Illustrations Rhonald Blommestijn
Most of us, asked to come up with a list of the world’s greatest paintings, could suggest one or two. But for artist Stephen Farthing, editing the book 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die meant stacking up classics from the whole history of art. "It’s daunting at first," he says. "But you end up chucking stuffout."
Farthing’s comprehensive list includes Jackson Pollock, Picasso’s Guernica, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano, to name only his personal favourites – varied works, but all fulfilling the criteria to be a classic.
"What do they have in common? It’s a sense of order that echoes through time," he says. "Classic is consensus. It’s not something one person can choose. People have to agree, over the years, that something is significant. Things like the Zippo lighter, the Volkswagen Beetle, Ferrari racing cars, Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Japanese woodblocks – these are all things that are unbelievably good, and have been judged over time to be so. It’s like the golden section [in paintings], something that is self-evident. No one would look at these things and say, ‘that’s rubbish’. In each case, the creator has come up with the perfect answer to a problem, and that answer becomes a classic."
Classics, however you define them, have become a contemporary preoccupation. The publishing world is awash with books like 1001 Paintings. Jane Mallison’s recent Book Smart: Your Essential Reading List for Becoming a Literary Genius in 365 Days is one – an unlikely if inspired shortlist of classic reading from Beowulf to a biography of Elvis (Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick).
The internet is even more densely packed with listings of classics in every field, all ranked in round numbers, from the 100 greatest horror films to the top 50 teen novels.
The abundance of digital information brings a vast number of classic works within our reach, without us ever having to leave our armchairs. Moreover, technology means we are more likely than ever to have our own collections of classic films, books, images and music: our very own personal museums of taste.
We’re all connoisseurs of the classics these days – whether it’s gothic novels, first-person shooters or thrash metal that floats our particular boat. Little wonder, then, that a new kind of guidebook has sprung up to help us navigate this sprawling ‘digiverse’. "Books like mine give people a shortcut," says Stephen Farthing.
Classics, through their timelessness, constitute some kind of cultural comfort zone. This could explain why classic goods, although not racking up the sales volumes of high-fashion items, seem to be more recession proof.
Uber-preppy brand Polo Ralph Lauren defied dismal retail trends to see a rise in profits in the US in 2011, while in the UK, Wordsworth Editions, which publishes classic novels at shoestring prices, has more than doubled its sales over the last few years, a time during which book buying has generally decreased. And 2012 may have been the year of Fifty Shades of Grey, but it is a long way off Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities and its 200 million sold since 1859.
Classics are tried and tested, after all. Buying an Eames designer armchair is, in these days of endless choices, a safe option – dozens of museum collections can’t be wrong, can they? From furniture to books or clothing, a product deemed classic has society’s seal of approval and comes with satisfaction guaranteed. But there’s more to it than that – something which Oxford professor and marketing consultant Doug Holt calls experiencing ‘a bit of the myth’ in his book, How Brands Become Icons.
‘Academic research has demonstrated that the extraordinary appeal of the most successful cultural products has been due to their mythic qualities,’ writes Holt.
‘This is a modern secular example of the rituals that anthropologists have documented in every human society. But rather than religion, in modern societies the most influential myths address people’s identities.’
So readers of The Great Gatsby can vicariously experience Jay Gatsby’s heroic reinvention of himself, while drinkers of Coca-Cola can live a nostalgic echo of 1950s Americana.
One thing about classic status is that it cannot be deliberately created. Apple’s iPod, conceived and marketed as a ‘modern classic’, may look convincing now, but the jury is necessarily out as to its long-term status – it will have to stand the all-important test of time.
"I don’t know what’s more iconic, the iPod itself, or the marketing that went along with it," comments product designer and writer Carl Walster. He adds that market domination by Apple, and our readiness to accept its output as contemporary icons, may be "damaging the possibility of any glorious products being designed by smaller manufacturers."
In another field, at the height of his fame, artist Damien Hirst’s prices hit a heady £10.3 million (€12.5 million), for Golden Calf. But that doesn’t mean Golden Calf is a future classic.
Instant successes often fade over time. The Great Gatsby, Bladerunner, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers - all of these were more or less failures on their release, only retrospectively coming to be recognised as all-time greats.
"It’s hard to identify a future classic, because we are really talking about films that have a long cultural afterlife," says film writer and lecturer James Russell. "Casablanca was only a modest hit on release, but has gone on to be repeatedly identified by critics, historians and later generations of film fans as the high-water mark of a particular kind of filmmaking – so the movie is probably a classic. The same is true of Citizen Kane, which wasn’t hugely popular when it was first released, but was identified as a pioneering movie in later decades. Often, the films that are identified as ‘classics’ straight away are a little too tied to the present moment to really live on in people’s minds. That’s why Oscar winners tend to be quickly forgotten."
Literature professor Dr Patrick Hayes of Oxford University points out that there are at least two kinds of classic. "In one sense," he says, "the term classic attributes high intrinsic literary value, that in some way transcends its cultural moment. However, the term can also be used to indicate a specific sense of cultural significance, in which a book is a ‘classic’ precisely because it seems to capture a cultural moment with particular force."
James Joyce’s Ulysses would belong to the first category, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch to the second, but both are currently published under the umbrella of Penguin Modern Classics.
When it comes to books, there is an interesting literary subgenre devoted to analysing what makes a classic. Some of these works are now classics themselves, like Italo Calvino’s 1991 effort, Why Read the Classics?
Calvino’s account lists 14 definitions of a classic, which include ‘a book that never exhausts all it has to say to its readers,’ and one ‘which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.’
In another memorable take on the subject, this time from a cinematic angle, writer Ted Elrick interviewed a number of movie greats for his essay Classic is in the Eye – and Mind – of the Beholder. Director David Lynch told him: "When a film creates a world and characters that you are compelled to visit again and again, it is a classic."
A classic seems bigger than the sum of its parts, and offers us a grander experience than most books, films or products can match – the ‘mythic’ experience of a larger-than-life reality, a moment that we want to relive again and again.
Ultimately, classics are the people’s choice, since no amount of marketing or money can guarantee their elusive immortality. Classic "isn’t something you can force," says Carl Walster. "No matter how a company markets its products, it will always be the consumer base that determines their long-term success."
Coca-Cola famously discovered this fact 28 years ago, when it decided to introduce an ‘improved’ version of its tried-and-tested soda.
Customers hated the substitution so much that the old version had to be reinstated after just weeks, now labelled ‘classic’ as a promise of authenticity.
The label was retained on the company’s US packaging for 25 years before the company finally dared to drop the word ‘classic’.