Whose voice was purest: That of Placido Domingo or Enrico Caruso?
We will never know.
The musical heroes of my grandparents are lost. Vestigial traces remain in scratchy 78-rpm vinyl or wax-coated cylindrical recordings, but the quality is so ephemeral that comparisons are impossible
However, whose music is more emotionally stirring: That of Elvis Presley or Justin Timberlake?
That comparison can be made - and this is a "first" in history.
Whose acting ability was better: John Booth or Kirk Douglas? No comparison is possible. No films of the Booths on the stage exist.
But we can stack up today's Russell Crowe and Tom Hanks against 60s-80s star Douglas. Those films exist.
The arts are undergoing a sea change right in front of us graybeards.
When I was growing up, crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett, who rose to fame during the Big Band era of the 1930s and 40s, continued to attract listeners throughout the 80s. Bennett, now nearly 90, is still singing somewhere.
Anyone who chooses to do so can listen to Sinatra's recordings from his breakout year of 1943 through his denouement in 1995. Sinatra as a vocalist can be compared-contrasted to Timberlake, or to Brendon Urie from Panic!
I have no clue about the singing ability of Brendon Urie, but granddaughter Audree says that Urie is today's best male singer. So if I wanted to compare his vocalizations to those of Sinatra or Presley, I could.
We take this for granted.
But it is amazing.
In every art form, we can now enrich ourselves across generations, even eras of the last three-quarters of a century. We can see and hear Pablo Picasso himself, as well as view his paintings. Our grandchildren will be able to do the same thing.
My grandparents couldn't do that. Before their time, nobody could do that, going all the way back to the hottest combo of prehistory, Lot and the Pillars of Fire. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
The Israelites of Moses' time must have had great artists. We begin to read about orators, writers, sculptors and actors in Greek and Roman times, and in the Buddha era in Eastern cultures. We can even compare some of their works, especially sculptures, with more modern works.
But we can't compare and contrast Greek, Roman or Buddha-era singers or actors with today's singers or actors.
Going forward, John Wayne and Russell Crowe will always be eminently comparable with the he-man actors of future generations, barring a civilization-destroying catastrophe.
This isn't always pleasant.
The lesser-viewed channels on our satellite-system TV showcase Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, cowboy heroes of my youth. How wooden, how scripted! I don't remember them being that way, of course. I remember being thrilled to see them at the movie theater during Saturday matinee performances, singing music and slinging guns. Even the early John Wayne, with crude makeup and overpainted lips, seems stilted by comparison with today's action heroes. But Wayne's sideways gait and easy grin do shine through the remastered celluloid. We get a sense of his appeal to men, to women and to kids.
We can't get that sense about Buffalo Bill Cody. His filmed images are jumpy, scratchy and static (there was just one camera).
In terms of music and movies, I remain stuck in the 1950s (music) and the 20th century (movies), much to the merriment of my children and grandchildren. To them, singers like Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger or the Guthries, Woody and Arlo, are historical figures. Movie stars like Wayne and even the early Clint Eastwood are dusty legends.
By about 1960, though, the advances in cinematography settled into formats that are consistent with today's viewing habits.
Some of those same chiders of my anachronistic libraries have found themselves humming along to Elvis or appreciating the timelessness of Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales."
In politics, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Adolf Hitler and even Dwight Eisenhower are "old" in films. But by about the time of John F. Kennedy, political leaders have been preserved so that we can get a sense of the soaring oratory of Kennedy or Martin Luther King, or the menace in the granite-like visages of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev or Chinese dictator Mao Tse-Tung.
When my generation studied history, we were limited to words in books, to photographs, and to the occasional herky-jerky film clip.
My grandchildren can capture the drama of the Nixon-era Watergate hearings that produced the only resignation of a President in our country's history. They can see and hear history, not just read about it.
It is possible that Elvis will be a retrospective revivalist fad, alongside the musical stars of the 22nd Century.
That, to me, is still amazing.
Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: email@example.com.