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I say his quest was likely to fail, because he seemed to strive for what people much better equipped than he struggle to do. He seemed to want a guide to what made art great, why one piece belonged on the Met’s walls and another did not. He knew that the decision involved something beyond personal taste, his or the curator’s. He intuitively rejected the now popular notion that all is up to the individual and that no one thing is inherently better than another. In my more recent museum chats, I could get neither visitors nor museum officials even to begin to address what made one piece particularly worthy. The curators clearly had acted on it. Otherwise the walls and cabinets would be a hodgepodge, and they were not. But no one allowed the conversation to go too far in this direction or even seemed interested in taking it that way.

Remembering him amid my more recent impressions, I set out on a quest of my own. I found precious little guidance. Material on particular works abounds, but there is almost nothing in general. It is, I suppose, the nature of the beast. Art, whether graphic, musical, or literary, deals with profound subtitles. These cannot help but baffle clear analysis. If one could cover the ground analytically, humankind could skip the art altogether and get by with essays. I did, however, find a measure of satisfaction in an unlikely place. Hannah Arendt, hardly an art historian or critic, offered something in an essay, “The Crisis of Culture.” She wrote in the late 1950s and her concern dwelt less on the judgments of curators than on what she called “mass society.” Even so, she gave more of an answer to my question than most. Still, even her towering intellect struggled, fell sometimes into circular arguments, and ultimately offered only the barest outline.

At base, she argues that art, to be considered great, must have the ability to speak powerfully over time to different generations, despite their different tastes, fashion senses, and moral priorities. In saying this, there is no suggestion that great art must be old. Age may make it easier, since viewers know that it has already passed the test of many generations. The question, however, centres less on what has passed than on whether the art — graphic, musical, or literary — will speak profoundly to future generations. Theoretically, it should be possible to make that judgment even before the paint is dry on the canvas or the ink on the manuscript. Practically, however, the skill is rare. It demands that the judge remove himself or herself from his or her own milieu, never an easy matter. The difficulty involved is so great that those who can accurately forecast such durability win the world’s admiration, so much so, in fact, that too many make positive judgments on this score too frequently.

Arendt had hardly unearthed something new. Links between great art and notions of timelessness are at least as old as civilisation. The writings of ancient Greece sometimes seem obsessed with it, though in a slightly different way than Arendt expressed it. It is hardly surprising that the Greeks would look for what perseveres through time. Their circumstances, the circumstances of any ancient people, had to make them acutely sensitive to the impermanence of everything else. Their daily life brought them frequently against the mortality of all living things, certainly more frequently than modern life does. Their circumstances made them more aware than modern people of nature’s ever-changing character. Such feelings appear again and again in their poems, aphorisms, and philosophical works. These emphasise especially, and with some sadness, how the acts of men or women, personal or great, disappear almost immediately unless some artistic effort — a poem, a history, a statue, or a great body of laws — gives them permanence. Without the art, and the Greeks considered law-giving an art, future generations would have no knowledge of what had passed, no matter how great, passionate, or heroic in the moment. Since only art abides and everything else passes, the ancients could not help but see imperishability as part of art’s defining essence.

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