I have been thinking about this, and I think that Leonard Cohen is bequeathing a deeper oeuvre to the world than Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan is more popular, and may forever be, but Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre is deeper. Life, even the rarefied heights of art, is in large a popularity contest— a bitterness many a poet writes about.
A particular work of art, if apprehended mindfully and properly, may deepen one’s perception a fraction of the depth one already brings to it, but typically not much more.
And the masses, that is, the mean of people between the two extremes of the metaphorical spectrum of perception, are by nature forever moderate in perception. If all people saw as artists, new artists would emerge to reveal deeper mysteries.
The perennial struggle of the artist, especially in placetimes of little depth. How to proffer an art that aspires to the deepest and most noble when the society could care less about such things, in fact, often doesn’t even know they exist.
All things considered, I think our placetime, meaning, all people alive, has a middling or maybe fair reach of depth. Bob Dylan appeals to the more earthly, fiery and somewhat more simplistic impulses and interpretations than Leonard Cohen does, and this aesthetic appeals to a greater number.
I grant that Bob Dylan’s music overall— songwriting, technique, musical tableaus, landscapes— is significantly richer than Leonard Cohen’s, especially due to its sheer voluminousness and diversity. But, taking the entire offering, the music, the words— I think Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre overall is deeper, reveals a greater degree of ‘Truth.’ If I had to choose between having heard one but never the other, I would say, wistfully— for I love Bob Dylan— it would have to be Leonard Cohen. Maybe a more enlightened posterity will agree.
1. “The perennial struggle of the artist, especially in placetimes of little depth. How to proffer an art that aspires to the deepest and most noble when the society could care less about such things, in fact, often doesn’t even know they exist.” I think that you underestimate “society.” I suspect increasingly that the actual, individual people in our society are not as shallow or ignoble as many of our cultural signs (i.e. popular television, movies, music) would suggest. It is difficult to imagine that a society that elected George Bush twice, for instance, could be at all noble. And yet wherever I go— Colorado, New Jersey, New York, etc— I meet a great many people and I so rarely meet anyone I find base or ignoble. I see depth, or a certain wisdom, in almost everyone (some more or less). Moreover, artists whom I meet are no more or less likely to possess spiritual or intellectual depth. A mechanic or professor or waitress is as likely to possess such qualities, no more and no less.
This all matters.
2. Cohen and Dylan… I don’t like the Bloomian game of ranking artists, but if I had to… I would agree with you, of course. Dylan, I think, is a better “songwriter,” by which I mean— narrowly— that he excels more at that elusive craft of pairing words and music into a symbiotic whole. But Cohen’s songs, in the end, are “better,” if we mean “more profound,” more truthful, poetic.
I both agree and disagree on both observations. I agree that each person is of the same essence and aspires to the same ‘depth,’ and that each person has depth in various aspects, and some people who in most accounts are oblivious have more depth in particular aspects than those who in most accounts are very ‘deep.’ I do think that the mean of people, which is the majority, have a moderate amount of ‘depth’ overall… One need not be an artist, of course, to possess a lot of depth. There are plenty of artists who are pretty shallow. Art, after all, is also just a word, and anyone can call themselves an artist. Since I was comparing two artists, I used this word, but one can substitute ‘person of depth,’ or ‘artist of depth.’ When we speak of the artist as an archetype, we implicitly assume ‘great artist’ or ‘artist of depth.’ The artist of depth (especially in shallow placetimes) is concerned that what they proffer won’t be accepted by most people, for, though each person has the flame of depth somewhere in them, this flame isn’t bright enough to accept the proffering; most will ignore, overlook, deride, and the artist of depth will be reduced to making art for oneself, which is what they are basically doing anyway, in that all is one and one is all, but the work won’t be accepted— and then more practical matters of subsistence also factor.
One could be the only person (being) alive deep enough to perceive something. No one else could perceive this thing, and also be so shallow as to deride or even execute one for it— this happens perennially. But there is a fine line between delusion and true insight, and the chances of being deluded are inordinately higher.
Looking at the world entire, I am not too pessimistic about our age overall. As I say— ‘I think our placetime has a middling or maybe fair reach of depth.’
In order to believe the above, of course, one need believe, or at least entertain belief, in an Objective reality.
As for ranking art or any other act of profundity. It’s a paradox— profundity can’t be quantified in terms of value, yet we exist precisely because of value, assess everything in these terms, and are the great valuers of all earthly species. So, on one hand, it’s impossible to say who’s ‘deeper,’ but on the other we have an intuitive sense of the question (depending, of course, on one’s own depth), and, forced to choose, would ultimately opt for one over the other, as you’ve done a little begrudgingly.
By the way, when I said Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre compared to Bob Dylan’s, I meant just their musical oeuvres— not including books of poetry or prose, visual art, or any other standalone art they’ve made outside of their musical offerings.
–from Jan 2009