I recently wrote an essay that was about “great” literature. But the essay itself – and the mark I received – were not as great.
And it got me thinking about greatness – what makes for great writing, great art? Can an academic essay ever be great art? What would the standards even be? Who would set those standards and then decide if the essay met them? The writer? The reader? The grader? And how can I know so instinctively, so unquestionably that my essay is not great? Even if my grade had been stellar, somehow – somehow – I could never call it “great art”. Why is that? What constitutes great art?
What medium? What response? Is there a minimum grade it should be assigned? What spot should it fill on ANDY’s top 10 list? How should the artist feel before, during and after? Proud, disgusted, afraid? Who should judge its greatness? Professors, strangers, friends? What if it touches just one person? What if hundreds of people enjoy it, but none of them are truly moved?
Should it make a political statement? Should it make any statement? What if it’s simply beautiful and little else: a string of lovely words that sound like a meaningless poem; or a short film that includes gorgeous scenery with no intended symbolism; or a song that says nothing, but the artist’s voice is goose bump-inducing – are none of these “great” art? Or are they all? Should it be funny? Popular? Unpopular? Should it break rules? Should it follow rules, but with more flare than ever before? Should it shock, inspire, motivate? What if it does none of those things; what if it’s only an artist’s entirely selfish pursuit of self-expression? It seems that art in general inspires more questions than answers.
As ANDY compiled its top ten lists, we constantly asked ourselves similar questions: what makes for a great album, a great film? How can every album and every film that’s been released in 2012 be judged with one set of standards on one list? Surely the list would be incomplete, contradictory, controversial, and horribly, terribly, undeniably subjective. What’s the point then?
In my first year, I wrote a paper titled “why I write.” The essay was a very strange piece that my equally strange (but inspiring and wonderful) TA found moving somehow. But other readers dismissed the paper as bizarre and confusing. I wrote about a feathery blue pen that looked like an ostrich ready to take flight; I wrote about the empty spaces between your fingers; I wrote about the experience of watching someone walk away – watching the distance between your bodies expand until there’s nothing left. I wrote about a sun that looks like an egg yolk stretched across the sky; I wrote about a paper plane floating somewhere in the distance, with a love letter scrawled all over it.
It made very little sense. It resembled an academic essay in so far that it was typed words on a white page.
The experience of writing this essay was so consuming and yet so effortless that I had forgotten it was a piece that anyone would read other than myself. Producing those words, putting them together, taking them apart, was a cathartic, therapeutic, intense but peaceful process of liberation. It’s a feeling that also comes with certain movies, certain songs, certain novels, certain poetry, cer tain performances – and in those moments I don’t judge, rate, rank or grade the moment or the art. I just feel moved – and that is more than enough. To me, that feeling is what constitutes “great” art.
So take ANDY’s final five with a grain of salt. It certainly is a wonderful and meaningful selection of music and film – but that’s just our opinion.
By: Bahar Orang