Talent can certainly be judged in retrospect. It is difficult to see the lasting impact of a musicians work on the cultural ethos without a prolonged period to examine their efforts. However, that does not imply that a popular musician’s talent cannot be assessed during their lifetime. A musician may have created a great work of art in their youth and have grown to see its influence on cultural discourse.
Talent is a subjective term and is perceived differently by different audiences. Talent is also a culturally determined value, what one culture sees as brilliant work of art another may see as failure.
There are many examples of great popular musicians who had a lasting impact on their craft before their death. Even before his death, Duke Ellington was cited as one of the most important musicians in the America. Jazz music was still in its early stages of development and Ellington brought it to the forefront of American music in his performance at Carnegie Hall. We see Duke as talented for two reasons: the strength of his music, and the barriers he had to overcome to spread the music. Ellington himself lived to see his influence on other Jazz musicians who followed in his footsteps. While we treat him with a new kind of reverence, there was no doubt of his talent. Our reverence for Duke Ellington is not solely based on his musical ability, but the cultural forces he had to fight. It is possible that we can more accurately assess the pure musical ability of Ellington in retrospect, but we are listening to the music anachronistically. Therefore we may miss out on the details that made his work a staple of American music in the first place.
Fame may cloud honest assessment in many cases but that does not imply that several generations must pass before evaluating their talent. many musicians are deemed talented precisely because they can accurately capture the culture in which they are living. The Miles Davis Album Kind of Blue, the best selling Jazz record of all time, is thought to have captured some cultural moment of the late 1950’s. Today we have great reverence for this album, but the album was not without praise in 1959. Miles Davis has only been dead one generation, but his influence on American music is hardly overestimated. In his final years, people touted Miles Davis as one of America’s defining musicians who had the courage to explore new territory in Jazz while laying the groundwork for new genres. Davis’ contemporaries were able to speak to his great talent. Perhaps the impact of the music could not be accurately assessed during Davis’ lifetime, but his talent could not be ignored.
The most revered musicians in the western cannon have survived the test of history. However, the test of history is far more complex than a simple test of talent. There are many talented musicians who never become discovered and many untalented musicians who have lasted generation simply due to their relationships with the authors of history. Records (and here I mean written records) may illuminate varying opinions of “talented” musicians. Mozart wrote music for the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and while we see him as talented today, if he had been born into a different set of circumstances we may have dismissed his work. Mozart may have fallen by the wayside if the Empire had lost a battle or two. He may have been talented, but hegemonic forces dictate what we perceive to be talent.
This claim relies on the position that talent can be objectively measured. Music is an art form and different kinds of music appeal to different kinds of people. In may cases it seems that musicians that we deem the most talented only apply in a narrow subset of genres.
Trying to define good art and bad art has been a source of contention among scholars since aesthetics became part of academic discourse. There are many differing positions on this issue, but I agree that art that is truly moving can be understood by the ‘masses.’ The masses however are not singularly defined. Art is an expression of cultural moments and traditions that do not always cross boundaries. The old phrase ‘beauty is in the eyes of the beholder’ can still hold true but art that is thought of as great may be beautiful to some can be ugly to others.
Greatness is a subjective value judgement. There are many works of art that can pass a test of greatness among one cultural group but not in another. If one adjusts their perspective to fit within a new cultural context, the test of greatness will be altered. There are many works of art with mass appeal, but one often finds that they do not affect their viewers in a particularly profound way. American pop music, for example, obviously appeals to a large segment of the global population but the extent to which the lyricism and songwriting produces an emotional reaction will vary greatly depending on context. Many pop stars all over the world appeal to the masses within their country (or regional bloc), but do not necessarily appeal to the larger world. This is partly due to language and lyricism but even music without lyrics is contextualized within cultural moments. Miles Davis’ seminal album Kind of Blue is revered in the United States and much of Europe, perhaps even globally, but how well is it really ‘understood.’
Usually, art that holds mass appeal as a goal falls short of great. Great art must stand the test of time and must hold its appeal. Some of the most enduring artists of the 20th century were rebuffed by the masses as irrelevant but later seen by later generations as encompassing a great cultural moment. Pablo Picasso had much success as a classically trained artist, but when he refocused his attention to geometric shapes to evoke a new perspective among viewers, the public was not apt to give him a chance. Almost eighty years later, Picasso is revered as a champion of the avant-garde movement and is one of the most renowned artists in the western world.
While Picasso’s art may be revered in the western world, the global community may not be singing his praises. The west may hold that Picasso’s art holds ‘universal’ appeal, but his reputation in the Eastern Hemisphere may not be so glowing. As westerners, what we hold to have mass appeal may indeed appeal to some mass, and by mass I mean a large cross-section of humanity. The world is inhabited by many communities each with their own perspectives and histories. These perspectives shape the way we view art. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ may be one of the most emotionally raw and poignant works in the Western Hemisphere, but without understanding its historical connection to World War II and the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, its meaning would be lost on many viewers.
The ‘understanding’ of art is not objective. Sometimes art is not understood, but it can still be enjoyed. Great art is understood by the masses, but they must relate to the masses’ context. As the world becomes more global and cultural boundaries dissipate, artistic language will no doubt evolve. Yes great art appeals to the masses, but those masses are ever changing, the real and true test of art is not simply its ability to be understood by the masses, but its ability to stand the test of time.