Obviously an unanswerable question, but hopefully an interesting one…
Take one of the all-time classic greatest works of Western art… Hamlet, or Beethoven’s 9th, or the Mona Lisa, or Moby Dick. Then postulate a world which is basically the same as the world we live in, except that that particular work was never created. (For purposes of this discussion, only consider works created before 1900.)
Then, today, in the 20th century, you say “I’ve been working in secret for years on this book/play/painting/sculpture/symphony… what do people think?” and do something to bring this work into the public awareness. (Let’s assume you’re rich enough to stage a production of it if it’s a play all by yourself, or to hire an orchestra to record it, or vanity-publish it, or what have you.)
What would happen? Are any of those classic works so amazingly brilliant that an unknown popping up out of nowhere and producing them would get them the recognition that they (presumably) deserve?
(I guess there are two variations of this question. One in which Shakespeare existed but just didn’t write Hamlet, and then you pop up with Hamlet, and of course everyone assumes you wrote it as an homage to Shakespeare, but would they be able to fairly judge it? And one in which Shakespeare never existed, and it would have to more stand on its own.)
Many greats are considered great because they were ground breaking. They introduced new styles and techniques that were copied and built upon by artists who followed. So if the greats weren’t written, what would the state of the art be without them, not just today, but in the decades or centuries since the , er, “gap”?
So it’s really not just a question of what would happen if one of these were written today, because today would be different if these works had not appeared years ago.
Shakespeare couldn’t write Hamlet without having read Historica Danica and The Spanish Tragedy beforehand. Every King Arthur book depends on all the prior King Arthur books. Every movie made has nods to previous movies. Time would have to move sideways for the OP’s situation to occur.
Despite what is sometimes said, classics are not really “timeless”, they are very much of their time. To appreciate them as the classics they are when they are read in later eras requires a certain degree of understanding of their history and the history of the time in which they were written. If works exactly the same as Moby Dick or Hamlet were written today, in the early 21st century, they would not be classics because they would not be good expressions of a 21st century sensibility. The would probably be (rightly) considered clever but artistically worthless pastiches of long outmoded literary styles, and no-one would take them seriously (let alone read or view them for pleasure, which people did originally, of course). On the other hand, if we are aware of how Moby Dick and Hamlet were written in the mid-19th and early 17th centuries respectively, and have at least a vague idea about what life and the English language were like in those times, and if we are prepared to grapple with their archaic language (a difficult task, but something that the judgement of the works’ posterity tells us should be worth the effort) we can still appreciate their greatness, and find insights in them that do indeed still apply to human life as it is today.
By contrast, a 21st century writer who writes in some imitation of 17th (or even 19th) century language and style is almost certainly just showing off and making things needlessly difficult for his readers. This is a good indicator that he is a pretentious jerk with nothing worthwhile to say. When the classics were written, their authors were not doing anything like that at all. They were writing as clearly and as appealingly as they could for the people of their time.
IF someone with talent like Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment today, would it be a “classic”? Would it enter “the canon” and become required reading at every high school in America?
No. The world and the media have changed too much to allow for that.
The novel would definitely find an appreciative audience that loved it, but it wouldn’t become a huge hit on the Times or Amazon bestseller lists. There are just too many different markets for different types of literature, and no one consensus as to what makes a novel a timeless classic. There are dozens of different groups of avid readers out there, each with its own preferred genre and its own icons. The new Dostoevsky couldn’t appeal to all of them, no matter how much critics as a whole liked his work.
Why COULDN’T his book get into the canon? Because the canon is largely fixed and each of the groups I mentioned earlier is constantly fighting to get ITS favorite works in. If my old alma mater, Columbia, tried to make the new book required reading, there’d be women screaming that, say, Kate Chopin should be added instead, blacks calling for Richard Wright, all kinds of interest groups pushing for THEIR champion, and in the end, nothing would get done.
In other art forms, you’d get other problems. If I wrote ***Madama Butterfly ***today, well, opera just doesn’t have the fan base or wide exposure it once did. Few people would ever hear it, and there’s no way it could break into the pantheon of operas.
If Beethoven’s Ninth were composed and performed today, yet all other Beethoven works remained in the past . . . it would be considered a very nice emulation of Beethoven’s style, yet somewhat over the top. And the best examples of vocals in a symphony would probably be reminiscent of Mahler.
Maybe not. In literary history there are fecund periods and desert periods, and this sure looks like a desert period. Is there even one transcendent author in the last hundred years? Tolstoy died in 1910. The next one down the list is Joyce, and that’s a long, long fall.
I think the last hundred years will be remembered like the period of courtly poetry, where works tell us a lot about the self-absorption of the authors but nothing about the classic themes of human nature that are what make works “timeless.” In another hundred years 20th century literature will be as dated as a Michael Bay film.
I wouldn’t be surprised if in a century the entire run of All in the Family or Battlestar Galactica are as respected as the Shakespearean comedies or collected works of Joyce, though the names of their writers still won’t be known.
After thinking about it some, the aspect of the original question I find interesting is… in what circumstances, if any, could a work that is considered canonically great appear now and end up considered just as canonically great?
So here’s my scheme:
(1) I use my magic powers and end up in the universe where Beethoven’s 9th was never written but I have a copy of the score.
(2) I do some research and find the right individual for the next part of my plan… it needs to be someone who is a respectable musician/conductor, but not someone so famous as to be unapproachable. So, say, a music professor at a college. I pick someone who has a reputation as being curious and creative
(3) I come up with a backstory about how I happened upon this score for a symphony in an attic or a yard sale or something. I generate some plausible evidence for this plan as necessary. I do NOT say “I wrote this, it’s awesome”, rather I say “I found this, no idea who composed it or when… what do you think of it?”
(4) hopefully this piques the musician’s curiosity enough for him to look over the music, and I’m pretty sure someone knowledgeable about music can recognize that there’s something to Beethoven’s 9th with a fairly quick inspection.
(5) this hopefully leads to public interest and inquiry as to where this mysterious composition came from, which hopefully leads to performances of it, which leads to appreciation of it, etc.
I think that classical music is the right medium for this type of plan, because it maintains a decent level of prominence and popularity, and at least some people still actively compose stuff that sounds pretty similar to what was composed several hundred years ago. And Beethoven’s 9th, more than some things like Moby Dick, has some fairly immediate and non-erudite popular appeal.
As I noted earlier, most art forms already have established “canons,” and it would be very difficult for a new work to gain entry, no matter how good it might be.
I already used opera as an example, because opera has become a very conservative, almost closed world. Any major opera company tends to do the same 10-12 operas by the same old composers, over and over. A bold, daring company might do 4 chestnuts in a season (one from Verdi, one from Puccini, one from Wagner, then one from a “one-hit wonder” like Leoncavallo) and then sneak in a newer work from someone like John Adams… but the vast majority of opera fans don’t really WANT to hear anything new! They like the chestnuts, and will only attend the John Adams opera if it’s part of a season ticket package that they HAVE to buy to see the other pieces.
So, SUPPOSE Rossini had never written The Barber of Seville, and I somehow wrote it now. Could I get it staged? Maybe, but it would be tough. Few companies would attempt to stage it, and few fans would be interested in hearing it.
The same is largely true of classical music in general. An ambitious conductor may try to sneak newer pieces into his programs, but he pretty much HAS to have his orchestra perform 2 chestnuts (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, et al) to please his regular patrons.
If Berlioz had never composed Symphonie Fantastique, and I somehow introduced it now, would it get performed? I doubt it. It would be too new and unfamiliar to appeal to the older, conservative regulars that symphony orchestras depend on, but it would also be too old-school and safe to appeal to a forward-looking, innovative conductor.
But it’s interesting you mention TV because I think the “classic works” of the 20th century will be movies. One of the things about classics is that they tend to be in a medium which is “cutting edge.” By the 1920’s the writing was on the wall that film had replaces literature as the great medium of storytelling. In the 19th century Hitchcock would have been an author.
I think it’s interesting that some of the literary giants were those who did dramatic readings or animated public appearances of their works, Dickens and Twain in particular, I’ve wondered how much this publicity assisted their sales and ensured the classic status. Twain of course was an ancestor of the cerebral stand-up comic, while Dickens was by all accounts a great actor who gave essentially a one-man-show of his novels that often left him at the verge of collapse.
While Joel Chandler Harris has racial baggage which hurt his reputation, he sold almost as well as Twain in his own life and was offered fortunes to go on tour and read Uncle Remus tales in dialect. Since everyone but the Capital One baby likes money and Harris (like Dickens) had a huge family he tried, but unfortunately for him he had almost paralytic stagefright. Others made money performing his works publicly (including Mark Twain, who sometimes read Harris tales instead of his own), but I’ve wondered if his literary reputation might be larger today if he had been a good actor as well as writer.
Dickens and Twain were able to tour because their sales prior to touring were so vigorous.
Beethoven’s 9th would not be considered great today if unpublished in the 19th century? Only until heard can this be considered anything other than great.
Hamlet an also ran? I just quoted the following elsewhere “Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.” (This usage of course misconstrues the point somewhat but it works). IOW, you kidding me? A mountainous achievement in the use of the English language 400 years ago or today.
No, today it’s not. If somebody wrote those lines coming from a contemporary character, they would be mocked and laughed at. Certainly the language could be updated to be taken as legitimate, but that wouldn’t fit the conditions of the OP.