When I said earlier today that I preferred Van Gogh’s version of “Noonday Rest” to Millet’s original, some wiseass came along and asked me to expound my “theory of aesthetics” that could justify such a decision. Of course I have no theory of art; I know what moves me, and I could give reasons if I’m forced to think about it. But those reasons could simply be post facto justifications for my emotional reaction to a work of art. And of course different theories will lead to different rankings. It’s for that reason that I’m wary of any supposedly “objective” reason why one work of art is better than another.
But that got me thinking about my favorite aspects of culture, which I’d normally label “the best”; but of course saying “the best” automatically means that it’s your own subjective opinion. These are matters of taste, not science. So I’m going to list off the top of my head the best books, movies, music, and so on—meaning those works I like the most. Regular readers of this site will already know most of my opinions.
I’ll give links to the works, and on another day I might choose different works.
Best painting ancient: The Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald. (1512-1516). Yes, it’s religious, and all about Jesus, but the images of the crucified Christ and the “atomic bomb” Resurrection are fabulous.
Best painting, modern: Almost any van Gogh painted during the last two years of his life.
Best movie, American: The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich (1971)
Best novel: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)
Best novella or short story: The Dead, by James Joyce (1914)
Best memoir: Out of Africa by Isak Dinisen (Karen Blixen; 1937). It’s the prose, Jake.
Best biography: This is a tie. The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro (four volumes, one to go); tied with The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill by William Manchester. Two volumes published, but Manchester died before he could complete the third, which would have begun with Churchill becoming Prime Minister and leading Britain during WW!!. The trilogy was finished by someone else, and I haven’t read the third volume. Everybody’s hoping Caro finishes volume 5 before he passes on. Second place is also by Caro: The Power Broker Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974).
Best rock group (best oeuvre): The Beatles, of course.
Best jazz song: This is a hard one. At the moment, I suppose Ellington’s version of Take the A Train, written by Billy Strayhorn. On another day it might be Potato Head Blues by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven (1927), and yet on another day it would be the heartbreaking version of But Beautiful performed by Art Pepper live on the “Friday Night at the Village Vanguard” album. You won’t find it on YouTube, and the version you’ll hear there is, according to my theory of aural aesthetics, inferior. In fact, I’ve just changed my mind and have moved Pepper into first place. It’s a fabulous song: a musical wail of pain.
Best jazz group (best oeuvre): Duke Ellington between 1940 and 1942.
Best piece of classical music. I don’t know from classical music, and will give no opinion.
Those are my choices and I have no theories to buttress them. You are welcome, nay, encouraged, to list your own choices.