By Isaac Butler
Frequent commenter Jack Worthing has left a humdinger over on a post last week about Stagegrade. Responding to the idea floated by a friend fo mine that, by aggregating reviews, Stagegrade has shown that "critical consensus is largely correct," Worthing writes:
'Critical consensus is largely correct' is a dangerous statement indeed. Cf. the murderous reviews for The Birthday Party, save Harold Hobson; the hosannas for Closer, since reappraised as something like the gaping vacuum that it is; Harvey beating The Glass Menagerie for the Pulitzer, etc. Consensus confirms fashion. Where is Now Barabbas by William Douglas Home -- West End hit of 1949 -- today?
This touches on a couple of points that I think are worth expanding on and thinking about. First off, just to address a brief misunderstaning (or talkingpasting) what my friend meant by "largely correct" was "reflects what audiences are likely to think of the shows." The critical hits are generally well regarded, the plays that are slammed are generally disliked and the controversial shows are.... well, controversial.
Still, there's something else that Jack's getting at here that I think is interesting, and that's the idea of posterity. Or, you might say, The Durable Vs. Disposable. This is an oldie-but-goodie definition for what makes a good-to-great work of art. If it lasts, if it "speaks to many generations," it's by definition good. If you see something you think is likely to last and speak to many generations than it, too, is good.
I find this idea seductive, as it's one that I think most of us have grown up with. Shakespeare is great, in part because each generation has reaffirmed his greatness. His work "speaks" to us, captures something so essential in the human condition and writes about it so eloquently, so beautifully, so complexly that, even though we are five hundred years on from him and in different countries, or dealing with the work in translation, his art grabs up by the collar and sucks us in.
And then of course there are those works that were neglected in their own time, or vanished for awhile, or some such that a later generation discovered. Think here of Van Gogh, who famously sold but one painting in his own life time. Or, more recently, Nick Drake. Or the plays perfomed by The Mint in New York.
The main problem with this line of thinking is that it is a terrible way to judge a current work of art. We have no idea what future generations will think. We are unpredictable creatures, and to claim that tastes are not going to change, or that something will speak beyond the present moment is to claim knowledge that no one possesses. To use the case cited above, almost everyone got The Birthday Party "wrong." If you think Sarah Kane is a good writer (I don't) almost everyone got her "wrong" the first time too. To argue posterity against (or for!) a current work of art, to evaluate it on those terms is to get lost in a maze of self-flattery where you substitute your own taste for that of the future.
But I don't think the problems of posterity are limited to critique of current work. For what really is it, this posterity? On some level, all we're talking about here is works of art that we like. Either we like them and previous generations did too (in which case it's a Great Work For the Ages) or we like them and previous generations did not (in which case what we're talking about is a Misunderstood/Overlooked Work of Genius). Either way we-- or rather our egos-- win.
Just because our opinion changes over time doesn't make the initial opinion wrong. And I'm not sure what gets called "disposable" art-- art that speaks to the moment and then vanishes-- says anything bad about that work of art. It spoke to its moment! That's pretty great!