What's the world's greatest film? Citizen Kane, of course. And the greatest painting? The Mona Lisa. And the greatest symphony? Beethoven 9. And the greatest novel? War and Peace. Of course. It's generally agreed. What isn't quite so generally agreed is Top Living Exponent – or at any rate, it tends to change from time to time.
By the time Lucian Freud died, it was generally agreed that he occupied the place of Top Living British Painter. The jockeying for position after a great man's death is not a noisy or ruthless affair – not like the lobbying for position which follows a political death. But the question starts to arise, nevertheless.
In the New Year, David Hockney was awarded the Order of Merit – the grandest of honours, a step up from the Companion of Honour he has had for 14 years. That is timed to precede the most conspicuous of seals of fame, an enormous survey of his recent work at the Royal Academy, over which he has evidently had almost total control. Ten years ago, there might have been half a dozen plausible names competing for the honour of being the answer to the question: "Who's the best living British artist?" Now, the quest seems to be over for the moment, and the answer is "Hockney".
The search for and subsequent assertion of Top Thing in an art form is an arid and discouraging affair, I must say. Stravinsky disliked the word "genius" with its automatic responses, "Leonardo" and "Beethoven". The reason that such answers arise is that not all of us have sufficient time to devote to the arts. We don't want to waste our time with artists who are pretty good, with novels which have a terrific chapter now and again. The flawed masterpiece, or the flawed master, is one which is taking up our time. If we are going to find a work of art to fill a spare hour, it had better be something agreed to be the best in its field.
The value of art is not like the result of a sporting competition – it is only what is agreed on when thousands of critical judgements collide. Hockney, for instance, is a fascinating but very quirky artist. Some people will find his RA show horrible to look at, and resent the recommendation which comes from him being considered Top Brit. And that may be as legitimate a judgement as the award of an OM. Nobody knows which has more truth to it.
Personally, the film I think the best in the world is The Leopard, and the best painting is Watteau's Gersaint's Shopsign. But that's me. If you want to see an exhibition this winter, why not pass by Leonardo and Hockney – they'll survive – and go to something you've discovered for yourself?