Why Rendering Something a Classic Makes it Lose its Appeal

January 13, 2010

image taken from Worth1000’s Star Wars + Classic Art contest (http://fx.worth1000.com/contests/20242/missing-title)

Labeling a work as classic status undoubtedly bestows a high honor.  It implicates that the work will be remembered and revered over time, that its material is thought to evoke the imagination and stimulate intellectual fodder to chew on not only in the present, but for future generations to come.  It champions the creator’s innovative thought processes which in turn, like a double-edged sword, champions the generation the creator thrived in.  Listening to the symphonies of Brahms brings to mind the Romanticist society of the 19th century, Jane Austen causes us to remember Victorian sensibilities, Da Vinci the golden era of the Renaissance. 

However, once something is judged to be a classic, it seems to undergo a metamorphosis in the public mind.  Even criticisms against it seem to stem from a new reverent standpoint — the banter of the educated.  Theorists scrutinize and analyze every last detail to the death.  In some instances, it is not enough, say, to merely listen to Debussy — you are expected to know the terms and political history that inspired his composition style.  How is impressionism different from romanticism?  Actually, IS Debussy considered impressionist?  What Asianic music styles did he draw influence from? — and so on and so forth.

In classes I have taken, the things that were once our friends — certain books, certain pieces of music, certain works of art — were dissected so thoroughly by teachers and professors, every minute detail taken into fullblown force.  The part in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield shatters the record he purchased for little sister Phoebe ceased to be an event; instead, it became a metaphor because, see, the shattered record was the shattered pieces of his childhood (and god forbid if you did not see it that way!).  Every time Beethoven made a transposition in his Eroica symphony, we had to mark and analyze and listen to on a neverending loop.  Suddenly everything Sylvia Plath penned had MEANING (in capital letters).   If one were given a poor instructor who seemed to champion his or her own interpretation of a work above that of the student’s, paper-writing time became a strenuous time of debating whether to suck up for a decent grade or fight for one’s interpretational integrity.  Often at the end of the semester, we realized that these works we once used to enjoy ceased to become our friends.  Nor were they necessarily enemies — they simply became too scholarly to enjoy. 

This mindset towards the classics also exists outside the school.  We tend to take our classics seriously — even if they were considered a farce in their time.  Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical numbers, for example, were operatic parodies that tickled the audience of their period.  Today, they are viewed with respectful silence and respectful laughter tucked neatly in their proper places.  Monty Python sketches presently provide laughter material for the intellectual familiar with Che Guavara, Mao TseDong, Karl Marx — whereas in their hayday, they were a comedic troupe that performed comedy for the common man.  Remember when The Beatles used to be fun to listen to without all the baggage of considering the history and evolution of Brit rock, what each and every song is supposed to mean, and what it sounds like when played backwards?  For that matter, remember when The Sex Pistols actually used to sound raw and angry instead of being an important example of the archetypical sound of Brit punk in its day?

While appreciating a work throughout the ages and understanding its historical background is imporant, there is a certain chore to it.  It is not easy to fully appreciate, for most of us, outmoded works — most of them are not outwardedly relevant in the present and the vast majority of them have become objects of Study.  They have, in short, not become relics to appreciate as much as relics to gruel over and memorize.

To raise something into reverent classic status also poses dangers.  Take, for instance, Sherlock Holmes (you may scroll some posts down for the full article).  When Conan Doyle penned Holmes, the stories of Holmes was probably like the CSI of the 19th century — good, solid entertainment for all.  Unfortunately, judging from some critic reviews of the new Holmes movie, Holmes has sort of become Victorian Shakespeare — and Holmes engrained in imaginations as stoic, noble, intelligent, brainy instead of how Doyle envisioned him — strong, a sturdy boxer, a bit of a slob, arrogant, intelligent but socially inept.  How will Harry Potter, I wonder, be envisioned as to the future generations to come? (for I do think the Potter novels are destined to become classics).  Perhaps they will view him as noble and courageous, as he undoubtedly is, but will probably forget that he was prone to lose his temper, an occasional prankster on the side,  ill-dressed on account of wearing Dudley’s old clothes, and scrawny as a result of being constantly underfed by the Dursleys (come to think of it, the movies have forgotten a great deal already).  Somehow with classics we want to make everything prettier, to largely remember the good over the bad.  Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, for an added example, is considered today as an epic masterpiece of choral-symphonic writing but remembered less for the numerous drunken orgies and horny virgins that sing from the pages.

Is there a way to make old works appealing to new generations — to present them in a fresh, creative manner that captures imaginations as they have done in their time?  Pithly put, it is not an easy task.  I remember more Fails than Sucesses — Romeo and Juliet in tube tops and switchblades, Don Giovanni scarfing McDonald’s before being pulled into the underground alleys of New York, Swan Lake excerpts with clumsy shadow puppets, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Now with Ultraviolet Mayhem! are just a few contestants for the Fail bin.  Ideally, there should be some way to preserve our classics and make them interesting for new generations but I suppose that depends on one’s answer to the question: is it better to love a work for what it is, or is it better to become thoroughly educated about it — every gritty detail– and its implications in history, etc? 

I just want to finish by saying that it has been a very long time since I’ve listened to Brahms’ Fourth — the love of my 5th grade year — and marveled at its beauty and ingenuity instead of listening to it and thinking, “Oh, that modulation again.”

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