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Who won the snooker? Shakespeare or Dante?

O’Sullivan lost his battle against Robertson in the final of the Snooker Tour Championship but over on the other table two other old titans were fighting it out; Shakespeare and Dante. As Angela Guiffrida reported in The Guardian, Italian political and cultural leaders had been slugging it out on behalf of legendary 12th Century poet Dante Alighieri after a German newspaper challenged his importance to the Italian language and claimed that William Shakespeare was “light years more modern”.

Harsh criticism of the comments by journalist Arno Widmann came from his own team. Eike Schmidt, a German art historian and the director of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery described him as “ignorant” during a radio interview. But a fierce fightback also came from Italian heavy hitters such as Pope Francis and the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella who made intelligent and spirited points in favour of their player, I mean poet.

To me these kinds of exchanges completely miss the point of not just the art of Shakespeare and Dante (sounds like an ITV Sunday night detective series) but of all art. Everything isn’t always a competition. That’s what distinguishes art from sport, surely; its value doesn’t chiefly come from comparison. In snooker, we know a player is good because they beat another player. We don’t regard a painting or a novel or a sculpture as good because it beats another one. There’s not even a clear way to keep score although many try to figure one out.

There are such things as art competitions of course, in fact these are currently more popular than ever. I quite like watching Portrait Artist of The Year, Landscape Artist of The Year and even the rowdy newcomer on Channel 4 at the moment, Drawers Off. But these aren’t true competitions like the one Ronnie O’Sullivan and Neil Robertson battled in last Sunday. An artist might win a painting competition but they haven’t done it for doing anything as clear cut as potting balls. The artist might have been judged the winner because one of the judges felt they captured the emotion of the subject or because they showed great perception or originality or a billion other reasons. The nearest you can get to distilling it down to the equivalent of potting a snooker ball is probably to say that you score a point in art when you manage to ‘affect’ someone. And no-one really knows how you do that. One thing is certain, though; it’s harder than screwing back off the cushion to get in line for the pink.

That’s why the argument covered in the Guardian article feels so ridiculous and futile; it reduces complex stuff to ludicrously simple points of comparison. As Angela Guiffrida reported, the best response is probably to do what Italian culture minister, Dario Franceschini, did. By tweeting a verse from Dante’s Inferno, he let the art speak for itself. “Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa (Inf. III, 51)” which means “let us not reflect upon them, but watch and move on”. Or we could just watch the snooker.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/mar/29/italians-defend-dante-from-claims-he-was-light-years-behind-shakespeare

By Jon Kenna

Author of three books; 'Ghost Road', 'Mr. Mad' and 'Susan Shocks'. All available from amazon.co.uk. Day job in mental health.

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