A true Classic
All the recent bloggish debate over “what is a classic” and “what is wrong with the Western Canon” and just discussion in general has gotten me to thinking about terminology and the arts.
I think I may have mentioned in the past that I have a much greater knowledge of the eras and history of art, music, and architecture than I do books, despite a lifetime of reading. This is thanks in no small part to the many semesters I had in school of such history: art history, architectural history, architectural theory, a semester of “Understanding Music” (history/music appreciation for Western Art music), plus a lifetime of listening to “classical” music. What these arts all have in common, besides a general time-frame development, are fairly well defined (albeit loosely) “periods.” For example, when discussing music, we can talk about the Baroque period (approx. 1600-1750), followed by the Classical period (approx. 1750-1830), followed by the Romantic period (approx. 1815-1910), and so on. (My sometimes faulty memory tells me that these periods align approximately with similar-name architectural/art eras as well.) So, although we can talk about “classical” music to refer to art music from any of these eras, we can also get more specific by saying, “It’s one of the best symphonies from the Romantic era.”
Now, I know enough about literature to know that there are phases like this as well: Romantics, Modernists, etc. But it seems like the conversation usually doesn’t use these terms unless it is taking a more academic turn. Instead, we hang on a label of “classic” to talk about “old” books and then get all hung up in definitional and linguistic arguments. And often, the determining factors seem to be 1) is it old and 2) is it still available, rather than the quality or worthiness of the work. (Admittedly, factors also open for debate.)
My question is why? Why can Composer X create a brand new work (which could be Minimalist or Postmodern or whatever) and it may be automatically considered “classical music” but we have such dogfights when it comes to books? Does this imply an issue of accessibility? That is, does the label “classic(al)” imply that, whether we’re talking music or books, we’re required—or think we are required—to put in some work to appreciate it, and therefore intend it as a term of honor? Has “classical” become a shorthand for “hard?” (And therefore allows a form of elitism or snobbishness when saying “I read classics.” Although that statement’s a touch cynical.) To the best of my knowledge, we don’t apply “classical” to art and architecture in the same way, instead relying on styles or time periods: would we be better served by talking about books in the same manner?
I think a lot of us, when we say we want to read “classics,” what we are looking for is a reassurance that the book is worth reading, that it has some value, that it is part of the cultural currency of book discussion. I’m just wondering if we’re going about this the wrong way.
I don’t have any answers, do you?