So here’s the deal. The King James Bible, The Wizard of Oz, and the
UN Secretariat building in New York are all magnificent, towering achievements
on an artistic level. Can you imagine a "Bible as Literature" class
based on the New English Bible? Can you think of a film which has resonated
in the general public’s imagination more strongly or for longer than The
Wizard of Oz? Can you think of a building in New York more perfect than
the UN Secretariat?
I’m serious about the UN Secretariat, by the way. When I first arrived in New
York, I was magnetically attracted to the gleaming Chrysler Building, of course.
And then after working downtown for a while I moved my affections over to the
Woolworth Building. But the UN is probably closer to perfect than either of
them – and beats, in my view, the Park Avenue icons of the Seagram Building
and Lever House.
No, that’s not the answer. But ask yourself why the Seagram Building and Lever
House are so hugely admired, while the UN Secretariat is often forgotten. It’s
obvious: the Seagram was built by Mies and Johnson, while Lever House was built
by Gordon Bunshaft. The UN Secretariat, by contrast, was built by, um…
So that’s what I was driving at. When we think great literature, we think Shakespeare,
Tolstoy, Nabokov – authors. When film buffs talk of the greats,
they talk of Fellini and Wilder and Godard. Hell, pick up this week’s New
Yorker, and turn to Anthony Lane’s cinema review. Check out the caption
on the illustration: "Tom Cruise as special agent Ethan Hunt in J.J.
Abrams’s movie." Yes, even M:i:III, the ur-blockbuster, the ultimate
star-driven film, is attributed to one J.J. Abrams – someone who couldn’t
even be called a film director before this movie came out, because he’d never
directed a film before.
One minor milestone in the intellectual development of a child is when they
start moving away from liking certain books and certain music, and start liking
certain authors and certain bands. And once you go there, it’s almost impossible
to go back: everyone seems determined to give almost everything an author. (Which
might be one of the reasons why conspiracy theories are so common, and opposition
to Darwinism is so widespread.)
I’ve written before about
how such attributions of authorship can be silly, but they’re also important,
because great works of art can actually get much less attention than they ought
to if there isn’t an author to glorify.
The three examples in my contest, then, are all works of art which don’t have
a single author who can take the credit and the glory – and for that reason,
I think, they’re often overlooked when they would never be if they were "by"
someone famous. This is not a question of things being designed by committee,
although Miss Representation was closer to the answer than anybody else. But
in fact the fact that we want to attribute authorship of these artworks to someone,
or something, even if it’s only a committee, is telling. An artist, on one popular
view, is one of the three necessary elements for a work of art to exist, the
other two being an art object and a viewer. I hold up three possible counterexamples.