Measuring Up

What is the measure of an artist's work? Is it popular success? Personal satisfaction? The outcome of comparative technical analysis or professional criticism?
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What is the measure of an artist's work? Is it popular success? Personal satisfaction? The outcome of comparative technical analysis or professional criticism? Financial power? How about the approval of one's peers? The answer to this question is so important that people change the shape of their lives or, in the worst case, end them, as a result of its pursuit. Countless beer ‘n’ bong debates rage over disputes such as Who's better: Blah or Foo? (Fill in artist names as appropriate.) Simply put, the question of whether one measures up artistically matters to almost every artist — and sometimes most deeply to those who declare that it doesn't matter at all.

One can muster arguments in favor of any of the common yardsticks mentioned above, but I posit that the greatness of an artist requires some sort of success. Defining success is the hard part. Take popular success: they say 50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong. But can they? Huge flash-in-the-pan successes are part of pop history. Lots of fans, lots of money — does that make the artists great?

What about U2, who fill stadiums every time they tour? Or opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini, who, in 1910, drew an estimated 250,000 people to Market Street in downtown San Francisco for a Christmas Eve concert (inspiring a chef in the crowd to invent turkey tetrazzini in her honor)? Are these great artists because so many people want to hear them? Popularity is unquestionably a compelling attribute.

But that doesn't quite ring the bell. If the artist desires to express a particular idea or feeling and believes the work accomplishes that, what more valid measure of success can there be? The fly in the ointment is that the artist (hopefully) is not the only one to whom the work matters, and the rest of the world might not agree with the artist's assessment.

All right, then, let's split the difference and say that greatness can be fairly gauged by a group of people qualified to make judgments, such as fellow artists and professional critics. With the benefit of their expert insights, inner workings of a creation may come to light, facilitating an evaluation based on some relevant scale.

But then you have works such as Stravinsky's “Le Sacre de Printemps,” Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, and Bob Dylan's first electric forays, all of which elicited derision from musicians and critics, as well as from many fans. Furthermore, people “qualified to make judgments” frequently differ in their opinions, depending on what they feel is important. A classical guitarist may not hold the same opinion of Elmore James's technique that Eric Clapton does.

Financial success as a sole criterion doesn't bear discussion, as it is easy to discredit, if difficult to ignore. Besides, we'll only come to the same conclusion: it may have some merit but is not the measure of an artist's work.

If none of these things is the correct measure, then what is? Nothing. There is no single, universal measure of an artist's work. With so many points of view, one person's genius is another's talentless charlatan.

But it gets worse when you consider the fourth dimension. As people grow and mature, their opinions can change, and work that seemed great at one time diminishes, while work once deemed worthless may be judged a masterwork with the understanding that comes with age. So no measure of an artist holds up.

However, I do believe time plays the largest role of any individual factor. Whether or not an artist's work is remembered, if it still seems great with the passage of time, that is powerful. There remains the huge question of who is judging and on what basis, but with the passage of time, we often gain a better perspective on a work. Even popularity grows in significance if retained over years. “Standing the test of time” is very slippery to define, but it is, at least, widely accepted as a valid criterion.

Contributing editorLarry Oppenheimeris a musician, engineer, and sound designer whose San Francisco-based company, Toys in the Attic, provides a variety of musical and audio services.