On the Arts: It’s Best to Take Those Lists With a Healthy Skepticism

On the Arts: It’s Best to Take Those Lists With a Healthy Skepticism


Sunday, September 02, 2001

By Rebecca Redshaw

My friend Tom describes the spring of every year as his “tux season.” As a former head of a major Hollywood enterprise, he is invited to — and expected to attend — the plethora of awards shows.

In addition to the big three — the Academy Awards, the Emmys and the Golden Globes — dozens more telecasts have belched onto the television schedule in the past few years, ostensibly to honor those in the profession but also to promote artists and products and make profits. By the last award show of the season, Tom says, his tux is so stiff it could attend the gala on its own.

Far be it for the print world not to join the bandwagon in running a good idea into the ground.

Time magazine devoted a recent issue to American Artists & Entertainers, the first in a series of five, listing only one person in an artistic field as “The Best.” Julia Roberts graced Time’s cover as Best Movie Star, which I’m certain, boosted sales for the week (at least by $3.71 because I reluctantly bought a copy for research).

As I read over their choices, two recurring questions flashed in neon in my mind in capital letters: SAYS WHO? and WHY?

All art is subjective. Unlike the runner who breaks the tape at the end of the 100-meter dash in the Olympics, there really isn’t a “best” artist at the end of the day. Nor should there be. That is, if you’ll pardon the usage of the word in another context, the “Best” part about art — there are no winners or losers.

Frequently, as a writer, I am asked who my favorite author is. That’s impossible for me to answer. There’s a stack of books on my night stand that vary by decade, style and subject.

Frankly, if I could write novels the way Nikki Giovanni writes poetry, I’d be a happy camper. Is she the “best” poet? Maybe — for me — today.

Tomorrow it might be someone else, which makes her status as a writer no less or more, and my judgment of how a writer puts together a sentence no less valid.

I’m not sure how Time assembled this first “Best” list in its series, but for the remaining four lists there is a site online where you can register your choice for America’s Best in Science and Medicine; Culture and Society; Business and Technology; and Politics and Community.

The day I value a random survey by Internet surfers and selected members of Time’s staff determining a list of what is America’s “Best” is the day I turn the radio on to Dr. Laura for psychological advice.

Lists do serve a purpose if they are thoughtfully and purposefully assembled. One of the most prestigious lists assembled in the past five years celebrated the centennial of the American cinema. The American Film Institute in Los Angeles created categories active within the profession — directors, editors, actors, etc. — and on the periphery — film critics, preservationists and film historians. The more than 1,500 people who made up the jury received extensive instructions, as well as a list of more than 500 films from which to choose their 100 favorites.

Bob Gazelle, director of AFI Productions, has been involved from the beginning.

“Film is entirely subjective and a very personal experience,” he said. “So, we honor the collective opinion and try to establish guidelines. The first year, the film had to be American-made and so many minutes in length, but we also asked the jury to consider the cultural significance of the picture. I would guess that’s how ‘Birth of a Nation’ was included.”

Because AFI didn’t opt to choose only one film or one star, the differences of opinion were vast — not to mention healthy. The list created interest in the art of film and succeeded in reviving interest in old movies.

Time and AFI are only two of the thousands of lists available (more than 12,000 Web sites of “Lists”) of one kind or another. That answers the question, “Says who?”

But “Why?”

Must Americans always have a No. 1? Is Sean Penn a better actor than Johnny Depp or Meryl Streep? Is Stephen Sondheim better than his mentors, Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers? Does it matter? Do we care?

Lee Fogarty, a psychologist, shares her opinion on the popularity of lists in today’s society: “People think they need structure and … that they need to be told what to think. They think, I’m ‘in’ if I know I’m supposed to see August Wilson’s latest play and love it. I think it’s a monumental insecurity we have in people being individualists.”

If I cared about cocktail conversation, I guess I would study the rest of the categories in Time more carefully. But it’s not my undying desire to have people think I’m “hip” if I say D.J. Craze is the “Best DJ” or Hilary Hahn is the “Best Young Classical Musician” (not to be confused with the “Best Old Classical Musician” — that category didn’t make the cut).

Anyway, I’m not about to spend another $3.71 on Time’s next “Best” list unless, of course, Tom Cruise is on the cover.