Pierre-Étienne-Théodore Rousseau worked on The Forest in Winter at Sunset (above) for over twenty years. As I disappeared into the warm thrill of its terror, it occured to me that no matter what I do in my life it's unlikely that I will work on anything for twenty years, much less ten or five.

I was visiting the Met in New York, and this revelation – along with other works I saw there – brought to light an obsession I have with greatness. Not just my personal progress or regress towards an idea of it, but how it has changed over time and what it actually means.

In the past, to be canonized traditionally meant you had a single piece and/or a body of work that was impressive in its difficulty. Whether this meant massive tedium, groundbreaking insight, or thriving in spite of adverse circumstances varies from genius to genius (and those labeling them geniuses). For whatever reason, it was something that could be appreciated – but not duplicated – by

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a large population.

Greatness used to be reached at an early age because people just didn't live that long. Dickens wrote Oliver Twist when he was 25 but he only lived until he was 58. Yet the age that genius is expected to emerge has remained static. If you haven't found your calling by the time you're 21, settle in for a nice long life of anonymity. The cycles of greatness have also become tighter and tighter, now averaging only a few years. Even consistently popular artists like the Rolling Stones simply spark new cycles rather than continuing the first (started when they were around 20 years old I might add).

Part of this fickleness has to do with the dilution of the product. The celebration of the everyman – recently brought to the vomiting point by ironically named reality television – as well as GarageBand, digital photography, and blogs, has eroded the barriers to entry into

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the gallery of popular awareness. This gallery has become so expansive that there are no longer Mona Lisas or Beatles, but only temporary and disposable Survivors (both show and band) and Piss Christs, and your projected life-span will not carry you through more than a relatively small number of these exhibits.

Perhaps we are witnessing the creation of Borges' Library of Babel, with its invariable distribution of galleries and absence of landmarks.

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And like Borges' story, I imagine that we travel in our youth to find a book, until our eyes are too poor to read, only to find ourselves a few galleries away from the one we left.

But the truth is that the times of greatness are romantically desirable and realistically horrible. We'd rather live longer, have our views expressed to even a modest sized audience instead of not at all, and build our personal kingdoms.

The current system of greatness both inspires – by demonstrating the amazing potential of the human race – and oppresses – by raising the fruit of cultural capital above the hands of the masses. A more inclusive system of greatness does not necessarily mean a lowering of standards, but perhaps a more comprehensive documentation. Biographies and stories of triumph read like grad school resumes: They string together life's events as if they were always leading to their destination. In reality, even the most profound geniuses have their failures, doubts, and red-herrings. On the other side of the coin, many instances of brilliance go uncelebrated because the surrounding context did not support the incident.

Many of us collect artifacts of greatness as if our selective appreciation of genius or heroism would somehow allow us to bask in its glow. I would recommend a complete disposal of this practice if it didn't leave us all directionless and empty. I still might. The best we can do in the meantime is to practice a more robust value system and realize that yes, as readers we play a vital role in the meaning of cultural artifacts, but we still didn't make them.
Update: A strange parallel to this entry was posted on wired.com today.

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