I usually don't write about the arts because, quite honestly, I don't know that much about them. While I've been to many of the great museums, seen a number of operas and ballets and modern dance performances and plays and musical events, my "scholarly knowledge" of all of that is minimal. I do know when I like something and when I don't, but being able to express what I like (or don't like) in educated terms is something I can't do.
What I can say is that good art gives you earworms. What are earworms? That's the term for that annoying snippet of a song that gets stuck in your head for a while. For example, around this time you might find yourself "rum-pum-pumming" to "Little Drummer Boy" for no reason except that the tune is running through your mind. I admit that it's difficult for a piece of art to get stuck quite the same way that a melody does, but believe me, it can and does. Sometimes it's the color, sometimes it's the composition - but if you find yourself thinking about Monet's Waterlillies or Rosetti's Beata Beatrix, that's an earworm.
You may not realize what the dance step is called, but when you see a triple fouette it's impressive and the sight will remain with you. A hauntingly beautiful sonata can do the same. So can a passage from a book, or a movie.
What's "great" however, is up to you - the audience. I am of the opinion that even the mediocre can be elevated to great by one element. For example, to me, this lyric from Beau Dommage rescues an otherwise so-so song:
"Ne a Montreal
D'une famille normale
Eleve dans le noir
Entre la t.v.
Et le purgatoire"
(very loose translation: Born in Montreal to an average family, raised in the dark between tv and purgatory). What an image!
The movie Casablanca was considered mediocre, but how much of the dialog has entered our culture? I'm shocked, shocked that you would think that movie anything but great.
Almost 30 years ago I read Night by Elie Weisel. There's a passage that haunts me to this day - an earworm that elevated the book in a way that The Diary of Anne Frank has never done.
That's right: earworms strike again.
Last night I was at Rose Hall at the Jazz at Lincoln Center space. (Side note: if you ever get a chance to go, do so!) The performances were great, but the "earworms" I'll take with me are of tiny fingers flying over a keyboad producing a torrent of sound... the high note on "Ave Maria"... a string sextet weaving melodies onto melodies... What did I hear? It doesn't matter. It was great because those moments stayed with me and will live in my memory.
Don't let anyone tell you that you don't know great art. If you get earworms, you do.