Get rid of your hierarchies. Stop worshipping.
Have you heard of Best Picture? It’s an award given to movies, right?
Best Picture used to be an award. Now it’s a genre.
Because now that the award has been around a while, people make movies with the intention of winning Best Picture. Such a movie is in the Best Picture genre.
I love the movie A Beautiful Mind—it’s technically perfect, and as someone whose mental health problems worsened after the movie came out, I’ve grown to love it for other reasons. And I love Ron Howard. He is one of my favorite directors. But A Beautiful Mind is a Best Picture. Yes, it won the award Best Picture, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It was constructed to be a Best Picture—the genre Best Picture. Some movies are made to win Best Picture—some are not. To win Best Picture, you have to a) cast Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, and Jennifer Connelly, b) get music by James Horner, c) photography by Roger Deakins, d) get so and so writers and a true story and e) fucking Ron Howard. I’m not demeaning these people. I’m a film lover. These people are gods to me. But A Beautiful Mind wasn’t made with the intention of being a great film—it was made with the intention of being a Best Picture. And it won the award, but that is incidental—it achieved inclusion in the genre of Best Picture. Even if it hadn’t won Best Picture, it still would have been a Best Picture.
There are other examples. Avatar was a pathetic attempt. A terrible movie. But obviously a movie intended for the Best Picture genre.
Now get rid of your hierarchies. Stop worshipping. Let’s take down another concept intended as a pedestal for holding greatness which is, quite simply, just a genre.
Some of you are going to have trouble with this one. But take the leap with me.
It’s not a value judgement. It’s not a bar to be vaulted over. It’s not an award—just as Best Picture is not an award.
It is a genre.
Just like a Best Picture film, a masterpiece painting or book or other work of art contains certain elements which put it in the genre of masterpiece. Winning Best Picture is not some random process. Neither is constructing a masterpiece.
Let’s focus on books. Consider As I Lay Dying, The Grapes of Wrath, and Fahrenheit 451. Forgive the American focus but I know American books best. Those aren’t my favorite books, but they are books which are universally considered masterpieces. If you disagree with that statement then we are too far apart and you might as well stop reading this post. You may like those books, you may dislike them, however those three books are undisputed masterpieces of American literature—but why?
- Discuss basic, gritty, core issues of human life in this society.
- Push the boundaries of style/structure such that they are not quite what most people would even consider a book—maybe they’re 2% more than a book, maybe they’re 2% less than a book due to these experimentations, but they are a little off of what people consider a normal book.
- On the last point but further: they are demanding to read, in their various ways. Like it or not, this is part of why people consider something a masterpiece. Look at Guernica. Look at Basquait. Are simple things considered masterpieces? Not really. Think of the book The Giving Tree by the master Shel Silverstein. It looks simple. But it has the same qualities as these other American masterpieces, not least of which is that for most of us, it is extremely demanding to read (emotionally). Consider another Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men. Seems simple, but it’s really, really not. Consider the pinnacle American fiction of this type: The Old Man and the Sea. Simplest plot in all of literature, right? No =)
- On the previous point but closer: there is a reason I said 2% and not 20%. There’s a maxim that people with slightly higher than average IQs make good leaders, but people with very high IQs do not—because if your IQ is too much greater than your would-be followers, they don’t even understand what you’re saying, so you can’t lead them. I suggest that a masterpiece, while it may be far ahead of its time, while it may be long enduring, doesn’t push the envelope too far or else it can’t be recognized as a masterpiece right away. My best example of this is the film Enter the Void by Gaspar Noé. Normally I can feel confident rating a film on a five-star scale. With this film I can’t. It’s not three stars or fewer. It’s greater than four stars. But it’s not a five-star film—not because it’s less than five stars—it doesn’t even fit on the scale. It’s not a six-star film. It’s just not on the fucking scale. It does something so different that it can’t even be recognized as a masterpiece by most people. It’s in a different world than the world of ratings and masterpieces and successes and failures. It’s beyond a masterpiece—it’s hard for our eyes to even see. Almost 30 years after his death, Basquiat’s work is still hard for many eyes to see. Three decades after its construction, it shines too bright to be universally included in the masterpiece genre. He changed the picture by way more than 2% and it’s going to take a while for the world to come around on the recognition of that oeuvre.
- Each work obeys a pacing, like the editing and music of a Best Picture.
- Each is out of this world. Like a Best Picture, they are hyperreal. They are based on a world the reader/viewer easily accepts, but they quickly veer into territory that is totally unreal. They own reality—they do not bow to it.
- They are kaleidoscopic. Like a Best Picture, they take an initial kernel of story or reality and spin it out way beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected. They are epic. You can give them previews that entice an audience that reveal 1/10 of the whole. They deliver. A masterpiece may leave you wanting more, but it always gives you more than you expected. Way more.
Right, so there are other qualities of art in general that I think place it in the genre of masterpiece, but those are a few to start with.
Come with me down this evil rabbit hole and stop thinking of masterpiece as a value judgement..and consider it just a genre.