May 27, 2014

The Mona Lisa v. The Lady with an Ermine

From The Economist's Intelligent Life:

When a work of art is considered great, we may stop thinking about it for ourselves. Ian Leslie weighs the evidence 
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2014 
In 1993 a psychologist, James Cutting, visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to see Renoir’s picture of Parisians at play, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, considered one of the greatest works of impressionism. 
Instead, he found himself magnetically drawn to a painting in the next room: an enchanting, mysterious view of snow on Parisian rooftops. He had never seen it before, nor heard of its creator, Gustave Caillebotte. 

Caillebotte's not exactly unknown. Here's Paris Street - Rainy Day, which is given a pride of place at the Chicago Art Institute second only to Seurat's Sunday in the Park with George painting.

That was what got him thinking. 
Have you ever fallen for a novel and been amazed not to find it on lists of great books? Or walked around a sculpture renowned as a classic, struggling to see what the fuss is about? If so, you’ve probably pondered the question Cutting asked himself that day: how does a work of art come to be considered great? 
The intuitive answer is that some works of art are just great: of intrinsically superior quality. The paintings that win prime spots in galleries, get taught in classes and reproduced in books are the ones that have proved their artistic value over time. If you can’t see they’re superior, that’s your problem. It’s an intimidatingly neat explanation. But some social scientists have been asking awkward questions of it, raising the possibility that artistic canons are little more than fossilised historical accidents. 
Cutting, a professor at Cornell University, wondered if a psychological mechanism known as the “mere-exposure effect” played a role in deciding which paintings rise to the top of the cultural league. In a seminal 1968 experiment, people were shown a series of abstract shapes in rapid succession. Some shapes were repeated, but because they came and went so fast, the subjects didn’t notice. When asked which of these random shapes they found most pleasing, they chose ones that, unbeknown to them, had come around more than once. Even unconscious familiarity bred affection.

A psychological truth very near the basis of conservatism: familiarity breeds affection.
Back at Cornell, Cutting designed an experiment to test his hunch. Over a lecture course he regularly showed undergraduates works of impressionism for two seconds at a time. Some of the paintings were canonical, included in art-history books. Others were lesser known but of comparable quality. These were exposed four times as often. Afterwards, the students preferred them to the canonical works, while a control group of students liked the canonical ones best. Cutting’s students had grown to like those paintings more simply because they had seen them more. 
Cutting believes his experiment offers a clue as to how canons are formed. He points out that the most reproduced works of impressionism today tend to have been bought by five or six wealthy and influential collectors in the late 19th century. The preferences of these men bestowed prestige on certain works, which made the works more likely to be hung in galleries and printed in anthologies. 
The kudos cascaded down the years, gaining momentum from mere exposure as it did so. The more people were exposed to, say, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, the more they liked it, and the more they liked it, the more it appeared in books, on posters and in big exhibitions. Meanwhile, academics and critics created sophisticated justifications for its pre-eminence. After all, it’s not just the masses who tend to rate what they see more often more highly. As contemporary artists like Warhol and Damien Hirst have grasped, critical acclaim is deeply entwined with publicity. “Scholars”, Cutting argues, “are no different from the public in the effects of mere exposure.”

For example, art history textbooks generally are biased toward the art displayed in museums near where the professor lived. For example, the art history textbook I read at Rice U. featured numerous paintings from the Art Institute, so when I moved to Chicago, I was preconditioned to be wowed by the collection at the Art Institute, which I was.

On the other hand, in the very long run, scholars have less of a say than other creative artists in what remains of interest. The current high reputation of Norman Rockwell, for instance, has much to do with the appreciation for Rockwell offered by Spielberg and Lucas.
The process described by Cutting evokes a principle that the sociologist Duncan Watts calls “cumulative advantage”: once a thing becomes popular, it will tend to become more popular still. A few years ago, Watts, who is employed by Microsoft to study the dynamics of social networks, had a similar experience to Cutting in another Paris museum. After queuing to see the “Mona Lisa” in its climate-controlled bulletproof box at the Louvre, he came away puzzled: why was it considered so superior to the three other Leonardos in the previous chamber, to which nobody seemed to be paying the slightest attention? 

Probably The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, the Virgin of the Rocks, and Portrait of an Unknown Woman or St. John the Baptist.
When Watts looked into the history of “the greatest painting of all time”, he discovered that, for most of its life, the “Mona Lisa” languished in relative obscurity. In the 1850s, Leonardo da Vinci was considered no match for giants of Renaissance art like Titian and Raphael, whose works were worth almost ten times as much as the “Mona Lisa”. It was only in the 20th century that Leonardo’s portrait of his patron’s wife rocketed to the number-one spot. What propelled it there wasn’t a scholarly re-evaluation, but a burglary [in 1911].

But it's not really true that the 1911 burglary is what first made the painting famous. Long before, Napoleon chose to hang the Mona Lisa in his bedroom, while Walter Pater's florid 1893 appreciation of the Mona Lisa is perhaps the most famous bit of prose about painting.
Duncan Watts proposes that the “Mona Lisa” is merely an extreme example of a general rule. Paintings, poems and pop songs are buoyed or sunk by random events or preferences that turn into waves of influence, rippling down the generations. 

Personally, I'd prefer Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine, in part because it looks finished. That there's no background looks like a conscious choice to highlight the luminous foreground. But Lady with an Ermine has been mostly been in off-the-beaten-path Poland (it currently resides in Krakow) for the last couple of centuries (when it hasn't been packed off to safekeeping elsewhere), while the Mona Lisa has been in the Louvre. Virtually all the ambitious artists in Europe went to the Louvre and studied what was on display.

On the other hand, the unfinished aspect of the Mona Lisa no doubt contributes to its appeal. It's fun to theorize that Leonardo was more challenged by the Mona Lisa than by the Lady and come up with reasons why that might be so.

Of course, the point is also that we are talking about two Leonardos. For over 500 years, Leonardo has been thought a magus.


Anonymous said...

Ayers recently posted something funny...

"The call for “trigger warnings”—a recent censorious trend gaining traction on American college campuses—is designed to alert students of any potentially troubling, unsettling, or upsetting course materials. The impetus is benign enough, and the context includes the important recent mobilization to deal seriously with epidemic levels of rape and sexual assault on campuses across the country. But objections to this trend are also clear: art and literature, education and growth are characteristically disturbing...if that doesn’t appeal to you, stay home in the comfort of your couch and your familiar books and things."

"Oh, and if that set includes the Bible, here’s a trigger warning for that: This good book contains graphic scenes of murder including patricide and matricide, fratricide and genocide..." etc

So stop trying to force your trigger-warnings on us, fundamentalist Christians.

Anonymous said...


Is this a similar phenomenon to the popularity of Wrigley field that you have brought up in the past?

Wrigley was once just an ordinary ball park, but when the Cubs became one of the first teams to have their games televised nationally on a regular basis Wrigley became a must-see tourist destination.

Steve Sailer said...

Right. My impression going to both Wrigley and Old Comiskey Park in Chicago for the first time in 1983 was that the White Sox stadium was more striking and quaint. But it wasn't on TV much and it was stuck away in the Projects on the South Side, while you could walk to and from Wrigley from most of the yuppie North Side.

Anonymous said...

"Lady with an Ermine"
A more honest name: "Master's study of a hand surrounded by a student's painting as a fancy passepartout"

Maxwell Power said...

1) The Italian thief chose it because of Bonaparte. 2) The theft was the subject, not the painting, with story hooks from the nationalism, celebrity, & tchotchke departments. No Top 100 ranking was at issue. Plus, it's easier to write about old newspaper clippings than to say something original or clever about a painting

Thursday said...

The reputation of visual artist has been the most unstable, simply because in the past, you actually had to travel everywhere to see these pieces of art. If your masterpiece was tucked away in some obscure chapel and the first few people to write about it didn't like it too much, or if nobody wrote about it at all, well then too bad for you.

To some extent this is true of classical music, as an orchestra or opera house actually had to decide to play your stuff, and play it well, for it to get a good reputation among the public. But, of course, other composers could just read your scores, which were fairly reproducible.

Literature is subject to much, much less of this kind of fluctuation. Books are easy to distribute widely, so that everyone can read and compare for himself, if he so wishes. Usually it doesn't take more than two or three decades for a writer's work to catch on, even in a worst case scenario. And reputations tend to stay roughly the same, as there typically aren't a lot of surprises to be found.

Steve Sailer said...

Right, although literature is subject to language barriers. Americans used to care about literature in other languages to some extent, but we've largely lost interest during my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Mary Roach mentions a similar phenomenon in "Gulp" - if you taste a food item 16 times, you develop a taste for it.

Anonymous said...

So subliminal advertising wasn't a hoax.

Anonymous said...

I always preferred Lady to Lisa myself. Always seemed less coy and gimmicky. But I've never been big on camera takes.

Of course "art" refers to a social regime, not just an individual expressive or technical one. The two things go hand in glove--just as Nicholas Wade is desperately trying to point out to those poisoned by Diversicratitude, Inc., that individual and group genome and social institution formation are an interactive endeavor, and both emerge as a kind of cultural ecosystem which then can exert selection pressures on those within it.

Ideally an advanced civilization will have as the "art" realm a highly articulated interaction between artists and critics/professors/connoisseurs. That's part of what makes civilization civilization--that people and institutions are co-adapted/co-evolved. This implies also that, say, individuals who make art, individuals who appreciate art, individuals who display art, and individuals who comment on art will probably be in the same places.

dearieme said...

Why bother with Leonardo when Rembrandt is available?

The geniuses of the Italian Renaissance provided a wonderful advance in civilisation, but the painters were simply overtaken by the Dutch masters. (In my view.)

Anonymous said...

If your masterpiece was tucked away in some obscure chapel and the first few people to write about it didn't like it too much, or if nobody wrote about it at all, well then too bad for you.

In the music world, exactly that sort of thing happened to a "Czech" [or "Bohemian"] contemporary and close acquaintance of Johann Sebastian Bach, named Jan Dismas Zelenka.


From Wikipedia: "He never married and had no children; his compositions and musical estate were purchased from his beneficiaries by Electress of Saxony Maria Josepha of Austria, and after his death were closely guarded (in contrast to their lack of appreciation when he was alive) and considered valuable court possessions. Telemann, with Pisendel's assistance, tried unsuccessfully to publish Zelenka's "Responsoria". He wrote on the 17 April 1756, with undisguised contempt for publishers' disinterest in the work, that "the complete manuscript will be at the Dresden court, kept under lock and key as something very rare...

"The rediscovery of Jan Dismas Zelenka's work is attributed to Bedřich Smetana, who rewrote some scores from the archives in Dresden and introduced one of the composer's orchestral suites in Prague's New Town Theatre festivals in 1863...

"The interest in Zelenka's music has begun to grow, especially since the end of the 1950s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s all Zelenka's instrumental compositions and selected liturgical music were published in Czechoslovakia..."


If you get DirecTV rather than cable, and if you listen to DirecTV's two classical music channels [864 & 866], then you might have heard a staple of their looping playlist, Zelenka's Trio Sonata #5 [and if you're interested, that linked play list has all 12 of the Trio Sonatas for Violin, Oboe, Bassoon and Basso Continuo, ZWV 181].

I remember the first time that I heard a few bars from Zelenka, my immediate reaction was, "Oh my God, who was this genius whom I've never even heard of before?"

Simon in London said...

Personally, the Mona Lisa did 'grab' me when I saw it at the Louvre, it did easily live up to the hype.

OTOH I've seen a bunch of less renowned paintings that had a similar effect. At the Prado in Madrid and in London's National Gallery, several paintings by the Spanish artist Zurbaran in particular -

Anonymous said...

There really is nothing more dismal than standing in a sea of tourists trying to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa between their iPhones.
Especially when down the Hall, in a near deserted alcove, there hangs a dozen Constables.

Gilbert P

Anonymous said...

I think having a limited road for exhibition, and the gatekeepers on that road, could concentrate mass attention that provided long-lasting celebrity.

These days, thanks to the internet, the gatekeepers lost the degree of respect they enjoyed, simply for being gatekeepers.

Journalists and critics, as information gatekeepers, are published, and people like us write blogs to illustrate why their opinions may be ridiculous.

Steve's blog is a perfect example of this.

Without his voice, and others on the internet, Steve Levitt wouldn't have had a mass of other writers swarming him like hornets, deconstructing his work, and highlighting his egregious mistakes.

The debunking of Stephen Jay Gould would have taken far longer without the internet.

I recall numerous friends of mine recommending books by the both of them. When I responded that the both of them were hacks, and averse to science, these people looked at me as if I'd insulted them personally. Especially Gould. They just loved him for some reason, and couldn't process the idea that the man could possibly be bad.

The style of the exchange of information used to be more like a suburban mall. Now it's like an Egyptian street market. Everybody is in each other's faces, it's extremely difficult to become a respected voice about the din, yet one unfortunate tweet can take your life's work into the shitter.

So, while nothing still succeeds like success, the mechanics of success are more random, and ending up trashed by the side of posterity's road is far easier.

This probably answers part of the question of why the music industry has collapsed.

sunbeam said...

Someone mentioned a composer, but I also think the very obvious thing is to extend this theory to music.

When I was younger I was told a lot about the Beatles. I listened to them, and thought they were great.

Now acts like Bob Dylan grow and grow on me, while I haven't sought out a Beatles song to listen to in years (Eleanor Rigby and Here Comes the Sun the exceptions). The Beatles were a fine band, but I can list a number of other acts from the same period whose music I like much better now.

Could be a case of tastes changing as you age, or maybe they really weren't that great.

I also think you can pretty much extend this theory to every popular site and even business on the internet. The snowball theory of accretion.

Georg said...

Ruhm, wie alle Schwindelware,
hält selten über tausend Jahre

Mark said...

This explains why so many younger people don't get why the baby boomers make such a fuss about the Beatles. Back then the average city had three tv stations, three or four radio stations and a couple neighborhood movie theaters. You would turn on the television and see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, turn on the radio and hear the Beatles, and go to a theater playing a Beatles movie. With so much media now, younger people would have never had such mass exposure to one group and would never have the same familiarity and therefore liking for that group. Not only would that not happen to them but they wouldn't even understand something like that since they never even lived through such a thing in their lives.

She Has a Hot Ass said...

Duchamp's LHOOQ probably had a lot to do with it too.

Parody solidifies status too.

She Has a Hot Ass said...

I find Dylan's dischordance less and less impressive.
The exposure he gets to this day mystifies me. The lyrics seem like a bitter hit job. The voice is like a cat swung round a head like lassoo.

She Has a Hot Ass said...

Prado is vastly superior

Dahlia said...

Interesting. Some people are "familiar" eaters: children and some adults. My husband is one and until I figured this out, trying to please him was a source of anguish for years. He said and truly believed he had a great palate. I tried and experimented with so many different recipes, going in a more complicated and haute (but rarely exotic; I at least knew better in that regards) direction to no avail. My cooking, grilling, and baking skills improved to the point that I became popular at functions and began to hear "this is the best...". My husband, though, remained unhappy and disappointed.
One day, he began raving about a buffet(!) near his work that "despite being cheap, is actually good". So we went and I watched him flit around in joy as he loaded onto his plate side dishes and gravy that had come out of cans. A rage came on which took extreme effort to quell and the realization washed over that there really is such a thing as a familiar eater.

Anonymous said...

"This explains why so many younger people don't get why the baby boomers make such a fuss about the Beatles."

Not true. Beatles are still big... among young ones too.

carol said...

Yeah boomers keep telling themselves the Beatles are still popular...beginning to sound like the WWII gen telling me big bands were coming back, any time now.

Kids are nice, might carry a few Beatles tunes on their iPhones along with a thousand other tracks. The effect is diffuse.

The fact is the boomers were ripped off by pop music and its hype. Adults used to graduate to better things.

Anonymous said...

primavera is the greatest painting

Anonymous said...

amadeus made mozart more popular than beethoven

Percy Gryce said...

Steve, I know what you're saying about Cracow being off the beaten path of Western Europe, but a fun fact that I learned (I think) from Paul Johnson's Modern Times: the geographic center of Europe is marked by a stone monument in a park in Cracow.

One of the wonderful side effects of the pontificate of John Paul II was to bring Polish culture back into the center of the Western world. And it's been one of the shames of the Obama administration to have continually slightly our Central European allies.

Anonymous said...

Second miracle. Whiskey says something I agree with, and now dearieme.

Yes, Rembrandt is everything that critics say about him, and more. Greatest painter ever. Not necessarily greatest draftsman, but the greatest painter.

But the American Eakins is not far behind, with Turner.

What's interesting about Rembrandt is his palette: earth colors (which are actually inorganic, i.e., geologic, not organic).

One thing Steve keeps leaving out with respect to the Impressionists is that their palette derived from the industrial revolution - all those bright colors were created in labs, for industrial processes, having nothing to do with art.

"Bold use of colour was not in itself a revelation-Titian and Rubens were amongst those who had delighted in it in previous times. But these new colours were different from the red lakes, the Naples yellow and the ultramarine of the Old Masters. They were the products of the Golden Age of chemistry. More than in any earlier age, chemistry had become the handmaid to the arts."

Anonymous said...

"When Watts looked into the history of “the greatest painting of all time”, he discovered that, for most of its life, the “Mona Lisa” languished in relative obscurity. In the 1850s, Leonardo da Vinci was considered no match for giants of Renaissance art like Titian and Raphael, whose works were worth almost ten times as much as the “Mona Lisa"

As you pointed out, Steve, this is simply not true.

Anonymous said...

Carol Said:

"Yeah boomers keep telling themselves the Beatles are still popular...beginning to sound like the WWII gen telling me big bands were coming back, any time now."

Your analogy doesn't work, since the Beatles were a rock and roll band, which is a different music genre than big bands.

Comparing the Beatles pop rock and roll songs to todays pop rock and roll songs is a valid exercise, since it's the same genre, just as comparing contemporary blues singers to blues singers from the '40's would be.

Anonymous said...

"Right, although literature is subject to language barriers. Americans used to care about literature in other languages to some extent, but we've largely lost interest during my lifetime."

And the barriers can be nearly insurmountable. I simply cannot imagine what James Joyce reads like in Russian or Japanese. Tolstoy, though, seems to translate superbly into just about any language.

Anonymous said...

Dahlia Said:

"One day, he began raving about a buffet(!) near his work that "despite being cheap, is actually good". So we went and I watched him flit around in joy as he loaded onto his plate side dishes and gravy that had come out of cans. A rage came on which took extreme effort to quell and the realization washed over that there really is such a thing as a familiar eater."

You slave over making your husband's dinner, he gives you guff about it, then you learn that the pot-bellied cretin loves Spagetti-O's, and if fills you with rage.

Girl, you've got more problems that just being married to an asshole.

Anonymous said...

Here's Murray's top 7 list of Western artists from his HUMAN ACCOMPLISHMENT:

1. Michelangelo

2. Picasso

3. Raphael

4. Leonardo

5. Titian

6. Durer

7. Rembrandt

Robin Buscato said...

Strangely for me, Gustave Caillebotte's has an Edward Hopper feeling about it - introspective under a pall of loneliness. His faces are obscured. I was familiar with his Rainy Weather painting, but not the others. Mr. Sailer, I love to read your literature (film, novels, painting) musings!

Anonymous said...

"Right, although literature is subject to language barriers."

Murray (in HUMAN ACCOMPLISHMENT) tries to get around the language barrier by evaluating writers according to what has been written about them in foreign languages. Hence, for example, Russian critics are not used to estimate the rank of Tolstoy. Of course, this poses special problems, as can be seen by the Anglo authors who made Murray's list of giants:




Now, no one can quibble over Shakespeare's inclusion, but Byron and Scott? Few Anglo critics would place Byron over poets like Milton and Wordsworth. The same can be said for Scott. I find it hard to imagine a group of Anglo critics putting him ahead of Austen, Melville, Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, etc.

Steve Sailer said...

Sir Walter Scott was gigantically influential back in the day. He's harder to read today than his contemporary Austen, but his impact on other authors was huge.

Byron was an international celebrity. He looked kind of like Elvis and had a similar impact on young people.

Anonymous said...

Quite a coincidence. My wife and I just got back from Paris (We live in Sweden). She has been talking about the Snowy Rooftops painting for years, and of course we went to the Musee d'Orsay to see it. We also experienced the circus around the Mona Lisa (I never saw so many selfies in one place) and commented on the contrast. BTW, my wife has been a sort of fan of your blog since the "Butt-Kicking Babes of the North" post.

Tim Howells

Anonymous said...

Steve - Following up with anon@2:14 am, did you find that frequency of marketing (or, probably, advertising) produces better results? Or does "familiarity breeds contempt" come into play?

Anonymous said...

"Yeah boomers keep telling themselves the Beatles are still popular...beginning to sound like the WWII gen telling me big bands were coming back, any time now."

They did, for a while, although not on the radio. In the 80s cities like San Francisco began afternoon dancing to the big bands. Young people in their late twenties, along with folks of all ages, came---to dance!

It was great, while it lasted.

Anonymous said...

"Byron was an international celebrity. He looked kind of like Elvis and had a similar impact on young people."

Byron is fascinating for the simple reason that his greatest artistic achievement was Byronism. All of his literary efforts (MANFRED, DON JUAN, etc) pale beside the persona. Life as art.

Anonymous said...

"The process described by Cutting evokes a principle that the sociologist Duncan Watts calls “cumulative advantage”: once a thing becomes popular, it will tend to become more popular still."

This is usually not the case. Something that is king of the hill at one point can easily be forgotten in no time. Indeed, the sudden silence might indicate the embarrassment of so many who'd fallen for it.

Disco was huge in the late 70s. It suddenly died and no one even talked about it as if they had NOTHING to do with it.
GANDHI won accolades from lots of film critics and was a big hit. It won best picture. But then it was almost totally forgotten.
THE WILD BUNCH won no oscar, but it's much talked about.

Herman's Hermits were among the biggest acts of the 60s and far outsold Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Buffalo Springfield, and Byrds combined. Anyone singing along to 'Mrs Brown You've Gotta Lovely Daughter', the #1 hit of 1965?

Or how about that Peter Frampton of the 70s? He came alive but soon dropped dead.
I like the song "I'm in You" though. One of first albums--along with Saturday Night Fever--that I owned.

Anonymous said...

"Sir Walter Scott was gigantically influential back in the day. He's harder to read today than his contemporary Austen, but his impact on other authors was huge."

An interesting problem. Scott's impact was truly international in scope, and the list of of authors who were influenced by him includes figures as disparate as Hawthorne and Tolstoy. But few Anglo critics would place him in the top rank of Anglo novelists alongside people like George Eliot and Henry James.

Can a writer be great (measured in influence) without being great (measured in artistic stature)?

Steve Sailer said...

Well, I talk about Herman and the Hermits:

Steve Sailer said...

"Can a writer be great (measured in influence) without being great (measured in artistic stature)?"

Here's an example: the symphony, and classical music in general, was largely invented by German composers in the 1750s and 1760s, but they are only modestly famous because Haydn and Mozart later surpassed their symphonies by so much that the originals aren't that popular.

Generally, the initial style-changing work remains famous -- e.g., the Ramones -- but classical music is so hard but so high-potential that the stuff from a generation later is far better.

Anonymous said...

"The innate quality of a work of art is starting to seem like its least important attribute. But perhaps it’s more significant than our social scientists allow. First of all, a work needs a certain quality to be eligible to be swept to the top of the pile...
Secondly, some stuff is simply better than other stuff... Compare “To be or not to be”..."

No kidding.

I would make a further point. Even among comparably excellent works, some works are simply more ICONIC.
I think Dylan's "Visions of Johanna" is his greatest song by far, but "Like a Rolling Stone" is more iconic or iconosonic.

I think Stones' "Tumbling Dice" is maybe their finest song, but "Satisfaction" is their most iconic.

Munk's SCREAM is very iconic. So, is Gogh's STARRY STARRY NIGHT.

Leone has been much lauded because he came up with so many iconic images such as this one:

Some works, words, images, titles, songs, sounds, forms, and etc. resonate more, say or suggest something 'bigger', stimulate our imagination more, strike deeper into our hearts.
Christianity was greatly aided by its powerfully iconic symbols and images. The image of Jesus on the Crucifix has a power beyond if He'd been hung with rope or stoned to death.

With the Beatles and Stones, the image was nearly as important as their music. Beatles image embodied beauty, Stones nastiness.

I prefer the Ermine woman to Mona Lisa myself but the latter is more iconic. The Ermine woman is prettier and the painting is neater, brighter. More pleasant. You know immediately why you like it.
I was always off-put my Mona Lisa as a child because she looked like Charlie Brown or George Washington. I wondered... 'how she's supposed to be beautiful?'
There's a plain quality to her and physically she's less beautiful than the ermine woman. But there are qualities about her--serenity, calmness, tranquility, mystery--that are missing in the ermine woman. Mona Lisa is both iconic and anti-iconic. Once you gaze at it, you're unlikely to forget it. But its greatness may not be immediately apparent as with many iconic works, like David by Michelangelo. Rather, its iconic element is of a spiritual essence than sensual or physical obviousness.

The world of art appreciation is both in love with iconicism and wary of it. Orson Welles and Kubrick came up with so many iconic images that film fans hold them in awe. But film critics also feel that the greatness of iconic stuff is TOO OBVIOUS. I mean how can one not be wowed by the opening scenes of 2001 or the ape smashing bones or bone turning into spaceship?
So, critics try to balance out their appreciation of Welles, Kubrick, and Hitchcock with Jean Renoir and Yasujiro Ozu(who was iconic in his own way but not as obviously as Kurosawa).

So, for a long time, Citizen Kane would be #1 and Rules of the Game would be #2.

Anonymous said...

Part of why sailer never hit the big time is because he comments on his articles too much and let's out howlers like classical music being invented in the two decades after Bach died. For more context Vivaldi died in 1741. Now maybe you can argue Vivaldi and Bach weren't big into symphonies mostly concertos but that doesn't change the fact the symphony was largely an Italian creation that migrated into Austria and Germany through Milan.

Anonymous said...

I have no problem with most works that are considered 'the greatest'. Of course, no such specimen exists, and every 'greatest work' should properly be seen as 'one of the greatest works', as who's to say such-and-such is THE greatest work? (It's just a game people to play as humans are, by nature, competitive and hunting/athletics preceded the arts. And besides, Greeks turned arts into a kind of sports.)
It's like trying to figure out which is THE Great American Novel.
That said, Mona Lisa, Sistine Chapel, Parthenon, Taj Mahal, David, Beethoven's Fifth, Nibelungen, Citizen Kane, and etc. all belong in the 'greatest of the greatest' category(whether I like them or not). 'Objectively', I can understand why they've been held in such high esteem. Even if one could argue for another Welles film as his best, one can easily understand why CK holds a special place in the film canon. As Kehr said:

But one thing I could never agree with was SGT PEPPER being designated as the 'greatest or best rock album of all time'. I mean it's not even close. It's not even one of the very great albums. It's not even the best of 67 or the best of the Beatles.
So, it makes for a good test case as to why certain works become so highly esteemed.

It certainly has one of the most iconic album covers(though I never much liked it. Too overdone. Their Rubber Soul album cover was coolest).
In the history of culture, SGT PEPPER may have been first of its kind--super-instant-unanimous-mega-success. Usually, the narrative on great works have been as follows:

1. Elites got it right away but the masses didn't and it took awhile for unanimous admiration.

2. Masses got it right away but the elites didn't it took awhile for the elites to come around.

3. The bohemians/radicals got it but the elites and the masses didn't, and it took awhile...

4. Nobody got it.. but gradually over time it passed the test of time...

For one thing, for most of cultural history, arts were only for the elites, so masses were out of the picture. Also, cultural appreciation tended to be regional and information spread slowly.

But with the rise of mass communication and mass culture and mass education and mass entertainment and etc, arts were not longer elite things but national or communal things. Even so, there was a huge discrepancy between when one group like what and when another group finally came around to it as well.

It took awhile for Citizen Kane and Great Gatsby to be unanimously praised as great works.
We've been told that Mozart wasn't fully appreciated in his time. It took yrs and yrs for Wagner to finally finish his pieces and win acclaim. Cultural conservatives were wary of new things. Avant garde elites tended to sneer at popular or 'middle-brow' things.

So, there was time lag between the appearance of a certain great work and the unanimous recognition--among elites, masses, and others--of its greatness.

Anonymous said...

But SGT PEPPER blew all that out of the water. Maybe THE GRADUATE did too in the same year.

Immediately upon release, it was loved, admired, and praised by all quarters. Teeny boppers loved it. Bohemians and radicals dug it. The masses loved it and it become an overnight mega-seller. It was on the radio almost 24/7. Even 'square' parents of boomers loved it; even they got why it was cool. And most surprisingly, even the cultural elites were singing its praises. with London Times comparing the Beatles with Bach and Beethoven.
There was no lag at all. If ever there was an instant classic, Pepper was it.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE didn't win over many critics and fans when it came out.
CASABLANCA was much bigger with masses before critics finally hailed it as a great classic.
Beatles had great successes before Sgt Pepper but nothing like the positive hysteria from all circles that greeted their summer of love album. It was like the end of history and beginning of history rolled into one.

But... the album isn't all that great. It has one great song, some very good ones, some okay ones, and at least two stinkers: she's leaving home and within you/without you.

But like Obama-mania, it served as a reflective template for just about everyone who saw or heard whatever they wanted off it.
So, it could be seen as 'radical', about love, old-fashioned, hippie-ish, drugg-ish, kid-ish and cute, arty, campy, serious, etc.
The multi-faceted passions invested from all quarters in it were so great that the boomers have felt necessary to keep alive the dream of pepperland.

But really, it's not a very great album. A kind of great album, maybe, but there's too much hype here, which I wouldn't say for Citizen Kane, It's a Wonderful Life, and Blonde and Blonde and Velvet Underground and Nico.

Pretending that Sgt Pepper is the greatest rock album would be like pretending La Dolce Vita, Juliet of the Spirits, or Fellini Satyricon is the greatest film of all time. One might make a decent case with I VITELLONI or 8 1/2 but not with the other ones.

During the Summer of Love, everyone needed something to point to and hold onto as the great answer to all things. With problems heating up between the races, generations, sensibilities, and etc, it seemed for awhile that the Beatles SGT PEPPER offered the promise of bridging not only art and pop but everyone and everything, young and old, high and low.
But it was one case where hope and hype outpaced sense and reality.

Anonymous said...

"Part of why sailer never hit the big time is because he comments on his articles too much and let's out howlers like classical music being invented in the two decades after Bach died."

Huff Post is 'much bigger time' than sailersphere but did you read the level of comments there?

They make even us ignoramuses sound like Oxford professors.

Anonymous said...

"At least 6 serious bids for the Clippers" so that means they have not found out how fradulent mine is!

I would like to thank my adviser Michael Milken.

Anonymous said...

Sir Walter Scott's Old Mortality is the source for the fact that Salmon was cheaper than Cod in Scotland at the time the book is set because Cod came all the way from Newfoundland in ships rather than swam to Scotland.
Some people believe that Salmon has always been better and that Baseball was derived from the game that was derived from Baseball.

Anonymous said...

I think this issue is unnecessarily confused in the article because it doesn't distinguish the who/whom of the equation.

When it comes to arts/culture, there are several levels of recognition, appreciation, or awareness.

1. Critical
2. Personal
3. Ideological or Cultist
4. Intellectual or scholarly
5. Middlebrow
6. Mass

How the 'the greatest' game will play out differs according to the different ranks.

The critical mentality is ever questioning and resists the temptation of consensus. If anything, it might consciously try to go against the grain of current consensus and popularity--or it might even question the canonical. It's like John Simon freely admits he had no use for Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.

The critical sensibility isn't necessarily contrarian but it's allergic to the notion of merely trusting OTHERS to designate what is or isn't great. A critical mentality tries to think on its own and will stick to its own opinions even if the entire world seems to be against it.

The Personal mentality is less concerned with whether something is indeed the greatest or not. It's mostly involved with what it loves the most. So, someone might love HAROLD AND MAUDE to death without believing or having to convince the world that it is one of the all time greatest films.
But the personal and the critical often overlap, of course.
There are films I love personally but wouldn't consider among the greatest(not even close). And there are films I consider very great but have no wish to watch again. I concede CHILDREN OF PARADISE is a great great work, but it's just not my cup of tea. Same with Grand Illusion. I can appreciate it but would rather not see it again.
But then, there are works where you're never really sure. Are you overpraising critically it because you like it personally?

Anonymous said...

Then, there's the ideological issue, sometimes combined with the cultist. People like to feel special. Traditionalists in culture employed snobbery. In our egalitarian age, snobbery is out, so 'radicalism', 'bohemianism', or esoteric cultism is the new kind of snobbery, a new way of demarcating 'them masses' from 'us special few who understand what they don't'. And this leads to the praise in certain circles for garbage like JEANNE DIELMAN. I mean, golly gee whiz, only 'we special few' can really 'get' this so very radical 3 1/2 film where some woman peels potato forever before finally stabbing some guy. What's hilarious about the cultist devotion surrounding JD is that YOU MUST LIKE IT IN ORDER TO BE CONSIDERED PART OF THE CLUB OF SPECIAL RADICAL CINEPHILES. It's to them what 'gay marriage' is to urban libs. If you don't 'get it', you are 'lame' and 'too white-bread'. So, even though appreciating JD is a matter of non-conformist pride, it has created its own cult of conformity that requires just about every dorky cinephile to praise it to high heaven.
Ideological or cultist 'appreciation'(if it can be called that) claims to be anti-consensus in recognizing the 'greatness' of something that is disregarded by the cultural establishment(never mind that the establishment is run by 'radicals'), but the so-called appreciation happens to be, more often than not, based on theoretics and commitment than genuine artistic or intellectual worth. But if the best and brightest could fool themselves with Marxism for much of 20th century, it's hardly surprising that so many dweeby sheeple wanna-be-radical dorks bleat along with their professors that JD is indeed a very very very great work. Gosh, it makes them feel so very 'radical'.

Intellectual and scholarly appreciation is something different from the critical mentality. Critics are mainly focused with what is good, what is bad, what is worthy, what is unworthy.
Intellectual/scholarly approach, in contrast, will invest a tremendous amount of time to study, analyze, and ponder even works that the scholars/intellectuals don't particularly think of as good, let alone great. But they do so because they believe the work is culturally or historically significant.

Then you got the middlebrow and mass.
Middlebrow are aspiring masses who want some degree of respectability, so they try to keep up with what's going on with 'culture'. Most such folks have no real passion for the arts. Not much in the way of commitment. But they don't wanna be totally in the dark either. (It's hard to be a middlebrower seeking respectability today when what passes for 'art' is Jeff Koons or worse.)
As for the masses, they really don't give a shit.

But what middlebrow and masses have in common is that their opinions of 'higher art' are almost entirely the product of what the mass media and mass education feed them--and almost nothing more.
A middlebrower will seek out something like AMADEUS and feel himself/herself as having got some culture.
A masser might see AMADEUS purely by accident and might think it somewhat 'cool' and figure Mozart was like a rock star of his day.

But neither group ever thinks on its own.

At any rate, the issue of greatness differs depending on which group one is talking about.

Anonymous said...

We need to distinguish the experts and novices.

Most people are novices and easily lost in the world of culture.

It's like if you're a geologist, you might find all sorts of geological formations interesting. If not, you might be confused hiking around... and feel relieved when you see Mt. Rushmore.

If you're a novice in the arts, you might not how to finely appreciate lots of stuff. So, walking around the Louvre, you're not sure what is supposed to be really great or not.
So, coming upon the Mona Lisa is like the Mt. Rushmore moment. It's something everyone recognizes, and so you feel safe. Ah, there is what's supposed to be a masterpiece.

Other than greatness, it's very touristy. It's like every tourist in NY feels obligated to take a photo of statue of liberty. Everyone who visits France takes a shot of Eiffel Tower.

Most people are novices about most things.

But the experts think differently. Most art experts don't pay any attention to Mona Lisa or Sistine Chapel. For them, it's 'been there, done that'. They'd rather look into other areas.
It's like most movie lovers don't give a hoot about what's on the AFI greatest films list. They know that stuff already. They are into finding stuff no one's heard about.

Anonymous said...

Of course, this 'great' stuff applies to everything else.

How come MLK became such a super-great figure?
And Mandela? Why not Arafat?

How did Holocaust come to matter so much?

How come slavery is said to be America's original sin instead of 'genocide' of Indians?

How come Northeast Coast Americans are not shamed endlessly for having wiped out Indians like Southerners are over slavery and westerners over 'Manifest Destiny'?

I mean even before Manifest Destiny happened in the West, wiping out Indians happened in the East. And it was Easterners who moved westward.

Anonymous said...

Resnais' MURIEL is almost certainly his greatest work and yet HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR gets far more attention.

HIROSHIMA's subject--WWII--seems weightier and its treatment of themes is visually more open and striking. MURIEL deals with the thornier issue of the Algerian War and many of the issues are 'hidden' behind the facade of everyday life.

So, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR is more iconic.

But MURIEL is the greater film imo.

Anonymous said...

1. Michelangelo

2. Picasso

3. Raphael

4. Leonardo

5. Titian

6. Durer

7. Rembrandt

All very great artists. But I find them soooo heavy.

Botticelli, now he could paint with light and shadows.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 5/27/14, 2:56 A.M.

You might also like the music of Christoph Graupner, another contemporary of Bach whose works languished unheard in the archives of the landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt.

Viola d'amore suite in D minor

Harpsichord partitas

Anonymous said...

"more iconic or iconosonic."


David said...

You're conflating the Baroque period and the Classical. Steve's use of terms is exact.

>the symphony was largely an Italian creation<

Whatever. People have been playing in instrumental ensembles since the Greeks.

by macgregor said...

Somebody above mentioned the Byrds. I loved that band. In four years of college in the '70's, I never heard anyone play any of their songs even once. Steve has a theory about runners, lifters, and politics. I have a more general theory about men. Melody and harmony are somehow threatening to their masculinity.

Johann Joseph Fux said...

Another composer neglected by history - Johann Joseph Fux. His Requiem is an incredible masterpiece.

Ergot said...

Related to the question of what makes art iconic is the question of what makes a psychology professor a 'public intellectual.' When I took Dr. Cutting's course on the psychology of sensory perception in 1998, I had the distinct feeling that he was probably famous. He presented original ideas in a very charismatic way. And yet, in the years since my undergrad days, I hadn't heard his name until now.

Orlando Gibbons said...

It's something everyone Notices, but isn't supposed to say - that certain works are revered as great, and obviously aren't. The Mona Lisa is an example. It's not a great painting. People internalize the notion it's great for some reason they can't understand - probably due to fear of seeming stupid or uncultured. We're good at self-deception, when status is at stake.

That said, it's ridiculous to dismiss the entire canon as a pile of "fossilized historical accidents," and anyone doing so probably has an axe to grind.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately you are confusing the classical period with classical music in general. The baroque is definitely classical music while not of the classical period which began 30 years before 1750s anyways.

If that's your feeling on when symphony was invented then take it up with Steve. He's the guy placing it's genesis in the 1750s. It's weird that someone who is so eager to draw tendentious distinctions about baroque being classical or not all of sudden becomes so blasé about classification when the definition of a symphony comes up.

dfordoom said...

"But... the album isn't all that great."

I personally don't think The Beatles ever made a great album. All their albums are patchy. While it would have been heresy (and probably still is) to suggest such a thing The Beatles were really a singles band. When they tried to move away from that the results were usually embarrassing, although right to the end they could still come up with excellent singles.

Auntie Analogue said...

My favorite Leonardo is his Ginevra de' Benci. Chalk that up to "de gustibus non est disputandum."

The almost never mentioned reason that the Mona Lisa has long fascinated and mesmerized is that it has five different vanishing points: one in the center, and one in each of its four surrounding quadrants. It's not just its subject's enigmatic smile, but those five vanishing points that create the portrait's visual magnetism. Those five vanishing points are a kind of trompe l'oeil, forcing the viewer to admit, or to confess, that the painting has that "can't put my finger on it" mystique.

Anonymous said...

Ok so is borgeruau out of favor.? He was far more popular and well known than monet. I thing post modern art is idealogically and ethnically driven....

Anonymous said...

The article and the blizzard of comments following are vainly trying to encapsulate different aspects of a familiar phenomenon known since antiquity...Fame.

Anonymous said...

"Another composer neglected by history - Johann Joseph Fux."

That sux.

Anonymous said...

Comparing the Beatles pop rock and roll songs to todays pop rock and roll songs is a valid exercise, since it's the same genre, just as comparing contemporary blues singers to blues singers from the '40's would be.

True and many teenagers have at least heard of the Beatles and could recognize one or two songs at a push.

But I'll have to check with my 13 yr old daughter.

Anonymous said...

Familiarity breeds affection most of the time, but we can all cite counterexamples. I watched music videos regularly when "My Heart Will Go On" first came out. My hate for it only grew with exposure.

I often have to tolerate rap and R&B radio at work. It seems that they repeat songs there much more frequently than at white radio stations. Familiarity has not bred in me any affection for Kanye West.

And I definitely remember times when I loved a song from the first time I heard it, though I usually ended up loving such songs even more on subsequent exposures.

vetr said...

For the record, Walter Scott was great at writing about people, situations, and landscapes. He lacked the aggressive charlatanism of Dickens so he missed out on some of the more extreme emotions evocable by the extended rhetorical echoes of Affection for our Social Betters, Equals, and Lessers, but if you leave out Pickwick, David, Ebenezer, Nell and one or two others, I would not be surprised if Scott is remembered longer than Dickens. Also, Tolstoy in Russian is way way better than Tolstoy in English; the same narcissism and passive aggressive phony religiosity (excitement at his pretended love of God coupled with barely disguised contempt for the men and women who were allegedly his friends and paramours, respectively) are present in both languages but in Russian he has a couple extra standard deviations of talent in the rare skill of collecting the exactly closest words applicable to the asserted occurrences in his stories and novels, which is how, I believe, he was able to charm so many otherwise reasonable people. Finally Evelyn Waugh, of all people, accurately described, in one of his romance novels (the one about the poor sap who moved from Sebastian to Julia to nobody if not Julia) how it is that there is no such thing as great artists but only artists who, once in their life, and sometimes more often (as happened in the Renaissance) are touched by real love (in Dante's sense) and produce real art.

Maxwell Power said...

amadeus made mozart more popular than beethoven

Popular where? With whom? People who had no opinion but liked the story? Does it have some implication for deaf rights, or Austro-Hungarian reparations?

Mozart and his work are far and away more frequently researched but still performed/published at about the same rate as Beethoven. Though I haven't seen a credentialed freakonomist's Big Data proof of one's superiority over the other, I tend to doubt the importance of that finding. Mozart specialists aren't fighting the Beethoven experts for a spot on the Billboard chart or trying to secure arena dates. This nerdy attempt to rank bygone artists always becomes a could-Batman-beat-Superman debate

Classical Superfreakonomy said...

By the way there is an annual data-dive list put out by web site if you enjoy that Pitchfork decimal-precise sort of thing. Sample headline: "How 'twerky' is Handel"

Internet expert said...

weird that someone who is so eager to draw tendentious distinctions about baroque being classical or not all of sudden becomes so blasé about classification when the definition of a symphony comes up.

Ah, you're new here? He follows the Universal Opinionating Inverse Co-Efficient Principle, determining the rate he writes about a given subject from his actual useful personal experience with it. BTW the pattern holds outside the comments sections too.

Jingo Starr said...

Pablo is garbage. Andy is a bad joke.. Roy is for teen-somethings. Action Jackson is puff paint. Manet shines on Monet. Jacques-Louis David trampled Botticceli. Bernini is a stone-cold master. van Gogh had soul. van Eyck was the real deal.. I have no beef with Soutine. Michelangelo is still better than Raphael. Lautrec was a feminist's best friend. Durer could draw.

Anonymous said...

"Pablo is garbage."


Shady Lady said...

Wouldn't it be amusing if an art thief got caught because he just had to take a Pissaro?

Anonymous said...

'Mona Lisa' sounds a lot nicer than 'lady with a weasel'.

And 'Mona' and 'Lisa'. Magical. Suppose her named had been 'Abigaila Spicolini'. Not the same effect.

There's also the tone, which is both somber and dreamlike.

Lady with Weasel is about an object. Mona Lisa is about a state of mind.

I still prefer the Lady with Weasel myself. She's purtier.

Anonymous said...

Cultism vs fashionism.

Some works simply attract cultish devotion, others do not.

Fashions come and go and there are fashions all the time. But with fashionism, what could be the biggest thing today could be forgotten tomorrow, supplanted by a new fashion.
SCHINDLER'S LIST was all the rage in 1993. Critics loved it, it won many Oscars, and etc. It was the great 'moral fashion' thing.
But it hasn't attracted much in the way of cultist devotion. So, while the cultural establishment might remind us of it, there is no core group of devotees who preserve it like a religion. So, it's mostly forgotten as 'one of those important films'. It's artistically far superior to Stanley Kramer movies, but it has met the same fate as stuff like JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG.

Now, take a film like THE BLADE RUNNER. Box office failure. Some liked it, some didn't. And it seemed like it would pass away as new fashions arrived... like GHOSTBUSTERS.

But BR developed a cult following, and cultists are religious and fanatical in their devotion. Even as fashions change, they remain true to what they love, and so, BR remained alive in some corner of culture-sphere and it got a second hearing and chance,and it came to be much admired.

Andrew Sarris was a cultist, which is why he change movie culture. He had a cultist devotion to many forgotten Hollywood movies. In their time, some had been big or moderate hits. But by the late 50s, most people had forgotten they'd existed and went with new fashions. But Sarris the cultist would have none of that. He remembered them, categorized them, discussed them, reconsidered them, reevaulated them. Thus, much of Classic hollywood came to be revisited by a younger generation of film viewers.

John Ford's THE SEARCHERS would have been forgotten as just another western if not the cultist devotion around it by Sarris and a whole generation of movie brats.

Of course, just because something has cultist devotion doesn't mean it will be confirmed as a classic. There are sci-fi and horror cult fans who go for trashy 50s movies, but they remain obscure cuz they suck so bad.

But consider Harold and Maude. Box office failure. Most critics hated it. But it had a core cultist following, and it has since come to be considered a classic of sorts and has influenced films like Rushmore.

There is something to be learned here. Fashions come and go, but cults remain true and blue. So, conservatism needs a core cultism that can weather the storms of fashion.

Anonymous said...

This greatness issue is interesting, especially for those who wanna develop a personal sense of aesthetic worth.

When I was growing up, there were basically three kinds of cultural attitudes among kids.

1. I don't give a crap.

2. I do give a crap.

3. Should I give a crap?

Most young people don't give a crap. They have no interest in reading fancy literature, looking at great works of art, watching 'art films', listening to classical music, and such stuff.
Their idea of greatness depends on celebrity and fashion. Most kids were into popular culture.

To be sure, even within the realm of pop culture, there are the aesthetes and asinines. Among kids I knew, some took rock music very seriously as an 'art form' and preferred Dylan, Floyd, Zeppelin, and etc. to whatever happened to be popular at the time. They read rock critics. Such people aren't rare in rock culture, which is why alternative 'art' rock concerts draw a lot more people than, say, film festivals or book festivals. Pop music is something that even non-aesthetes like to get 'intellectual' about. Lots of kids who are anti-intellectual about EVERYTHING will get very serious, 'snobby', and 'radical' about rock music. It's like the Jack Black character in HIGH FIDELITY is a slob about everything but rock culture, about which he's a super scholar-intellectual-snob.

Still, most people are in the 'I don't give a crap' about 'high art'. They like what they like and that's that. They like superhero movies, Star Trek TV show, sex and the city, Taylor Swift, and etc.

Then, there's the "I do give a crap" crowd. These types tend to be intellectualish and serious about stuff. But they tend to be slavish to whatever the elites and/or establishment says. This is somewhat complicated since today it's the elites and establishment who have appropriated 'transgression' and 'radicalism'. To be 'transgressive' is to be totally PC. It's like the cultural establishment pushed 'Girls' on us when most of us were bored with the chubby Jewish beast Lena Dunhamowicz making a darn fool out of herself. (how is that transgressive when porn--all over the internet--is full of hags boffing everyone?) The problem with "I do give a crap" crowd is they go with the conventions. The conventions could be traditionalist or 'radical', but most of the 'I do give a crap' crowd just go along. Not surprisingly, a whole bunch of dorks are lining up in the film community to praise JEANNE DIELMAN to high heaven. They feel they must if they indeed do give a crap. After all, the experts and elites have said it is a towering masterpiece, so, gee whiz, it must be.

Anonymous said...

Growing up, everyone who's into the arts goes through 'I do give a crap' phase to some degree. I didn't know much about film and culture and all that stuff, so I had to learn from the experts. So, even before I got to see the great modern films(from Europe, Japan, etc), I read about certain 'great works'. So, even before I saw them and could assess them independently, I watched them with the idea that "this is a great film!" There was an element of faith and awe when I first watched stuff like THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, BLOW-UP, FIRST NAME CARMEN, 400 BLOWS, etc.
And you also take on some of the prejudices of experts you read. So, I sort of began to share Sarris's bias against David Lean.

But then, as I read Kael, Kauffmann, Simon, MacDonald, Vernon Young, Sarris, etc., it was obvious there's no single truth in arts and culture; boy, did they vehemently disagree on just about everything. Eventually, you gotta go with your own gut instincts. You gotta ask yourself, 'should I give a crap?'
I certainly don't feel like giving a crap about something just because the elites/establishment says I should. That being so, I would have to take Andy Warhol seriously. The guy was shit and was one of the most horrible influences on art culture.

And I had to admit I love David Lean. I love Doctor Zhivago(despite its problems). And hell with Simon, Kael, Kauffmann who failed to see the greatness of 2001(and yet, their opinions were still valuable in their own ways).

When it comes to the arts, ideology can be useful but it shouldn't be the determinant of assessment of artistic value.

Peter Akuleyev said...

But... the album (Sgt. Peppers) isn't all that great.

I think that is the current critical consensus. These days Revolver is probably the consensus pick for "greatest Beatle's album", you would find some votes from eclectic people for The White Album, and Abbey Road probably has a lot of popular support. Sgt. Pepper's is probably almost no-one's favorite.

Anonymous said...

"amadeus made mozart more popular than beethoven"

"Popular where? With whom? People who had no opinion but liked the story?"

I remember reading something long ago that prior to AMADEUS, when most people were asked who their favorite classical composer was, they said Beethoven. (prolly cuz he was the only one they heard about).
But after AMADEUS, new polls favored Mozart over Beethoven.
The power of pop culture.

Peter Akuleyev said...

Steve said Americans used to care about literature in other languages to some extent, but we've largely lost interest during my lifetime.

And foreign film has also dropped off the cultural radar for the most part. The simple answer is that globalization has sucked, and continues to suck, a lot of elite talent into the Anglosphere. If the most talented German and French filmmakers are working in Hollywood and the smartest Russian Jews and Chinese are emigrating to America and writing in English then it stands to reason the work created in other languages is becoming increasingly provincial. The best Russian writer alive today may well be Gary Shteyngart.

Pat Boyle said...

The several threads of this discussion all stem from a single physiological phenomenon.

Modern brain imaging shows us that there are two modes of visual processing related to facial recognition. Faces that we don't know are processed on the surface of the visual cortex. But faces that we have seen before are processed deeper.

When we walk down a city street scanning the faces that come towards us, suddenly we will recognize someone we know. It is startling because we are feeling our brain switching over to a processing from another area.

Presumably there is an evolutionary advantage to be able to recognize our relatives and close tribe members. A celebrity is simply a stranger who has been seen often enough to be mistaken as a relative or close tribe member and will be processed as someone familiar.

Pat Boyle

Anonymous said...

AMADEUS is like the anti-EXORCIST.

THE EXORCIST makes us side with the holy conservative priests against the wild demon that possesses Regan and makes her act very 'creative' with all sorts of stuff.

THE EXORCIST offers the Catholicist view that the holy and sacred are clean, pure, serious, sober, and etc.
So, it seems right that a free-spirited young girl like Regan would be possessed by the Devil. She acts carefree and more like a friend than daughter to her mother, a 'liberated woman' type.
So, the Devil enters her and wreaks havoc. The mother turns to the Church for help. And it is ultra-purity and sanctity of the priests who finally bring the devil out of her.

So, THE EXORCIST is fearful and anxious of anything that upsets the sacred/traditional order, the notion of purity and cleanliness. Though made by Jewish Friedkin, it is Catholicist in the way THE GODFATHER is.

And in some ways, it explains both the strength and weakness of the Catholic tradition and church. Because of its powerful sense of sanctity, it lasted for so long. But such conservatism also fossilized it, ossified it, and rigidified it. It's an order that is overly fearful of freedom, independence, doubt, experimentalism, etc. It believes that unless the sacred order is preserved and enforced, the Devil will possess stuff and wreak havoc and corrupt the soul and society.

And yet, all genius is a kind of gift/curse. There is a daemonic element to genius since it bring man close to godly powers. Catholicism suppresses genius.

If THE EXORCIST sees the supernatural gift as evil and wicked, AMADEUS sees it as inspiring and liberating. True, Mozart grows sick(almost as much as Regan possessed by devil) and dies young. So, there was a dark side to his gift. And yet, what a gift it is. A gift beyond intellect, beyond rationality, beyond comprehension. He just had it. It couldn't be learned. He was possessed by the super-daemonic. So, what is the implication?
For most ordinary people, to be blessed means to be loved by God. For geniuses, to be favored means to be blessed by both God and the Devil. Genius is both godly and devilish. Godly in that it's like a divine gift. But devilish in that it gives a certain individual with the kind of creative or intellectual power with which to challenge the authority of God.

So, whose laughter is it at the end? That of God or the devil?

At any rate, Hulce's performance ruined Amadeus. Too bad Hulce wasn't gifted with divine-devilish or divilish acting talents.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Gustave Caillebotte's "Paris Street, Rainy Day," the Art Institute of Chicago recently took it down for a thorough cleaning and restoration. It was returned to its prominent location just last week. I strolled down Michigan Avenue at lunchtime to give it a look-see. I didn't have enough money to get in! Adult admission is $23. Good heavens. I stood there like a dope, dumbfounded, then trundled back to my cubicle in a funk.

Anonymous said...

"Adult admission is $23. Good heavens. I stood there like a dope, dumbfounded, then trundled back to my cubicle in a funk."

Most museums have free days.

Go to their sites and check.

Anonymous said...

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE didn't win over many critics and fans when it came out

because it did not have any fans. In a backroom mistake someone forgot to renew the copyright so it was available to play for free on Christmas when advertising could not be sold.

Anonymous said...

"I think that is the current critical consensus. These days Revolver is probably the consensus pick for "greatest Beatle's album", you would find some votes from eclectic people for The White Album, and Abbey Road probably has a lot of popular support. Sgt. Pepper's is probably almost no-one's favorite."

REVOLVER is a great album but it doesn't sound very good. For some reason, it sounds muffled and mono. Rather stiff.
And I don't see how it's their greatest album since it doesn't have a truly killer song with the possible exception of Eleanor Rigby. It has a bunch of very good songs like For No One, Got to Get You Into My Life, and And Your Bird Can Sing.
Some say She Said, She Said is one of their best, but not me. And Tomorrow Never Knows now sounds somewhat embarrassing.

I agree with someone who said Beatles are best admired as a singles band. I would say this for most rock bands with few exceptions like Pink Floyd. It's really the songs that count in the end. On that basis, the best Beatles Album is HELP!. The title track, Ticket To Ride, and Yesterday are truly titanic. And it has lots of other good songs.

Same for Stones. I'd rather listen to some of their songs than entire tracks of Beggar's Banquet or Let It Bleed or Exile on Main Street.

Anonymous said...

The thing to remember about Leonardo is that "Da Vinci the Great Genius" is essentially a 19th-century invention. His contemporaries had him much better figured out.

People today gas on about his ideas on gliders, bird-like lying machines, tanks, labor-saving devices, pumps and grand engineering schemes, but that's all they are: IDEAS. The flying machines not only could never have flown, but were never built. The pin-making machine he was going to make his fortune out of was never built, and wouldn't ave worked if it had been. Ditto all the other stuff he tried to flog to the Ottoman Sultan. Leonardo couldn't even paint a fresco that wouldn't fall off the wall inside a decade. He was, fundamentally, a smartass.

ricpic said...

I have no beef with Soutine.


Anonymous said...

Buster Keaton was the equal of Chaplin, but Chaplin had the more iconic image, which explains the much greater fame.

Anonymous said...

Iconic beauty

Anonymous said...

"Jacques-Louis David trampled Botticceli."

What a tard.

Anonymous said...

"Ok so is borgeruau out of favor.?"

He was good but much of his stuff was over-ripe and verging on postcardism.

But this is a masterpiece. Ripened to perfection.,_1884,_by_William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_-_Art_Institute_of_Chicago_-_DSC09582.JPG

Anonymous said...

"Speaking of Gustave Caillebotte's 'Paris Street, Rainy Day',"

Great painting no doubt, but I think it's been somewhat diminished by the advent of photography, as photos can capture similar kinds of images.
(This is even truer of Rockwell. Why pore over such details with the brush when a camera can capture it so easily?)

Sunday in the Park is great too but it has an element of gimmick--dotsiness. Once it's been done, we don't really care to see others of its kind.

But the greatness of something by Botticelli, Da Vinci, and Goya go way beyond photographism or gimmickism.
They are paintings representing what only painting can do(and in a timeless way than sticking out as a fashionable stunt of a period).

Anonymous said...

"The thing to remember about Leonardo is that "Da Vinci the Great Genius" is essentially a 19th-century invention. His contemporaries had him much better figured out."

That Da Vinci is just a hype is a 21st century invention and so on.

He was great. No doubt about it. When midgets talk about giants in this manner, it's pathetic.

And it's hardly the exception that someone's reputation rises and falls according to the fashions of the age.

Sibelius was hailed in the early 20th century, dismissed in midcentury, but people are re-discovering him as a great great composer. That he was.

Anonymous said...

Because cinema is about moving images, not enough attention is paid to still images in cinema in the art world. But cinema has produced some of the most powerful and arresting still images.

Movies are still relevant because they come in stories, genres, subjects, and etc.

Paintings seem to exist in the world of their own detached from rest of society or social concerns/likes.

So, maybe one way to promote interest in painting is for some rich guy to set up a gallery and commission works based on certain themes, topics, subjects, and etc.

Suppose for the month of march, the theme is 'the civil war'. Artists, famous or obscure or young or old or established or whatever, will be commissioned (or allowed to enter into competition)to make works on that subject.

Today, every artist does his or her own special 'avant-garde-ish' thing that seems so detached, solipsistic, alienated, indulgent, and enclosed/insular in its own space. Most people have no idea what it's about or why they should care.

Books, movies, and songs are still about something or bring people together with a sense of shared feeling, groove, passion, or interest.

Paintings do not. It's like each artist is isolated in his or her own world.
Now, there is a need for that kind of art, and I aint knocking it.
But in order to generate public interest, the stuff they make have to be about things that interest people.

So, if artists are asked to submit paintings about the Civil War, that will generate interest and people will flock to the gallery. The treatment can be traditionalist, realist, modernist, surreal, Pop Art-ish, or whatever. But the fact that all such works will be united in theme will at least attract interest and 'buzz'.

And once in awhile, to generate young people's interest, the topic of the month could be something like TWILIGHT movies. All the Stephanie Meyers fans will finally attend an art gallery to see what it's all about. The paintings on Twilight can be admiring, mocking, interpretative, subversive, or whatever. But it will generate buzz. (But please, no Star Trek month).

So, the Thematic Gallery. Now, that's a million dollar idear.

Possible themes:

1. Jewish life in Ny circa 1920s.

2. The American West.

3. The 80s.

Of course, there are topic-related events at art galleries, but they all have to do with old works.
But how about a gallery that commissions NEW art based on shared themes?

But then, the idea will likely be funded by some Lib Jewish guy and the themes will be:

1. KKK
2. 'Racist' whites
3. Holocaust and more Holocaust
4. Why homos are so wonderful
5. Immigration is so great


Dr Know said...

Pop music proves the truth of this article. Whatever songs are jammed into the kids' ears are the ones they will buy. It's the foundation of the music business. Payola.

This comment section proves it, too, with all the pretentious art snobs pontificating.

I've always thought the Mona Lisa was a crappy unfinished painting of an ugly woman, and could never understand why it was famous at all.

Turns out maybe I'm right after all.

Anonymous said...

"Dr Know said..."

Gigolo Joe: We will ask Dr. Know. There is nothing he doesn't.

Now there is.

Anonymous said...

As a kid, I had the mid-70s version of a Parker Brothers board game called "Masterpiece" which featured Art Institute paintings.

When I finally got out to Chicago, my trip through the AIC focused on seeing those paintings. I might have walked past countless greater paintings, and greater works in other mediums, but I was focused on the familiar.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"As a kid, I had the mid-70s version of a Parker Brothers board game called "Masterpiece" which featured Art Institute paintings."

Me too.

Anonymous said...

"Modern brain imaging shows us that there are two modes of visual processing related to facial recognition. Faces that we don't know are processed on the surface of the visual cortex. But faces that we have seen before are processed deeper."

Some faces are easily recognizable. But some aren't.

I always forget what Rip Torn looks like. Again and again and again and again.

Anonymous said...

"Steve said Americans used to care about literature in other languages to some extent, but we've largely lost interest during my lifetime.
And foreign film has also dropped off the cultural radar for the most part."

Maybe it's also due to too muchness. The foreign has lost its exotic appeal when the net links everything.

Also, American interest in foreign lit was always very selective. After WWII, it was mostly French literature and writing because of superstars like Camus and Sartre.

And in cinema, it was just a handful of nations: France, Italy, Japan, and Sweden(largely because of Bergman). On occasion, a film from Russia or Hungary might generate interest but never steadily.

I think American advantage is in its futurism and possibilitism.
When we think of most nations, we think of specific cultures. So, French have French culture, Russians have Russian culture, and Japanese have Japanese culture. Once the culture has been exhausted of its possibilities, it becomes less interesting. It's like samurai films once generated interest, but people had enough of feudal Japan. Same with the American western. After awhile, it exhausted its formulaic possibilities.
But America is more than its traditional culture. There's a sense of new culture and new society in the making, and that makes it more interesting.
While Europe and Japan have also modernized, they seem to be following in the footsteps of the US that is setting the trends.

Anonymous said...

What makes art so pleasing in documentaries is the use of music(and slow zooms and narration).

So, maybe galleries ought to play music for certain works and occasions.

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

Pretty good.

Uncle Peregrine said...

I just saw "Lady with an Ermine" in a haunting dark room up the stairs in a tower in Wawel Castle. Absolutely stunning.