Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Twilight of the Greats?

This is from The Times (UK) online edition. With the death of many "greats" this year, from philosophy to film, Appleyard wonders if we have seen the end of greatness. He thinks not, and names some names to watch.

Twilight of the greats?

This year saw the death of so many big names. Perhaps it saw the end of greatness, too. So, where do we go from here to find the artists that matter?

Easter Island

It was a year in which a certain type of person died — Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Norman Mailer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Jean Baudrillard. These were intellectually pungent, culturally potent individuals, angrily dismissed as often as they were called “great”, “seminal” or “genius”. And with Luciano Pavarotti dead, another type of greatness vanished from the planet.

There were others who did not die but, somehow, faded. After a glorious renaissance in the 1990s, with Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, Philip Roth began to falter with The Dying Animal and Everyman. After the slightly dodgy Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo produced the not very interesting Falling Man, about 9/11. Francis Ford Coppola, maestro of The Godfather, The Conversation and, greatest of all, Apocalypse Now, produced Youth Without Youth, which is, by all accounts, terrible. Having made the dismal Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino released Death Proof — not so much a film as an act of pathological self-indulgence — and convinced even some of his most devoted fans that the game was up.

Something happened in 2007, something ended. Old gods stumbled and fell. New ones sprang up. But they sprang up in their thousands. That’s the point these days.

Technology, hype and the sheer profligacy of the arts when confronted with a large, hungry and wealthy audience have created a climate of excess — just too many artists, too much money, too many works and too much noise. Who knows who, now, is great? Even if greatness existed, how would we find it? Do we want greatness, or would we simply prefer choice?

The further, more troubling question is, what is greatness? The climate of excess is also a climate of uncertainty and tribal dispute. When Bergman died, many said he was just a solemn old bore — a startling, almost unbelievable dismissal of one of cinema’s greatest artists. As with leaders of the Lib Dems, in the arts, when you’re out, you’re out. And artists are being pushed in and out all the time by a cultural hype industry that has increasingly infected the ranks of what should be the independent-minded. The carefully cultivated “buzz” about some artists can be so effective that I — like, I am sure, you — actually find myself questioning my own intuitions or, in extreme cases, sanity. And the “buzz” feeds on change, novelty. The very idea of an old master, an artist who endures and grows, is rapidly becoming incomprehensible.

In an attempt to counter this trend, I shall now attempt to pluck greatness from the ocean of money and hype. The intention is emphatically not to pull the usual new-year stunt of identifying bright young things. You have a public-relations industry to do that for you. Instead, I shall simply try to identify great artists, and to say something of the context of their greatness. I haven’t been able to do this alone. I have taken advice, I have consulted. What follows is, therefore, a compilation based on deep wisdom, blind prejudice and sound counsel.

As a mass-market product, the novel is dominated by women. Women, overwhelmingly, buy novels; and, as a result, women write them. Chick lit and Aga sagas are now distinct and, seemingly, enduring fictional forms. The “great” novel, however, is dominated by men. Ask any collection of reasonably well-read people who are the great novelists of our time and the chances are they will reel off John Updike, Roth and, probably, DeLillo as if they were one gigantic genius of fiction. “They,” says Ian McEwan, “are the gods.”

This is not exactly wrong, but it is oppressive. There’s something a bit testosterone-laden about this view of the great novel. Mailer was probably the most extreme example of writer as big, tough guy, but, with the exception of Updike, it is an attitude that infects all of McEwan’s pantheon, as well as our own dear Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, both of whom aspire to join the gang. I find this odd. Nobody is preoccupied with the masculinity of Tolstoy or Dickens. In both cases, an excess of maleness would be seen as a limitation Now, though, great-novel writing is regarded as a pursuit as male as heading out to the woods and shooting stuff. I suspect that the desire to ensure the continuance of this butch legacy lies behind the mass adulation being accorded to the American writer Denis Johnson for his novel Tree of Smoke.

One effect of this — on me, at least — is that, having bought into this view, I fell into a kind of literary-critical slumber. I have, over the past couple of years, been violently shaken awake. As a result, I can now announce with total confidence that the two greatest living novelists are women: Marilynne Robinson and Shirley Hazzard. Robinson has written two novels — Housekeeping and Gilead — and a collection of essays, The Death of Adam. They are all shattering, as psychologically profound as they are morally serious. She has a new novel out next year, Home. Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, according to one of my advisers, is “the most perfect novel written in the past 100 years”. I have just read it, and he may well be right. The Great Fire runs it pretty close; in fact, everything she writes is suffused with extraordinary beauty and almost unbearable insight. She is the greatest of all writers on love. Both Robinson and Hazzard have had their awards and successes, but both are quiet, unhyped and deadly serious. And they’re not men.

The death of Baudrillard left a gaping hole in the cultural landscape. Suddenly, we lack a great POFT — a Pointlessly Obscure French Thinker. Baudrillard, like Kristeva, Foucault, Lacan and many others, was a poseur and rhetorician. But, like some of the others, though certainly not Foucault, he was also a very brilliant man. His insights into the constructed nature of contemporary reality were, while usually buried beneath pointless obscurity, scintillating. If the French could shake off the posturing that has disfigured their post-war thought, they could perhaps recover their role as the great essayists of the world. We need a new Pascal, a new Montaigne.

Well, perhaps they are on their way. Pierre Manent is a philosopher whose book The City of Man is both Augustinian — theologically rooted in the tradition of the benign community, neither modernist individualism nor the abject Maoism of Sartre (the title refers back to Augustine’s City of God) — and liberal. He worked with Raymond Aron, one of the great opponents of the savage totalitarianism of post-war French thought. Manent is not a poseur or rhetorician. He is a thinker in the great French tradition. You may well hear a lot more of him in future. He divides his time between Paris and Boston, and has been tipped as the next editor of The New York Review of Books, one of the world’s supreme intellectual gatekeeping positions.

Michel Onfray is a militant atheist. But, unlike the Anglo-American tribe of MAs, he knows intellectual history. His book In Defence of Atheism is a serious contender; it is also clear and unposey. So, there may be no new POFT, and France may be regaining her intellectual equilibrium.

The deaths of Antonioni and Bergman drew painful attention to the lack of great European auteurs. Only Pedro Almodovar can be said to have fully inherited this role. Italian cinema is dead. French cinema is frequently good, but, on the whole, a pale shadow of its former self. Meanwhile, the east has risen in the mighty form of Wong Kar Wai. In the Mood for Love and 2046 display a feeling for film as pure, subtle and profound as that of Tarkovsky, Ford or Kurosawa. Great? Undoubtedly.Among the Americans, Scorsese’s greatness is uncontestable and well known. I would add Terrence Malick. His Badlands and Days of Heaven, from the 1970s, were masterpieces, and The Thin Red Line, of 1998, though strangely underrated, was perhaps the second best war film of our time, after Apocalypse Now. In 2005, The New World made little impression. It was, however, magical, a story told with delicacy and wonder. Malick, like Wong, can send a shiver down your spine with a singleshot or an actor’s glance. To these I would add the Coen brothers, who, in their body of weird films – Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski – have created both their own genre and their own critical language. Their latest, No Country for Old Men, due out here next year, is, I have repeatedly been told, wonderful. If the Coens are great, then it is because of their astonishing and unique tone.

Music is in crisis, as downloads take over from CDs and record-company profits slump. The old dispensation in which rock and pop supported the classical catalogue is dead. Classical artists are under pressure to deliver the goods as quickly as pop stars. Young talent can be destroyed by this pressure. Cultural pressure can have the same effect. The Chinese pianist Lang Lang was regarded as potentially the greatest of his time. Now, he has sunk into a kind of state-sponsored stardom, an asset of the 2008 Olympics, and is widely critically dismissed. So, a great pianist? Mitsuko Uchida, who has provided me with my most moving Schubert experiences.

Elsewhere, though, with Pavarotti dead, who will replace him as the superstar tenor? Nobody, says my colleague Stephen Pettitt. Greatness is by its nature unique – we don’t want another Pav. This is wise. Pettitt also points out that, if we are simply looking for great singers, we don’t need to leave the country. Ian Bostridge is a wonderful tenor. He is, unlike the Pav, thin; and, also unlike the Pav, intellectual in his approach. But the one everybody nominates for greatness is the oratorio specialist Mark Padmore. “He,” says Pettitt, “has everything.”

Poetry, our national art, is, of course, dead for the common reader. I shall say again, as I have shouted repeatedly into deaf ears for three decades, that John Ashbery is the greatest living poet in English. But now I shall add a contender – Geoffrey Hill. For some reason, I have been avoiding this man for years. There is something forbidding about him. Finally, I have reached the foothills of this poetic mountain, and, yes, I think he’s up there. Accidentally, via my blog – long story – I introduced him to Ashbery, and he seems to think so too.

The visual arts suffer most from the hype industry. With Russians flooding into London to buy anything anybody says is art, values and reputations are inflated beyond reason. When the Turner prize goes to Mark Wallinger – an otherwise gifted artist – for, among other things, his nonsensical and politically corrupt installation State Britain, it is clear that the old conceptualist axis formed by Saatchi, then Serota is not only dead, but smelly and decomposing.

I’m reluctant to dip my toe into these stagnant waters, but, okay: there is a quiet man who lives in the north. He is incapable of self-promotion, and so, but for a few minor works in the Tate, he is ignored. Many people think he is the finest painter in Britain. Many people may be right. He’s called William Tillyer.

Check him out. Oh, and have a really serious new year. As ever, only great artists can make this happen. They are like Geoffrey Hill’s The Jumping Boy – “He leaps because he has serious/joy in leaping.” And 2008 is a leap year.

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