I was thinking recently that it was unlikely that any work of art from the past couple of decades was going to rival the best seasons of the Simpsons. What books (in English at least) are definitely going to survive from the same time period? And I remembered something that Borges wrote about artists working in media that are not given literary respect. He was writing specifically about Shakespeare and why none of his contemporaries seem to have taken any notice of the magnitude of what he was producing: "Every era believes that there is a literary genre that has a kind of primacy. Today, for example, any writer who has not written a novel is asked when he is going to write one." And in Shakespeare's day the prestige genre was the epic poem - drama was throwaway popular entertainment.
And he goes on to mention that so much of the best art is produced, to some extent, under the artistic radar of its times. In his own era, he mentions how people were finally coming to see film as an art, but utterly ignoring the screenwriter. "Ben Hecht had to a die a few days ago," he writes, "in order for me to remember that he was the author of the screenplays of these films that I have so often watched and praised." The same is still true of all the people who wrote those Simpsons episodes: it is now common enough to praise that show to the skies, but how many people know who those writers are, search out more of their work, or rank them with the great artists of our time?
After reading this Borges essay (it is "The Enigma of Shakespeare," if anyone is interested, from the Selected Non-Fictions collection - a book that is absolutely wonderful) I started to think about what other works of art might now be hiding in popular but low prestige areas. Television writers, certainly, still get very little credit. Comic books and graphic novels as well, although I have been less impressed with some of the apparent classics of those genres (the only one that struck me as having the same merit as a great novel is Ghost World, although I admit I've only read about a dozen graphic novels).
There is another genre that reminded of what Borges said about drama in Shakespeare's time -- that it was considered primarily a performer's showcase instead of a literary art -- and that is stand-up comedy. People praise certain comics, but I don't think it has ever been really appreciated as literary art form, despite the fact that good comics seem just as hardworking and concerned with craft as the most diligent writer of fiction or poetry. I recently read a wonderful interview in the AV Club with Louis CK, and I started looking up some of his material on YouTube. And it's seriously brilliant. I do like the absurdist one-liner comics, but the ones that really stick with me are the storytellers - Cosby and Pryor and CK - that make you forget the obvious artifice behind a guy standing up and telling jokes. Anyway, here are some of my favorite clips, but there are plenty more - uneven of course but the good parts are really inspired.