There appears to be a human impulse to attribute a work of art to a single creator. Maybe this is a consequence of the monotheistic religions that so many humans embrace (or perhaps monotheism is a result of the same human impulse). We honor and celebrate the skill and imagination, the creative power of book authors, playwrights, poets, painters, sculptors, songwriters, musicians, and film directors. The underlying theory, I suppose, is that it takes the creative vision of a single mind to produce a fully-realized work of art. The most controversial application of this theory is the auteur theory developed by French film critics in the 1950s and championed in the U.S. by Andrew Sarris. According to the theory, a film’s director is its author, in the same way that the single person who writes a book is its author. The trouble with the theory is that movies are also a collaborative art – an enterprise involving the coordinated artistic and technical skills of many individuals in addition to the director, such as the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the editor, the sound crew, the set designer, costumers, as well as the actors. The auteur critics used their theory to champion lesser-known directors like Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk by showing how they used the relative obscurity of genre and “B” movies to put forth a personal artistic vision. But the theory works less well for many of the films produced by the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s and 1940s, when the director may have been just another cog in the machine. Gone With the Wind seems more a product of its producer, David O. Selznick’s vision, than than of its director, Victor Fleming.
Music can also be a collaborative art, especially in the ensembles of rock and jazz, where songwriting and performing are often spread among a number of talented individuals, working together but also taking opportunities to “solo” and improvise, temporarily elevating the individual above the ensemble. Even classical music, in which the composer’s manuscript is usually sacred, conductors and musicians “interpret” the piece, bringing something of their own style and personality to the final performance.
Painting and sculpture, which are now seen as extremely individualistic, were not always so (and, for massive public art projects, are not so even now). A painter or sculptor in the Renaissance, for example, had many assistants, who often executed some of the work. Painters were even known to charge higher rates depending on the percentage of the work they did themselves. Furthermore, those clients commissioning paintings and sculptures often had very specific requirements about the content of the work. The notion of a painter sitting down to a blank canvas and painting whatever he or she pleased is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Are book authors (and poets and playwrights), then, the only true auteurs? In many cases, the author sits down, writes his or her book alone and then sees it published in substantially the same form. But in other cases, this image ignores the reality of publishers and editors who influence not just the subject of books but the style. (Thomas Wolfe is one famous example of a writer who delivered a mass of disorganized writing to his editor, who then whipped it into shape. Yet the editor is not considered a co-author.) There are also ‘authors’, like Homer and those to whom many ancient manuscripts are attributed, who are merely symbols for the centuries of oral tradition that led to the Iliad, the Odyssey and other works handed down over time. And all artists are influenced by other artists – some steal directly, others unconsciously. Some are rebels; some are reformers, and some wish to return to times gone by. They are influenced by the market – what will sell, what will not. The political climate affects them as well as their personal circumstances.
I have raised all these complications as a preface to introducing a number of new lists. Actually, they are mostly reworkings of older lists (although a few of them dig deeper than the lists I’ve already published). These new lists all have one thing in common: they are organized by artist (as in performer, author, director). Some are alphabetical; some are chronological. The main idea is to see the lists in a different way: through the lens of the individual creator and their body of work. They are particularly useful in answering the question: “Which one should I try first?” (E.g., Which David Bowie or Charles Mingus album? Which Titian painting? Which Dickens book? Which Godard film?) Or, for those who have dabbled already, “Which should I try next?”
Rock, pop, R&B, etc.: Musicians and Their Best Albums
Jazz: Jazz Artists and their Best Recordings
Books: Great Authors and their Masterworks, Part 1: 850 BCE – 1870
Books: Great Authors and their Masterworks, Part 2: 1871-Present
Film: Film Directors and their Best Films
Visual Arts: Great Artists and Their Masterpieces