Bernard Levin had a concept he called the sieve of history. We continue to perform, view, adulate, the great works of art of the past not because they reflect the time and place of their creation. Nor because of current fashion. Rather, because they have indeed passed through that sieve and shown that they are indeed great works of art.
Not that the movie was quite right but Mozart is indeed a better composer than Salieri, despite what the fashions and money flows of the time might have indicated. The historical Salieri knowing this very well of course.
The drive to rid schools of “dead white men” like Shakespeare will leave children at the mercy of fads and fashions, Jenny Agutter has said.
The veteran actress urged teachers not to remove literary greats from school curricula on spurious grounds.
“Definitely don’t remove someone who is dead and white just because they are dead and white,” she told The Telegraph.
“That is pigeon holing and shouldn't be allowed. There are French writers who are dead, there are Greek writers, there are all sorts of people who are dead but one doesn’t want to put them in that category.
“My feeling is that the best writing crosses time and social backgrounds. No one should be classified as black, white, dead or alive if the writing is good.”
While it is important for children to learn about writers from different backgrounds and countries, “we must not lose our literary heritage”, Agutter said.
Othello and Desdemona can, if we wish, be viewed as a musing on the difficulties of inter-racial marriage - something that certainly accords with current preoccupations. But to do so is to miss that it's a great exposition of the difficulties of jealousy, one of the human perennials.
We can also - and we do - run this the other way around. It's not just that what were considered great works are, some mote of flour might, over the years, become recognised as a great as it wasn't in its own time. It's still too early for A Confederacy of Dunces but it's a strong contender.
What is a great work of art is, therefore, something emergent from the system - something you'll note is a preoccupation of ours, systems and emergence. To complain about what has emerged is an exercise in missing the point therefore.
One point of the current complaints we do agree with though. That classic canon survives as such, has become such, because it does speak to those great human problems and emotions that are common to us all across time and geography - race and culture too. Where we agree is that each modern work should indeed be accorded the same consideration as to whether it's to be included in that canon of the future. Exactly what the sieve will achieve whatever we do otherwise of course.
Or as another of our preoccupations might put it, equality of opportunity is the aim, not equality of outcome.