Tasting Excellence

Way back in the beginning of January, I wrote in Feast On! that we should be giving our children a steady diet of truly great food for the mind – in art, music, books, movies, and other experiences that build up what I call a mental library of ideas. We need to give them a taste for excellence.

I’ve been thinking about that article, and ruminating over a question that could easily flow from such a challenge: how do we know what is truly great? To answer that (far too briefly, I’m sorry), let me ask a few smaller, related questions:

Is the work timeless? One of the hallmarks of great art – and by art I mean all artistic endeavors: painting, literature, music, movies, etc. – is that it has stood the test of time. To last through generations, a work must have an ageless quality that keeps it fresh despite changes in the culture around it. That said, there are newer works with that same lasting attribute. A knowledgeable reviewer can help identify those.

Is the work praised by knowledgeable critics? Many people distrust critics for a variety of reasons, foremost among them being radically different value systems. It is true that highly praised works of art could still be very offensive to you and your family. But reviewers are still helpful. They can guide us to well-constructed works, then we can make our own value judgments of the content. There are excellent works that are objectionable; but there are also inoffensive works that fall far below excellence. I like to start with a consensus of reviewers to gauge the craft of the work, then dig deeper – between the lines of the review – to judge whether I’d be offended by the content.

Does the work resonate? Great works of art touch us. They speak to us of deep things, things that matter. There’s something universal about true art that speaks to the human condition. Personally, I add another qualifier: is it uplifting? It doesn’t need to have a happy ending, but it needs to leave a trace of hope or forgiveness or redemption.

The menu of artistic expression can be bewildering. I hope these guidelines will you to choose heaping helpings of the very best.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter