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The Greats

In our 2020 Greats issue, out Oct. 25, T celebrates five talents who, in mastering their crafts, have changed their fields — and the culture at large.

Of the many cultural changes the last few years have wrought, one of the most striking has been the demise of the Great Man: the person so celebrated for his distinguished contributions to not only his field, but to society at large, that anyone who examined too closely the foibles and crimes of his personal behavior was dismissed as a scold or a shrew. The human instinct is to make gods of men (not just males, but mostly), while later witnessing their downfall with either a kind of grim glee or an aggrieved pity. Yet no one is, or ever has been, worthy of celebration in all aspects of their life — a person can accomplish wondrous things and still be a terrible human, and our unwillingness to accept that paradoxical binary means that we keep repeating the same patterns of idolization and recrimination, again and again.

So now that that old definition of greatness has proven reductive, what does the term mean? (One of this year’s Greats, the artist Barbara Kruger, provided her own answer: an original work of art that, in a list of phrases that employ the word — everything from “Great Depression” to “Great Beyond” — ribs the very concept.) In this magazine, we define greatness as foresight, an inimitable perspective. The people who possess these qualities are those who have worked as devotedly as they have not because they wanted to be celebrated, but because they had something urgent and distinctive to say. In doing so, they changed their respective fields, as well as the culture around them.

What strikes me every year about the honorees in this issue is that, although their disciplines may be different, they have in common a deep-rooted patience. All of them consider themselves eternal students, an identity that by its very nature demands a perpetual humility — think of the photographer Dawoud Bey, already an accomplished artist before he enrolled in the M.F.A. program at Yale in his late 30s, or FKA Twigs, learning new vocal and performance techniques and dance and martial art moves long after critical and commercial success compelled her to do so, or Sigourney Weaver, still deliberately putting herself in unknown environments after a nearly 50-year acting career. They remind us that taking your work seriously need not translate into self-seriousness.

But the other, more important quality these people share is a largeness and clarity of vision, a fierceness of belief. For the scholar and activist Angela Davis, who argued for decades that the Black civil rights movement must consider women’s and queer voices, and the feminist movement must include Black and poor women’s voices — a dedication to intersectionality even before the law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in 1989 — the current moment in grass-roots activism is one she both precipitated and inspired. And then there’s Kruger, whose oft-imitated aphoristic artworks — including 1989’s “Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground)” — unsettle for their eerily accurate ability to capture the anxiety of the age in which they were made, as well as for how resonant their message remains years later.

Being singular can be lonely work. Not everyone gets to leave an indelible mark on the culture. But those who do make us look at our known world anew, with different eyes. They make us swoon, they hold us spellbound. And is there any greater gift than that?

Hanya Yanagihara

Digital production and design by Nancy Coleman, Katie Cusumano, Jacky Myint, Caroline Newton and Daniel Wagner.