ONE OF THE MOST SAVAGE reviews ever written was published in 1818 in response to a collection of verse by a somewhat unknown poet. The critic, John Wilson Croker, declared, "the author is a copyist of Mr. [Leigh] Hunt; but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype." No one recalls Croker today. The poet he debased is remembered as one of the greatest poets to have written in the English language, one John Keats.
Similar appraisals of the art of others have been offered throughout history, some appropriately so. Yet, it's startling how many times the critics have gotten it all wrong. The beauty and perhaps the transcendent magic of art is that it cant be judged in the same way one would judge a mathematical formulation or whether someone has broken a law; art touches us in ways that aren't easily defined. Keats himself said that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." So, if we can't agree on the value of some work of art--be it poetry, painting, musical composition, or any other artistic endeavor--then how shall we judge its merit?
In every era there are people who challenge the status quo, who challenge accepted practices and definitions, and who do what they feel is right to them, often to their own detriment. Thank goodness for every one of them. In all fields of human endeavor, especially art, progress arrives in the guise of a stranger, a stranger who suggests that perhaps there's another way to see reality. By their insight, their courage, and their willingness to be criticized, they teach us to see the world and the great landscape within ourselves with different eyes and different ears. People like Vincent Van Gogh and Ludwig van Beethoven, Walt Whitman and Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein and Miles Davis have all made the world seem richer than we could have imagined by being fearless visionaries. Another one of these people is surely Bob Dylan.
No sane person could argue that Dylan, for better or for worse, hasn't greatly influenced the culture of not only America but likely the world. He may well have done it to a greater degree than any other artist of his era, and he's done it by taking chances, by trying to find and navigate new paths, by inventing and reinventing himself and his music, and by accepting the opinion of some that he's an annoying fraud. One would be hard-pressed to find a musician or a composer who isn't familiar with Dylan's work, or who hasn't...