Some friends and I recently had an email discussion about who the greatest living artist is. We figured Bob Dylan, although he wasn’t necessarily any of our first choices, might win a national poll. The guy that started the discussion was a big proponent of KRS-One. Some other names we batted around were Toni Morrison, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Musicians factored heavily in our discussion, but the distinction is open to people in any medium: visual arts, writing, cinema, performance, music, and, uh, perfumology?
What does being the greatest living artist entail? Is it simply having the greatest impact on the greatest number of people? Maybe we should be talking about Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift or Katy Perry. But being the world’s greatest living artist isn’t just about current popularity. Was Psy the world’s greatest artist for the few weeks or so that “Gangnam Style” was blowing up? What about those “What Does the Fox Say” guys or “The Harlem Shake” guy?* Maybe being a great artist should have something to do with creating enduring impact and beauty – a legacy of greatness.
What if our good friend Leonardo da Vinci were alive today, but he only created one piece, The Mona Lisa? Would that one piece of art be enough to make him the world’s greatest living artist? Does one need a whole oeuvre of work to qualify?
Maybe there’s another J. D. Salinger out there, somebody writing the greatest books ever written, but just sitting on them, or tossing them into the fire upon completion. Would this person qualify as the world’s greatest artist? If a tree falls….
If Bob Ross were still alive, could we call him the world’s greatest living artist? He made a shitload of beautiful paintings, and he had an impact on millions of people. But was that art, or was it craft? Is there a distinction between art and craft? Maybe the difference is that art involves innovation, a certain level of creativity in addition to craftsmanship.
So the criteria for the World’s Greatest Living Artist encompass an enduring, creative, meaningful, beautiful body of work that is widely accessed (damn, that last one disqualifies me). Oh, and aliveness.
In the email discussion, my suggestion that Stephen Colbert is a viable candidate was ignored. But, given that The Colbert Report recently ended, I’d like to reiterate my support for Colbert as the World’s Greatest Living Artist. To describe Colbert as brilliant is to say that the sun is bright. Wit poured forth from him like a, well, it just poured out of him. With The Colbert Report, we were witness to a magnificent performance piece that lasted nine years.
Spigot, that’s it; wit poured forth from him like a spigot, one that he could turn on at will.
He often out-guested his guests with esoteric knowledge about their subject of choice that they themselves didn’t know. He would rip off apropos snippets of poetry from memory. He pushed the boundaries, creating a new genre of activist satire. With his address at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Colbert not only skewered Bush for his multitudinous and multifarious and nefarious follies, he also tore the complacent and complicit press a new one, in the process solidifying his role as a fake newsman who was more real than the real newspeople.
Colbert gave people a voice who were fed up with the ridiculous repetitiveness and inanity of the 24-hour news cycle; an island of insanely sane counterpoint to the nattering nabobs of negativity. He often showcased regular people doing extraordinary things as his guests. He exposed the oligarchic excesses of Citizens United with the formation of his super pac, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” He briefly ran for president.
In short, Stephen Colbert created one of the most enduring, creative, meaningful, beautiful bodies of work in our times, and the massive Colbert Nation became a part of the art piece/movement (Colbert Movement?).** More formidable than any Christo piece, Colbert’s prodigious loincloth enveloped the nation, and in the process we coalesced around the idea that, in spite of many empty proclamations, there is hope for our nation and the world. Take that, Bob Dylan! The times they are a-changin’.
Not convinced that Colbert is the chosen one? Who do you think is the World’s Greatest Living Artist?
If anybody knows Stephen, tell him we’d love him to weigh in on this issue in the comments section. I leave you with this link to his segment “The Word,” from his very first episode, in which he coined the term truthiness, another testament to his legacy.
*Sorry if I got these songs stuck in your head. As we all know, catchiness does not make great art.
**Jon Stewart’s a pretty good guy, too.