What constitutes Art…

No, no, don’t groan please! In an interesting essay about who might be chosen as Britain’s greatest living writer (well, okay, I did find that a rather dull challenge), Stephen Moss writes:

The key facet that links all these great writers, according to Harold Bloom, is “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.”

I can’t help but concur with this assertion: the vast majority of my desert island music would be marked by an otherness, a refusal to be assimilated; this, after all, is the art that challenges, that refuses to be worked out, pinned down, calculated, tidily defined, easily marketed, etc. Oddly, Moss then goes on to make a rather difficult to prove assertion, as though expressing a piece of universally-shared commonsense:

Literature is oddly difficult to canonise, more subject to changing tastes than other art forms. In music, greatness is transparent; genius announces itself. In literature, perhaps less so.

Music is certainly as hard to pare down to a canon, particularly if the whole musical field is considered rather than the Classical music I suspect the author is referring to. In responding to the inevitable criticism that attempting to define Britain’s great living writer is a folly, Moss responds:

Trying to establish Britain’s GLA, or even a leading group of contenders, is a hazardous undertaking. But it is at worst harmless fun, and at best might provoke us to consider what constitutes great writing, whether a canon has any validity, and who determines what work survives.

Fair enough, but it confirms for me the knowledge that my canon is a personal one and I’ll only ever be partially interested or convinced by anybody else’s. Thank goodness.

Read: Who is the Greatest of Them All? (The Guardian)


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