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The Awkward Concept of "Classic"

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The Awkward Concept of "Classic"

In a week when Yale ends its iconic introduction to art history and the Babylon Bee instantly satirizes it, let's contemplate the concept of "classic." And for a bit of inspiration, let's have a look at a wine column in the Wall Street Journal that takes on the same question: What Makes a Wine a Classic?
Our wine columnist makes a case for the canon and shares her list of wines that define what ‘classic’ means to her (that may be behind the paywall).
MOST BOOKSTORES have a section marked “classic literature” and another, much larger one where the “fiction” is shelved. What’s the difference? A classic work of literature is an accepted archetype of the genre, a book that has withstood the test of time and taste, while fiction is…everything else. I’d define a classic wine in much the same way: an archetype and an ideal.
No matter how hard we try to get away from the concepts of "classic" and the related one of a "canon,"* they are indispensable ideas if you admit the idea of quality at all. Classic wines, like a Chablis with its fresh minerality and unoaked fruit or a Champagne with its elegance and balance, are wines that have stood the test of time, that are a kind of archetype. In a somewhat related context, Matthew Arnold wrote that “Culture, the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world."

Often the "best," the most characteristic, Chablis that tastes like Chablis ought to taste, is a regional concept. A classic Chablis is totally different, and should be, from a classic Barolo. Or, switching to music (as you knew we would!) a classic symphony would be one by Mozart (a classical era composer) whereas we would call a symphony by Mahler a classic example of a Romantic symphony. Different eras, different characteristics.

It is interesting that the whole post-modern project of demeaning and dismissing the whole idea of classic and indeed, quality, is also associated with the idea of doing away with genre, i.e. regional characteristics. The music of Billie Eilish, for example, is described as "genre-bending." Any time a new artist comes along, like Lil Nas X, his music is "genre-defying." You see, if you want to get rid of all the traditional concepts of quality like "classic" and "canon" then you also want to get rid of the idea of genre. Because if there is such a thing as genre, an artist can be criticized for failing to deliver a good example of the genre. If Mozart were a lesser composer he might have written a poor minuet qua minuet. But if we are bending and defying genres, then the critic has no ground to stand on.

Isn't that convenient?

In fact, if what you want to do is remove all possibility of criticism so you can foist pretty much anything on an unsuspecting public, then removing possible grounds for criticism is an excellent tactic. Notice how remarkably feeble criticism is these days. When a new movie comes out that no-one wants to see, the main criticism is that no-one went to it. Then, as in the case of Cats, critics can lambaste it for all sorts of failings. But genuine criticism, such as came from Martin Scorsese recently, is so rare that it is front page news.

The concept of classic involves being true to a regional characteristic. The terroir in the case of French wine, or the varietal in the case of most wines outside France. In the case of music, the genre of "symphony" even in the 21st century, has certain fundamental characteristics. A symphony by Haydn, Mahler, Shostakovich or even Stravinsky, shares some basic aesthetic goals.

Can the post-modern project do away with all this? Yes, of course, but it will severely compromise all non-commercial art forms because it takes away the fundamental ways to understand and appreciate art and replaces them with nothing more than political correctness.

*Isn't it cool to have a footnote in a blog post? A "canon" is simply a list of the most classic examples of a given art form or genre. The canon of classical music includes pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and so on. The canon of great poetry includes poems by Homer, Shakespeare, Dante and so on. There are canons with a narrower scope such as "great lieder" or "20th century symphonies." There is always, lurking in the background, the idea of greatest or best. The classical canon does not include mediocre examples. The tactic of the post-modern progressives is to say that all categorization of art works by quality excludes oppressed minorities because of racism or sexism or some other bigotry. This strategy has proven somewhat less successful with music than it has with literature. While we are striving to have more contemporary women composers and conductors, for example, there seems to be no real possibility of "canceling" Mozart and Beethoven in favor of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn.


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