The 50 Greatest Living Artists

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It often seems as though the contemporary world has turned its back on truth, goodness, and beauty.

For centuries, if not millennia, these so-called "transcendental" properties were understood to exist objectively---as a fundamental aspect of the fabric of reality.[1]

Now they are understood---really just assumed---to be thoroughly subjective, nothing more than expressions of personal belief, approval, and taste, ultimately traceable to the language, culture, class, race, gender, etc. to which one belongs.

Truth succumbed first, quite some time ago.

Modern science was born in reaction to the rediscovery of ancient Skepticism---and today's fashionable cultural relativism is really just the poor man's Skepticism. By refusing to engage with the traditional questions about the fundamental nature of reality that had always preoccupied philosophy---by taking everything that could not be weighed and measured off of the table---science began its spectacularly successful career devoted to measuring what was left, while scientists set out on their long march to the positions of prestige and power in society they occupy today. But that success has come at a cost we have barely begun to calculate, including the destruction, not just of objective value, but of the human person itself.

Once truth had been relativized, goodness and beauty could not be far behind. Today, every public school child is taught that nothing anyone does is good or bad, right or wrong, but only "appropriate" or "inappropriate" within particular social contexts. Therefore, no one has the right to "judge" another person, since no one's idea of good and bad behavior is "better" than anyone else's. At most, one may gently urge upon others the maxim: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." (It is never explained why one ought to do so, but let that pass.)

Of all the old objective values, beauty is surely in the worst shape in today's world. Once taken for granted by everyone--- intellectual elites and laypeople alike---as the touchstone of personal cultivation and an essential component of a full and flourishing human life, today beauty has not merely been relativized, it is actively denigrated and despised.

Nowadays, the claim that some landscapes, performances, pictures, poems, songs, etc. are objectively beautiful, while others are objectively ugly, is likely to be either ridiculed, or else---especially in a university setting---denounced as a reactionary attempt by the patriarchate to ram their tastes down the throats of the oppressed and the powerless.

According to this way of thinking, the function performed by the old ideal of beauty must be replaced by the new ideal of "transgression"---"transgressive" being the ultimate term of approbation on today's art scene. The chief purpose of art, we are told, ought to be to "challenge," to "destabilize," and to "repudiate" the established order of things---including several thousand years of Civilization.

We are of a different opinion. We see the most radical---indeed, the most “transgressive”---act possible in today's world to be that of seeking the true, supporting the good, and celebrating the beautiful, not just for pragmatic reasons (though they are many), but also simply for their own sake.

We cannot hope to deal with all the objective values in a single article; truth and goodness will have to wait, for now. But we would like in this essay to celebrate beauty by paying homage to the extraordinary talent of 50 living artists as measured the old-fashioned way---according to the standard of beauty.

Why do we claim that such acts of homage are radical in the current cultural climate?

Because by honoring authentic living connections with the Great Tradition of civilization, east and west, they give the lie to postmodern pretensions to “rupture” and “repudiation.”

Because by practicing truth and sincerity, they break with and repudiate reflexive irony and the hermeneutics of suspicion.

And most of all because, by focusing on beauty---the source of specifically aesthetic pleasure, as opposed to the cheap thrills of limbic arousal---they demonstrate the abiding nobility of the human spirit, as well as its natural authority over the merely animal in man.

In an age when belittling humanity and its works passes for the height of fashion and pseudo-sophistication, what could be more subversive than that?

Dance & Drama | Film | Literature | Music | Painting & Sculpting

For all of these reasons, we offer the following list of 50 of the greatest living artists. They have been chosen because they exalt the human spirit through the creation of elegantly expressive objects and movingly modulated performances. In the words of the great Austrian novelist Adalbert Stifter, such artists produce a "marvelous starry heaven in the heart" (Adalbert Stifter, Der Condor, 1840).

This does not mean that our artists ignore the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" or the "the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that Flesh is heir to" (Hamlet; Act III, Scene I.). Far from it!

It does mean that when they treat of the pain and suffering inherent in the human condition, they do so sincerely, without cheap cynicism.

More important even than sincerity, of course, is virtuosity and inspiration. We live in a therapeutic age, but there is nothing more tonic than a brilliant and fully achieved work of art. Beauty sets us an example that is inherently encouraging, no matter its subject matter. Just by virtue of its own existence, beauty is a proof of the realm of the transcendent.

Polyanna is not beautiful; the Queen of the Night is. In her saccharine mediocrity, Polyanna is depressing; in her sinister magnificence, the Queen of the Night is exhilarating.

The great Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov always used to tell his students (in his day job, as a Cornell English professor---those were the days!) that human beings possess an organ of the body dedicated to the perception of beauty. What is that organ?

The nape of the neck!

The works on this list all pass the Nabokov Test with flying colors. [2]

Lose yourself in these beautiful works and performances, and feel the tingle down your spine as the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up---as though following the example of King George II during the Hallelujah Chorus! [3]

The list consists of 10 persons in each of five categories: Dance and Drama; Film; Literature; Music; and Painting, Sculpture, and Related Media.

Within each category, the lists are alphabetical. Each individual's country and year of birth, as well as primary field of artistic endeavor, are given in parentheses. Note: When the name of an artist's birth country has changed, we give the name it had in the year of his birth first, with the current name afterwards, in square brackets.

In the performing arts categories (Dance and Drama; Music), not only authors (playwrights, choreographers, composers), but also performers (dancers, actors, singers, instrumentalists) are represented, as well as a few directors and conductors.

A few of the artists on our list are quite old, having done their best work decades ago. Others are young and vigorously active. Most of the artists chosen are prolific, but some have only a few, or even in one case a single, masterwork to their credit.

Whatever their individual differences, collectively these 50 artists demonstrate that in our day---rumors to the contrary notwithstanding---beauty is not dead.

Dance & Drama | Film | Literature | Music | Painting & Sculpting

Note: We are aware that Asian artists are underrepresented on our list. However, the reason is by no means that we doubt that the greatest artistic achievements of Islam, India, China, Japan, and elsewhere are aesthetically equal to those of the European Great Tradition. Rather, the reason is simply our lack of expertise in the Asian traditions. Therefore, we invite others to compile a list for the Asian Great Traditions in the same spirit as ours.

Samples from Each Category


Dance and Drama

Svetlana Zakharova

(USSR [Ukraine], 1979; ballerina)

Here she is in Mikhail Fokine's classic 1905 ballet, The Dying Swan, set to Camille Saint-Saëns's "The Swan," from his Carnival of the Animals (1886).

If ever there were a Platonic form of the death of a noble creature, this performance surely approaches as near to it as mortal flesh will allow.

Svetlana Zakharova was born in the provincial town of Lutsk, in what is now Ukraine. She was educated in Kiev and at St. Petersburg's Vaganova Academy, before being admitted to the prestigious Mariinsky Ballet (also in St. Petersburg), where she debuted in 1996. There she rose to international stardom, before moving to Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet in 2003.

Over the years, Zakharova has made an indelible impression with magnificent performances in most of the great classical ballets, including Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and La Bayadère.

Zakharova has it all, combining brilliant technical mastery (especially her exquisite footwork and exceptionally high extensions) with superb musicality and a commanding stage presence. A frequent guest performer at Milan's La Scala theater, she has been recognized as a "prima donna assoluta"---one of only three in the world, currently.

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Terence Davies

(UK, 1945)

Below is one of the most beautiful of the many lovely passages from The Long Day Closes. The song is "Blow the Wind Southerly," performed by the incomparable British contralto, Kathleen Ferrier.

Terence Davies was born in Liverpool, into a working-class Catholic family. He was the youngest of 10 children.

Davies left school early and worked as a shipping clerk for more than a decade, before enrolling in the Coventry Drama School. He made his first short film, Children, in 1976, at the relatively late age of 31. Beautifully shot in black and white,Children is a somber, elegiac study of Davies's own difficult childhood.

His next two films, Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983), follow the central character of Children though youth and manhood, and into old age and death. The three films together are referred to as the Terence Davies Trilogy.

Along with Peter Greenaway, Davies is one of the few formalists working in the English-language cinema. His most characteristic films do not tell stories; they evoke feelings by depicting characters in representative situations. As time has gone by, the situations in Davies's films have become increasingly abstract---and their overall aesthetic effect more and more powerful.

His first full-length feature was Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). Whereas the major themes of the Terence Davies Trilogy were the mother/son relationship and the difficulty involved in being accepted by others and fitting in to society (Davies is gay), in his first major feature film---which was also his first color film---the thematic focus was on the father. Brilliantly embodied by the distinguished British actor Peter Postlethwaite, the father in DVSL is drunken, brutal, sometimes affectionate, always unpredictable---and therefore terrifying.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is an unquestionably brilliant depiction of a certain type of family dysfunction---the patriarchal tyrant. Tonally, it is also relentlessly bleak and pessimistic. DVSL is considered by many to be Davies's best film, but it could be argued that, from a purely aesthetic point of view, it in fact represents a departure from the main line of Davies's work---from the Trilogy to his next and (most would say) greatest cinematic achievement, The Long Day Closes (1992)---which acknowledges suffering, certainly, but also strives toward transcendence.

The Long Day Closes is a small miracle of a film; it should not work, but somehow it does. With the barest hint of a narrative thread, it paints a kaleidoscopic and convincing picture of the inner life of a young boy---another Davies stand-in---in provincial England during the post-war period.

In it, Davies slowly and meticulously assembles a collage of striking images and emotionally resonant sounds (the film includes many beautifully rendered popular songs of the period), to create an overwhelmingly powerful representation of the sorrow, yes, but also the sublimity of an ordinary human life that is perhaps unique in the history of the cinema.

None of Davies's later films ever quite lived up to the standard set by The Long Day Closes. He made several more mainstream commercial films, before returning to his characteristic mature style for an arresting documentary, Of Time and the City (2011).

Of his commercial ventures, however, The House of Mirth (2000), based on the Edith Wharton novel, and The Deep Blue Sea (2011), based on the Terence Rattigan play, are well worth watching. The latter film, especially, is deeply affecting and contains many fine sequences reminiscent of Davies's best work.

In 2015, Davies released Sunset Song, a meditation on the beauty, solitude, and occasional brutality of the lives of Scottish tenant farmers in the early twentieth century. Based on the classic novel of the same name published in 1932 by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the story is told---in stream of consciousness (partly in Scots dialect) and set against the backdrop of the First World War---from the viewpoint of a young girl named Chris Guthrie. Interestingly, it has a strong feminist undercurrent, which is a bit of a new departure for Davies, all of whose previous films, while certainly suffused with a gay sensibility, are nevertheless studiously apolitical, in the sense of expressing sorrow at the human condition as opposed to anger at society.

Like all of Davies's best work, Sunset Song is strongly visual---almost silent, in places. However, here the marriage between the director's real interests---Gesamtkunstwerk and sensuality---and the necessary compromises forced upon him by the exigencies of conventional story-telling result in an ill-matched and uneasy alliance. Sunset Song belongs among the middle tier of Davies's more commercial endeavors, one or two rungs below The Deep Blue Sea.

Davies's most recent film is A Quiet Passion (2016), a study of the life of Emily Dickinson. It is the director's most ambitious attempt to date to meld the sublime lyricism of his best early work with the conventional narrative demands of the commercial cinema. There are many gorgeous passages strewn like jewels throughout the narrative thread of the film, which as a whole leaves an indelible impression of the prickly genius that was the poet of Amherst. However, A Quiet Passion is not a perfect film in the way that The Long Day Closes very nearly is. Far from it. The narrative segments are often marred by a heavy-handed script and awkward acting. But somehow, it all works, more or less. The lyrical passages cause one to forgive the stiffness of the surrounding narrative, while the conventional narrative makes the lyricism more palatable for the uninitiated. It is a good film for anyone who is curious about Davies to begin with, if he or she does not feel ready to tackle the exquisite but unrelentingly austere early works of this great cinematic auteur.

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Ko Un

(Japanese-occupied Korea[South Korea], 1933; poet)

Below is an excerpt from a public reading by Ko, given at a 2006 South Korean poetry festival.

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