When Kanye West made an ass of himself during last year’s VMA broadcast, there was one aspect that, to my mind, received too little attention. It was this: during his, er, tantrum, Kanye declared Beyonce’s video “one of the best videos of all time.” He repeated it for emphasis.
Of all time? Better than medieval music videos? Better than Shakespeare’s video for “Hark, Hark!”? Music videos are a very recent phenomenon, the term only coming into wide usage in the 1980s, so “best video of all time” is not just a rude thing to say; it’s moronic. It’s almost nonsensical.
I’ve been hearing a lot of this “all time” stuff lately, and it scares me. Comedy Central has created a list of the best stand up comics of all time but it doesn’t include Elizabethan funnyman Will Kemp. Did they even consider Kemp? I doubt it. Never mind that the man danced across England! Since the death of Michael Jackson, there have been commentators declaring him the greatest entertainer of all time. Really? Better than Thespis of Icaria who, you know, came up with a little thing called acting? But then he couldn’t walk forwards and backwards at the same time, or could he? I believe Aristotle is silent on the point.
It’s possible that that this is just another instance of sloppy hyperbole whereby “of all time” is simply a wildly vague intensifier. If so, it is silly, but not dangerous. But my fear is that people like Kanye West and Randy Jackson and lots of others really do actually mean of all time, it’s just that they think the world began fifty or sixty years ago. Not literally, but in their considerations of time, they don’t think back more than a generation or two. My first-year students are fond of writing things like “before the 1970s, divorce was unheard of.” Really? Google Dorothy Parker and get back to me. For that matter, Google Henry VIII.
What all these people lack is a cornerstone of even a basic education: a sense of history. Without at least a general knowledge of the long history of human civilization, one simply cannot think and speak insightfully about anything of social or artistic importance. Without a sense of history, one tends to think that information technology began with the Blackberry, and that no one had heard of sex before HBO. Or, if they did, no one liked it.
There are lots of ways to acquire this sense of history and lots of disciplines whose subject matter will teach it to you, including, of course, but not limited to history itself. If you study politics, pay attention to those classes on The Prince. If you study literature, make sure you take a course in the Restoration or the Renaissance, even if you don’t have to. If you study physics or chemistry, be sure to do some reading on astrology and alchemy, too.
None of this will make you as rich as Kanye West, of course, but it might save you from a life inside a mind like his.