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Peeks and Piques!

ART TIMES October 2007

ONE OF MY all-time frustrating piques is the common overuse of the word “great”. That was a “great” meal! He’s a “great” guy! Wasn’t that a “great” movie? That’s a “great” sunset. You gotta go see so-and-so’s work — he/she is a “great” artist (this one really hits my hot button since I hear it so often). Boy, I feel “great” today! Well, I don’t, because I guess I’m in one of those language-stickler moods, when someone or some thing pushes me over the edge again by invading my ears with dumb word usage. Consider, for example, “I love pizza! I love my car! I love my new kitchen! I love my wife! Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Oh, I know, I know…they’re only words and you know what he/she really meant. And, I know that the words “great” and “love” have a wide variety of applications. The overuse of any word simply debases it, reduces it to a sound that has little or no meaning. But, please. “Great” does — or did — mean something specific…especially when it came to the various forms of art. Some music is “great”. Some literature is “great”. Some paintings and pieces of sculpture are “great”. But not everything that comes down the pike warrants such an adjective as “great” just because you happen to like it. It is not always, as the French say, le mot juste. The simple fact is that, relatively speaking, there are few works of art that deserve to be called “great”. In his little handbook entitled The Art of Looking at Pictures (Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1917), author Carl H.P. Thurston tried to enlighten his art-viewing readers by laying down a few ground rules, my favorite (of course) being a small introductory chapter under the heading of “What Makes a Picture ‘Great’?” in which he offers five benchmarks upon which to make a judgment about a work of art. Allow me to paraphrase: 1) Tested and approved. Thus, it necessarily must be old to have passed through fluctuations in taste, styles of painting, theories of art, systems of thought, and in ideals of life. Have generations found it truthful, the most artistic, the most beautiful, and to be an exhilarating record of life? 2) It cannot be measured by emotion one feels at first sight. It must win its way to the heart slowly. Again, it needs time. 3) It need not be flawless. A single supreme excellence can make us neglect minor defects. 4) The rising and falling of rank must take time over years. New fashions have as much effect on old masters as do the movements of our solar system on the stars. Once again, time is needed to arrive at a conclusion. 5) The years which lie between an old work of art and us adds a quality that no amount of labor or genius can produce. Antiquity in harmony with the present is what makes a work of art great. (There’s that time thing again.) So, how about these “old timey” ideas? Just the word “beautiful” in 1) will be enough to make most modernists stop reading….for doesn’t this just sound like those old irrelevant academicists trying to impose rules and standards again? Didn’t we break away from all that old “ought to be” crap? I’m afraid we did — but it still doesn’t change the fact that what is truly “great” has a bit of proving to do — at least to some of us. And, no matter what the hype, or how loud it’s trumpeted, the lavish handing out of the title of “greatness” by uncritical minds only tends to muddy the already troubled waters. Now isn’t this a “great” opinion piece?

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