AA. What You Got Wrong
So when you make an intentionally bad list of the greatest art ever made, obviously you need a lot of skill. There are all sorts of TV shows that belong on this list about which you’d forgotten completely: among sitcoms, where is Frasier, Louie, Taxi, Everybody Loves Raymond, How I Met Your Mother? Where are the Apatow TV comedies like Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared (neither of which you’ve seen)? Where are dramas like Breaking Bad (also not seen) or Big Love (seen every episode). None of these suggestions will break the hold of either early Simpsons or I, Claudius, but you realize that there are enormous TV problems with this list. For a self-professed charter member of the TV generation, you’re not entirely happy with where TV has led us. And besides, you have no idea how you could have believed that Season 4 of The Simpsons is the third-greatest work of art in World History when it’s plainly clear that Season 5 was better.
You’re equally miffed about putting The Canterbury Tales on this list. Do you remember how much you couldn’t stand certain parts of it - there were certain tales, not just Sir Thopas, that were written to be intentionally tedious. Even if you haven’t finished it , you’re quite certain that Eugene Onegin belongs on this list before Canterbury, much as you love The Miller’s Tale and The Wife of Bath and (in your perverse way) the Prioress’s Tale.
Among books, there are all sorts of regrets you have already. Saying that Tolstoy is lacking humor is a stunningly ignorant statement, even if the humor is usually quite dry. You wish you could find it in yourself to put down Jane Austen, since her little world contains precisely the balance of poignance and humor which you so claim to value, yet you’re bored stiff by Jane Austen and her trivial tales of women gossiping in drawing rooms. You wonder if other women like Willa Cather or Virginia Woolf, or even Katherine Mansfield (the last of whom you’ve never read a word of) belong on the list: My Antonia is a beautifully elegiac book - an absolutely gorgeous celebration of life on or off the prairie, but you can’t remembe a single comic moment in the whole thing. Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse might be laborious reads, but they are amazing, deeply felt considerations of the passing of time. They don’t belong on the top list, but they certainly bear mention.
The list of writers you never want to read again goes on for pages: it includes (but is hardly limited to) Dante, Milton, Goethe, Thomas Mann, Nietzsche, Proust (I’ll give him a few more chances), Alexander Pope, Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, TS Eliot, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson, the Rosettis, Faulkner, Whitman, Flaubert, Borges, Blake, Nabokov, and Dostoevsky. The sad part is, you probably will read many of them again, if only to be reminded of how bored you are. Reading ‘great literature’ is a sad process as you realize how much you have to actually read merely to earn the right to say you don’t like it.
Feeling as comfortable as you do with the classical canon, you realize that you’ve said all you need to say about it. But it’s ‘popular’ music on which you feel you’ve failed. Not so much on recent pop music as the ’old-timey’ stuff. How could any list of funny-poignant not include Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Flanders and Swann, or those comparative young’uns, Lieber & Stoller? How could you not think of Duke Ellington or the Gershwins?
You did a reasonably good job with theater, though you might have included Death of a Salesman or Mother Courage. You might have been a little hard on Beckett, who can ‘move’ if you’re in the right mood, in Endgame as well as Godot. Perhaps Angels in America belongs on this list too - certainly no other American play in our generation compares to it. Perhaps Look Back in Anger belongs there too - which people write off as a dated play but strikes you as something fit for a real revival. Were you too hard on Albee? You remember being on the verge of tears by the end of The Goat while you were living in London - and you can certainly understand how people might find Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to be a moving play, even if you think it’s meant purely as a piece of pretty delicious nastiness. Perhaps Thorton Wilder bore a mention too, certainly Our Town does, which is as great an American play as The Glass Menagerie or Angels in America. Again, does Noel Coward bare a mention here? You’re really not sure, and you don’t remember Private Lives well enough to say. And what about all those wonderful contemporary British playwrights who are simply too intelligent for mainstream Ameican success? Surely Democracy by Michael Frayn has to belong on any list, or The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Stoppard is too clever for his own good (though you did enjoy reading Coasts of Utopia and The Invention of Love - though you’d wonder if Stoppard has anything human to say about someone who isn’t a famous writer). And certainly there has to be at least one or two by August Wilson....OK, you did a horrible job with theater.
And then there’s visual art: which you left completely off the list. Der Koosh was right to complain, but how can a colorblind guy with shaky hands possibly judge a medium he’s incapable of participating in himself? Certainly there are many whom you’d like to put down, but for you, there is so much art that is too larger-than-life. You look at all those great Italian Rennaissance paintings and you’re undeniably impressed by them, but you feel like you have to suppress the urge to scream out ‘Yeah Baby!’ There must have been a time in history when those ostentatious displays of wealth were considered classy, but you’d have a hard time believing that any of these works are worth more than ten minutes every couple years in a gallery. More to your taste is the more human work that you can live with. As the Yiddish speaker you were raised to be, Isaac Bashevis Singer is your favorite writer, and Chagall is your favorite painter. But Chagall has something approaching a real sense of humor, not quite, but close. You find the understatement of Rembrandt and the overstatement of Goya a much more human response to painting than most anything in Rennaisance art, except maybe Michelangelo and Bernini - like George Costanza, you were always a secret architect at heart. You always wanted to live in a house like Monticello, without slaves of course (though it would be nice to have 200 unpaid workers). You certainly loved all those 19th century painters: Turner and Van Gogh, Munch and Delacroix once upon a time, but much of their work now strikes you as intensity for its own sake - get over yourself!..you want to scream.
But even if you don’t necessarily love either the Rennaisance or Romanticism, you retain a soft spot for the old Northern Europeans like Bosch and Breughel who have that darkly comic sensibility you like - yo’re not sure if they’re just over the top manic or if they mean it tongue in cheek, but you prefer to view it through the latter. In a completely different way, you’ve finally begun to warm to pre-and-post impressionists like Matisse, Manet, Cezanne (whom you always liked), Toulouse-Latrec, Degas and especially Renoir, whose work used to seem embarrassingly trivial, but now seems endearingly human. Other painters are engaged in an arms race for who can make the most larger-than-life scenes, but these are Renoir is only interested in what we humans can do.
These are just some of the many things you got wrong....no doubt you got some of these wrong too.
Back to the beginnng …
39 minutes ago