How to Create a Classic

It’s one thing to write a story, compose music, or paint a landscape; it is another to create the work itself so that there is a distinction about what is it (a detective novel, a sonata, or a still life) and what is it really about (end of life as we know it, a protest against communism, a look back at something lost never to be regained).

Artists (painters, writers, photographers, musicians, etc.) do their best work when they raise the stakes to a universal theme and address it via a global level, even if it appears that the work is simple in nature to begin with (“it’s just a detective novel”).

Classics become classics because they reach deeply within. Will getting these elements together guarantee you have a classic? Not at all. Or, if at all, probably not in your lifetime. But it does help your art and many times your bank account.

It’s said that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Why is that? So we can diatribe on Facebook and Twitter about our favorite political candidate? Not at all.

Looking at yourself, which would you prefer: being directly hit over the head with a two-by-four, or playing with your best friend and “accidentally” getting hit over the head with a two-by-four?

StarryNightVincentVanGoghBeing the father of two children, I can testify that the second one doesn’t even hurt. With the former, at least one child cries and comes running to me. With the latter, they all laugh and go at it again. The same is true with us as it is with children.

People want to be entertained. That’s the obvious point of all art. Hitting someone with an issue bigger than themselves does not entertain them. Facebook, as cited above, is a classic example. Facebook during an election year does not entertain; it makes people angry. So how is the proper way for an artist to send a message that is receptive to the consumer, that makes a consumer think positively (meaning in your argument direction) rather than causing them to react negatively by hitting them over the head?

In writing, this distinction is in plot and theme, and knowing realistically that the two may have nothing to do with one another, but when seamlessly combined, creates an effect, especially when the theme becomes a symbol within the context of a different setting. In music, the primary focus is…well, the music. What happens in the background is the key. In fine art, the admirer is first hit with the use of design and color, but upon close examination, there may be hidden messages in the swirls. The subconscious sees these Jungian symbols whether the conscious mind does or not. So what’s an example?

One of my favorites—and remember this song came out nearly fifty-years ago so I’m not the first to recognize this—is the simple “Star-Spangled Banner” played by Jimi Hendrix at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. It has become a classic. It is considered one of the great innovative guitar pieces of our time. When I first heard it as a kid, I was enamored with its patriotism, that Hendrix—being Hendrix—would choose to play such a patriotic piece.

But what was going on during that time? The Vietnam War. VietnamWar

What was the message of the time and Woodstock? Peace and love.

All during this period, there were protest songs hitting everyone on the head from the likes of Joan Baez, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Helen Reddy. Hendrix just played the national anthem, a musical symbol of America. It was risk free. But he took it a step further. He gave his patriotic message to the world, but within it, he wrapped up what he viewed America was, is, and might become. With no words at all.

Most people when they first hear this song, listen to the new rendition of an old standard in the same way we listen to singers warbling all over the place at the start of a Friday football game. We think, will they ever find the note, Whitney Houston? So you’ve got that going here. But what’s missing from the sliding warblers, but included in this song—in the background, in the context—is a bigger message.

To see those messages in all art, you look for clues. In this case, the heads-up for me came in the form of homage to “Taps”. What is “Taps”? It’s a song played at military funerals, at dusk, and during flag ceremonies. Now we’re digging deeper. That didn’t seem to fit. Going back, then, we sense there is more here than guitar, speaker, reverb, etc. effects playing a patriotic theme. We’ve all seen enough movies to know the sounds. You follow the lyrics you hear in your head, and you start hearing chaos, firing missiles, gunfire, people screaming, dropping bombs, explosions, all the sounds of war wrapped up in our national anthem during a time and at an event of peaceful protest. In film school, we talk about the editing techniques of Eisenstein to achieve the same effect. In literature, they call it the theme.

And what you end up with is a classic.

Artists of all kinds are a tricky bunch and they’ve used their work to make positive changes…and negative ones (I could share moments of Nazi parades on this one).

The point is: as artists, we have a choice of addressing bigger issues should we wish to put in the extra effort and, if you look at classics, you will see that these are the works that have transcended time because they address something globally about the human condition, things that never change.

But as listeners, viewers, and readers, we also have to know that artists are a tricky bunch. The story you see is not necessarily the message that your subconscious receives.

So the next time you find a song you like, a story that moves you, a painting or picture that surges you with emotion, look beyond the obvious. What is this work really saying to you? And, if you a creator of this work, how do you evoke the bigger picture into your finite world to produce those same effects in others?