you need to. Think about how many different people have found something exceptional, sustaining, inspiring, beautiful or profound in it, and ask yourself why that might be.
Is it an ideological conspiracy, a hoax perpetuated by tweedy professors or bigoted critics? Quite possibly. But try to approach it with a little humility. You may need to look into it. You may need to do some background reading or ask someone who knows a bit more than you. (I do this all the time.) If you are interested, and receptive, you will perhaps see it. And having seen it, I wager that you will keep on seeing it. It will deepen. It will come to seem almost boundless.
That feeling of almost infinite richness, in fact, is its surest sign.
Yes, great art is the product of distinctive personalities and temperaments, and yes, it emerges from all the vicissitudes and inbuilt prejudices of what we call culture. There is no “essential greatness” because there is no “essential culture.” It follows that a very big part of art really is subjective. Its values are relative and contingent.
But subjectivity is not the full story. In a process that’s very mysterious, which artists themselves often remark on with marveling dismay, high-level creativity somehow separates itself from its makers. It’s as if the artwork somehow had its own intelligence, its own capacity to react and fulfill itself. (I imagine Roger Federer would say something similar about his own hands, his own racket.) And this weirdly disembodied, free-floating quality, which transcends self-expression, provides a clue to the deeper question of why we need art in the first place.
We all know we need art to provide solace, insight and beauty. But we also need it to liberate us from the trap of subjectivity. From narcissism. From being stuck inside our own consciousness, our own (inevitably) narrow worldview. To recognize that the music of Bach or the epic poems of Homer have a kind of autonomy — that they are independent of your or my emotional needs, independent of “instrumentalism” (the idea that something is there only for you to use it) and independent even of “Bach” and “Homer” — is to approach art’s most profound gift.
And it may free us to start asking some more involving questions. For instance: What the hell was going on with Shakespeare? Why does listening to that language — really tuning into it — rearrange your synapses? What accounts for the changes in Shakespeare’s writing and the growing intensity, the deepening involvement with mortality, that culminates in “Hamlet” and “King Lear”? Why do these texts seem so mercurial, wild and bottomless?
Pay attention to the poems of Emily Dickinson, the music of Duke Ellington, novels by Virginia Woolf or films by Akira Kurosawa; spend some time studying paintings by Van Eyck, sculptures from 16th-century Benin, Chola bronzes from India or Song dynasty landscapes. The responses they elicit can all be yoked under the collective heading of “awe.”
Awe is not something we want to feel all the time. But it is a reaction to greatness, and perhaps the surest sign that it exists. Awe stimulates more questions than answers. For instance: How did Mozart and Schubert create so much at such an insanely high level in so little time? Why does the music they wrote arouse so much joy, yearning, sadness and solace? What is music? What is its source?
Likewise, how did John Lennon and Paul McCartney write all those songs in 10 years? How much of it was individual talent (which is what, exactly?); how much was it the upshot of the special energy of their collaboration? And how much was it related to the wider energy of the 1960s? And then, why did the creative gush of those 10 years essentially dry up? When creative greatness disappears, what does that suggest about the qualities and nature of what had been there?
These are all real questions that people ask themselves in concert halls and art museums and in their bedrooms every day. When you experience creativity at the highest levels, it’s only natural that you try to account for it.
Banging on about greatness can feel crass. But we need to accept that the attempt to account for great art is meaningful — just as trying to account for the phenomena of the natural world or the magic of mathematics is meaningful. It will always be defeated by our inability to find the right language, which is probably how words like “great” end up becoming convenient placeholders. Like the noun “God,” the word “great” is plainly insufficient. But it at least registers the fact that — to paraphrase the great Bob Dylan — something is happening here, even if we don’t know what it is.
In soccer, debates about who was the Greatest of All Time remain alive because they’re inseparable from what we want out of the game. I’m not talking about winning. I’m talking about beauty. When people call soccer “the beautiful game,” they are dead serious. When people look at today’s best players and say, “You can have Messi and Ronaldo, I see how good their stats are, but give me Zlatan Ibrahimovic any day of the week,” you have to respect that. Because Zlatan is great. (And he knows it.) He is fiercely beautiful. The goals he scores are unlike anyone else’s.
Soccer’s beauty is not incidental; it is fundamental. Flipping this insight and applying it to art suggests that the standard idea that some things are subjective (“mere opinion”) while other things are objective (“verified fact”) is misleading. It’s simply too binary.
Most of our responses to art are subjective, and that’s a good thing. But the very best art opens our mind to the existence of criteria that exist outside ourselves and our petty opinions, that are powerfully independent. For this very great mercy, we should be thankful.