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Excellent New Art

There are many ways to prop up a currency artificially. “We’re wrestling with the same stuff as Rilke,” Bono recently told The New York Times about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the hapless Broadway wonder for which he collaborated on the music. More specifically, “Rilke, Blake, ‘Wings of Desire,’ Roy Lichtenstein, the Ramones.” I was not previously aware of the Rilkean elements in “Rockaway Beach.” Those elements Bono characterized as “the cost of feeling feelings,” which throws the Blakean dimension into question, but never mind. Precision is really not the point. That same month The New Yorker covered the appearance of Jay-Z—the good-guy memoirist who may now be seen in Kanye West’s video in praise of the murder of women—at the New York Public Library, and merrily reported that he was compared “to T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Shakespeare, and Dickens.” One of the authors of those comparisons was the clownish Cornel West, so they are perhaps less surprising. “West recalled a recent meeting between himself, Jay-Z, and Toni Morrison: ‘And you said, “I have been playing Plato to Biggie’s Socrates.’’ And that hit all of us so hard.’” And in that same mean month I read in The New York Times Book Review that Nora Ephron, who most resembles Erma Bombeck, is “like Benjamin Franklin or Shakespeare,” because “her words are now part of the fabric of the English language.” It was “white man’s overbite” that made her an immortelle.

I understand that nothing small ever happens in New York, but the certification of all this Manhattan middlebrow with Rilke, Blake, Eliot, Pound, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Franklin is worth a few thoughts. This habit of analogical exaggeration may be attributed in part to the culture of references in which we live. The common analysis of poems and novels and paintings and songs is now in terms of other poems and novels and paintings and songs, so that the experience of a work of art is preempted by names for it, by an associative shorthand for perceptions that we have forgotten how otherwise to describe, by a loop of allusions that assure us of our in-the-knowness and arm us against any disruption of it. It is a way of playing a game. But there is more. What is gained by the insistence upon these similarities? A certain swollenness of self, obviously; but the vanity of these people is a tired subject. More significantly, the hyperbole also provides a kind of historical consolation—a rumor of greatness in our time. I have no quarrel with the faith in the present, even in our present. It can never be that the best is over. The grand tradition, however you wish to define it, must be of more than museological interest: for the old works to continue to live, they must continue to inspire, to embolden artists with the belief that art of a similar degree of beauty and complexity may again be made. “To be authentic,” Auden once observed, “a work of art must exhibit two contradictory qualities, the quality of always-ness and the quality of now-ness.” The old masterpieces must be models, not relics. The human problems that stimulated them have not disappeared, despite our conviction that everything is different now. Love is still love, pain is still pain, God is still God. (Or not.) So it is not at all blasphemous—tradition is not the same as orthodoxy—to suggest that an heir of Rilke or Dickens may arise among us. But nothing will stunt our reach more than the corruption of our ideas of quality. Lowering a standard is certainly one way of meeting it; but the glory is lost with the strain. The teaching of Rilke, Blake, Eliot, Pound, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Franklin is not: relax, or be yourself. It is: brave the distinctions. The offense in those inflated comparisons is, quite simply, that they are false; and their falsity creates a climate that degrades the very ambition that they pretend to honor. This crap damages the culture. It takes more than the recollection of a rough childhood to make a book Dickensian, and the acceptances and transfigurations of Rilke—which have nothing to do with “the costs of feeling”—are larger and harder than Peter Parker’s struggles with young adulthood, even if the poet never walked up the side of the castle.

“The question of whether excellent old art is preferable to inferior contemporary art or the latter to the first is pretty complicated and painful. I am sure, at least, that excellent old art is not enough.” Donald Judd wrote those words in 1964, and I read them a few weeks ago in Marfa. I have never been to a place that more completely vindicated the sense of possibility about the present—for this reason, a more American place—than Judd’s town in an austere corner of West Texas. His industrial cubes had never spoken to me before; they seemed cold and hard and obvious, and too pared down. In his great renunciation, I thought, he renounced too much. But when I walked into the artillery sheds at the Chinati Foundation, with their long rows of glistening boxes in mill aluminum, I melted. The serenity was startling. In size each box was the same, but each was internally different, and the sensation of unity in diversity was overwhelming. The light cascading through the wall of windows upon the silver containers seemed almost to liquefy them, as their surfaces became mottled with the reflected color of the golden winter grasses whipped by the high winds outside. The high concrete pillars formed the vast interior into naves, and along with the barrel vaults that Judd appended to the roof they intensified the impression that one was standing in a new kind of cathedral. It occurred to me that Judd had come out the other end. He had made geometry rapturous, or rapture geometrical. This was not “minimalism,” it was classicism—the transformation of matter, space, and environment according to rules of proportion and variation that are not subjective but are nonetheless deeply expressive. Like all of Judd’s works, which do nothing to promote themselves, this one had no name, and offered no external assistance or distraction. The reference game was impossible—but not because Judd was uninfluenced. The day before, touring his extraordinary working spaces, I visited his huge library, and was struck by all the art history on his shelves that was missing from his works. That was my mistake. Only a man who had traversed “excellent old art” could have distilled it into excellent new art. In Marfa I saw the now and the always, the concrete and the ideal, the overcoming of urbanity, the quiet clarity of aiming high.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the February 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.