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Tuesday, 29 September 2009

What Makes A Classic?

What makes a 'classic'? Is it something that is timeless - a book, a work of art, a piece of music - that has eternal appeal because it speaks to the soul? Or is it something that appeals to nostalgia? Or is it something that is decided on the spur of the moment by one critic, or a group of critics according to their view of the world at that time?

For the past several decades, some songs have been viewed as classics and whether it be for the power of the lyrics and music or simple for the era they evoke remains unclear. Some of them are so powerful to me still (Ultravox's fabulous 'Vienna', for example, or Kate Bush's incredible 'Wuthering Heights') even though the lyrics of some of them seem quite senseless to me now and nothing more than a perfect expression of self-indulgent angst. Perhaps there is room for a little angst in all of us and classics allow us that escape.

Literature is the same. Some books (like 'Moby Dick' and most of the works of Jane Austen - which I found terribly tedious) are regarded as 'classics'. Who decided this? Was it some stuffy don who picked his way through the language in much the same way as a butcher picks his way through the carcass of an animal and then decides to describe what kind of animal it is? Was it a general consensus that at one time people decided this or that was good and so everyone (for fear of being out of step) agreed?

Poetry, too. Poetry, which once to me sounded so harmonious like the beautiful music of Beethoven or the brilliant passion of Tchaikovsky, then became labelled as 'obscure' and trivia, or worse, violent nonsense with cacophonous words and lines of expletives replaced what appears to me as beautiful and 'classic'. We live in such a throw away society that it seems we are deprived of creating what is truly classical and instead is replaced by shallow self-seeking in the name of art. Perhaps it was ever thus.

I suppose what it boils down to, is the wonderfully simple quotation from (I think!) Jean Anouilh: "Things are beautiful if you love them."

Perhaps 'classics' are things which raise us to our true nobility and leave us more aware of that dignity than we were before. No one needs to tell us that...we decide for ourselves.

1 comment:

Heart of the wood said...

I remember mortifying my English Literature lecturer father by having the same reaction Jane Austen as you - "Too many thees and thous," I told him, aged 12.

On the other hand I was a DJ in the 70s when those undoubted classics were hits. What bliss it was to be alive in that time. What makes them so? - intangible qualities, almost none of which have anything to do with the music. The people you were with, the surroundings you were in, the scent of the air, the touch of your fingers, what had just happened or what was about to happen.

Oh, sorry, that's me gone to reverie!