To Understand Great Art, Context is Everything

There are all these lists — The 100 Best ‘Whatevers’ of All Time, that sort of thing — and I often wonder if these movies, books and songs are still any good, if they are still the best.

More often than not, most great art, the best art, from years past — whether it’s one year, two year, or fifty years — does not meet expectations. You go in with the hopes you’ll experience greatness, but come away disappointed.

You understand why the thing could have been great, why its celebrated, but fail to see the true genius of it. Why? Because you missed the thing at the time when the thing was relevant. You don’t have enough context.

Think about comedians. Think about Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin. So much of why their material works or doesn’t work depends upon the context in which the jokes are made. A Richard Pryor joke from 1973 probably doesn’t land the same way in 2018. The whole world is a different place. Are they great comedians? Of course. But great for their time.

So, it’s hard to press upon others how good something is or isn’t, in retrospect. We’ve all got friends who tell us some movie made in 1978 is the best movie of all time, but moviemaking techniques change, technology changes, and most importantly, the world in which we engage with the movie changes.

If you remove that ‘great’ movie from the year 1978, it’s probably no better than the average movie released in 2018. If the context changes, so does everything else — especially the way the art is received.

Now some art is truly timeless. It has lasting qualities, things about it that transcend context. You can engage with that art at any point in history and the core elements shine through. But this art is very rare. Very.

Creators should, of course, strive for timelessness. But they have to work within the context of their medium and the time period in which they are alive. Otherwise, they’re too far ahead, out there in front of the pack, doing things that do not yet exist, or too far in the past, referencing things that nobody remembers. Either way, they make things nobody understands.

Timeless is tough. And very few things are truly great. You need context.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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