Greatest Artist of All Time
The decision should be Bono’s
As we near the world-televised ceremony for the 95th Oscars, an event that will claim to designate the finest artists active in cinema, let us turn our attention away from that set of petty revelations toward an inquiry that most consider so extensive and consequential as to lie comfortably beyond reckoning. That is the question of who is the greatest artist of all time, across media, spanning all eras, and including, if we wish, all species.
First, let us accept that no species other than Homo sapiens has contributed meaningfully to the arts. We may offer, diplomatically, the caveat that “the arts” is a category invented and tended by humankind, and if other species seem aloof, that says very little about the richness of their inner lives, only that it will not be measured by human concepts like “meaning,” “beauty,” and “style.” Cave paintings found near Malaga, Spain, are attributed to Neanderthal artists, which, if true, will at least mean that Homo sapiens is not alone in the race. But even a generous assessment of these abstract works in red ochre must ultimately allow for their inferiority to the oeuvre of singer-songwriter-producer Seal.
We propose that the greatest artist of all time is Seal, and we call upon Bono to confirm this fact. “Why Seal?” probably doesn’t need much answering. If you had another artist in mind — Virginia Woolf, Beethoven, Gu Kaizhi — you will at least admit that your pick isn’t clearly superior to Seal, and that trying to establish his or her superiority would require many hours of elaborate apologia. Imagine a small sea of options, each nominated by their own camp of impassioned supporters, and you realize the logistical morass that would need wading through en route to a conclusion. Better, then, if we can appeal to an expert: Bono.
And so “Why Bono?” is the pressing question. Bono, himself an artist of immense achievement, has spoken publicly about a selection of topics sufficiently broad that most people have a good sense of who he is; they know him to be thoughtful, considered, moral, and consistent. It is also no secret that Bono’s success has made him wealthy. This affluence, in combination with celebrity, means that he has had access not just to the great museums and public performances of the world, but also to private collections and recitals that are walled off to most of us. While acknowledging, then, that no “perfect” judge can exist for settling the question at hand, we propose that there is not a better judge than Bono.
We will now preemptively consider several alternatives to Bono, and show why each would be worse equipped to resolve the question of Seal’s supremacy.
Mick Jagger was a central figure in the arts for more than a decade, and has graduated to an elder statesman role. Undoubtedly, he has enjoyed access to a wide variety of the 20th and 21st centuries’ greatest art. He is intelligent, ruthless, and an excellent performer. But nothing suggests he possesses Bono’s seriousness or humility, two qualities that will be essential in demonstrating that Seal is a better artist than, say, Homer.
Beyoncé has been lauded from nearly all quarters for the quality of her artistic statements, and has shown a willingness to examine and comment on the nexus of art and society. It will be valuable, one day, to ask Beyoncé to confirm Seal’s status, but now is too soon. At 41 years old, Beyoncé has done 51% less living (relative to her own age) than Bono, who is 62. While it makes her comfortably the more athletic dancer, that age difference is an insurmountable disadvantage for a person adjudicating the quality of Seal’s art relative to that of Goya, Emily Dickinson, and Michelangelo.
Tom Hanks has enjoyed several decades of fame, access, and adulation. If he decided that Seal is the finest artist ever to have lived, it would carry much weight with many people. But not all people. Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which, Tom Hanks having decided that Seal is indeed best, Robert DeNiro makes it known that he disagrees. Perhaps Mr. DeNiro says that his vote would go to Janet Jackson, or to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The ensuing rift in our public space would easily dwarf our present moment’s political squabbles. In the end, Tom Hanks is a figure whose thoughts on important matters, while of interest, are not viewed by most people to be incontestable.
And so it goes as we make our way down the list of hypothetical arbiters. If you have found a candidate who enjoys public trust and respect, then they have shown only a modest interest in art. If you propose one whose name is synonymous with creative quality, then they are a private person who has avoided allowing us to know their mind on many matters.
Let this essay serve two purposes:
As an exhortation to Bono to consider the question of who is the greatest artist of all time, in any medium, even if that artist be not human (though as discussed above, this appears unlikely). Having settled the matter to his own satisfaction, let Bono announce his decision.
As a call for alternatives to Bono in the role of arbiter. If the results of Purpose 1 are to have their desired effect — of persuasively resolving this question to most people’s satisfaction — they will rest on a thoroughly settled foundation of the arbiter’s identity. Any significant disagreement on this antecedent matter will sap the power of completing Purpose 1.
To accomplish the first purpose, we will rely on help from readers of this journal. It is highly likely that among our readership is a friend or associate of Bono’s — that person’s role should be clear, and we trust they will perform it with alacrity.
The second purpose will also fall to you, the readership. After due consideration, please answer the poll at the bottom of this essay, and if you say nay, use the comments to offer at least one example of a living person whom you view as a more desirable choice.
Gazing at a painting even now,
Chris & Keith 🎭
I am as impressed here by the cogency of your reasoning as I am by the fastidiousness of your punctuation, which - in this and every WAS missive - is frankly impeccable. (You do miss one comma in the parenthetical, “though as discussed above, this appears unlikely” [sic], but I can only imagine you must have been writing at exhilarated speed.)
The only problem with trusting Bono’s sound judgement, I humbly venture, is his own unmistakable high regard for the rock band U2. Now, while not without significant contribution to the world’s store of valuable, albeit human-sanctioned, culture, this is a group of which we would expect a more rigorously critical assessment from someone we regard as a bona fide arbiter of this planet’s artistic achievement. So, who does that leave, if not Dolly Parton, The Mandalorian, or, indeed, The Lawnmower Man? Tilda Swinton is a perfectly acceptable substitute, I agree, and yet she’s no Cate Blanchett. Who is? I would suggest Cate Blanchett.
For she is the rose. And hers is the kiss.
Also, there’s a good chance that she would rightly select Ace of Bass over Seal.
You make a genuinely compelling argument for Bono here- but the forced album download on iPhone is too glaring an error to overlook, and ultimately calls his judgement into question too heavily for his word to be unimpeachable.
Instead, allow me to offer the following candidate:
•Twenty-nine years older than Bono
•A career spanning over seven decades; stage, screen, television, music and literature
•International icon status; also recognizable by a single name…and he’s been to space.