Were the greatsborn great or are historians the victims of some polished cross-century hype? Harriet Swain reports. It is hardly surprising that an age which produced Liz Hurley, who shot to fame by wearing a dress made of safety pins, should be pondering the origins of reputation. But, after a decade dotted with spin-doctors and people famous for being famous, it has begun to dawn on contemporary thinkers that hype may not be as new as it is cracked up to be.
Recent academic work has questioned the reputations of even our "greatest" men - and on the whole they are men - suggesting that fame may be as much a product of construction by society as of innate genius. Even Shakespeare, it seems, may have had spin.
It is a subject that reaches way beyond sociology to encompass disciplines as wide-ranging as science, art history and musicology. Historians are examining how far they may be victims of cross-century propaganda. Art historians are judging whether a painting can create the same response in viewers from different contexts and eras and to what extent its worth lies in the name of the person who painted it rather than its artistic quality. And scientists are looking at the "great" discoveries in the light of their relevance to a particular need in a particular era. In short, genius cannot be taken for granted in any discipline. Every important figure is subject to interrogations about whether he was born great, achieved greatness or had it thrust upon him.
"Thrust upon him," declares Terence Hawkes, professor of English at the University of Wales, Cardiff. He argues that Shakespeare's fame was a politically motivated construct that developed as a result of Britain's attempts to bestow cultural leadership on her empire.
"Born great," replies Martin Kemp, professor of art history at Oxford, who says certain figures throughout history have displayed talents that are "indecently good". "The more I have been engaged in history of art and history of science, the more it seems to me that there are some people who operate at a plane which is beyond the reach of even very good people," he says. "Michelangelo could carve a block of stone and know where the rear elbow of a figure was before he went in. Kepler rewrote the whole of the Copernican system.
"At the extreme ends of the scale, people can achieve something which is interesting to a whole range of observers over a range of periods and cultures."
But even if their greatness is this enduring, are their achievements interesting to all observers in the same way? The 15th-century-painter Piero de la Francesca has become a cult figure for many 20th-century art historians who venerate the modernist geometry and lucidity of his work.
Nicholas Penny, curator of Renaissance paintings at the National Gallery, argues that he enjoyed a powerful reputation in his own day and again in the 19th century - facts that have been obscured by his present fame. Penny believes that so beloved is Piero now that people would prefer to think that his talent was only discovered in this century, whereas in fact he was discovered and rediscovered anew in earlier ages.
Nevertheless, Penny believes it unlikely the qualities appreciated in a Piero painting have remained constant. "There must be some retrospective bias," he says. "The purity and tranquillity of his compositions - so appreciated in the late 20th-century - would have been less striking to his contemporaries. They had not seen the darker shadows and more dynamic compositions of later artists."
So perhaps intrinsic greatness does exist but society decides how to recognise it. This implies a kind of propensity for fame, an indeterminate star quality that singles out certain works or figures because they have a wide and lasting appeal.
Our own age seems to take this to extremes. Many modern icons - pop stars, supermodels, film stars - are famous because they "love the camera" or have "it" or "set a trend". The pop singer and film star Madonna is known worldwide because of her skills of self-promotion as much as her music. Had she been born 100 years ago, these could perhaps have still made her famous but for something quite different. Brian McNair, senior lecturer in film and media studies at Stirling University, believes that while she thrives in today's postmodern, postfeminist climate, this does not mean she lacks innate star quality.
"I don't know if Madonna would classify as a genius or what that term means, but she definitely has talent and that talent is why she is famous," he says. "Her fame derives not just from the fact that she is good at music but also that she has the ability to capture the mood of the time. She has come along in an era when feminist thinking is undergoing a lot of changes. She represents that change and also explores it."
Tia de Nora, lecturer in sociology at the University of Exeter, argues that it was Beethoven's expertise at tapping into and influencing the spirit of his age that helped establish his reputation as a great composer. He was able to reshape society in such a way that it became more receptive to his gifts.
Lisa Jardine, professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, suggests Erasmus was up to something similar in the world of scholarship. Each masterfully employed the latest and most influential media of their time - aristocratic music salons, the printed book - to construct their reputations, just as Madonna exploits today's resources of pop records, video and film.
This could mean that greatness is as much tied to timing as talent. A particular person born with a particular skill at a particular moment will become great, when a few years earlier they would have sunk without trace. Perhaps there is even now a potential Beethoven somewhere, who, without the patronage or interest in "serious" music of 18th-century Vienna, has enrolled on a media studies course and taken up the guitar.
Reputations can be forged only by societies. This makes them inevitably more nebulous than the beings on which they are based.
Shakespeare wrote in Richard III: "The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation; that away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay." The uncertain worth of reputation and its relationship with the people behind it is a theme that recurs in Shakespeare's plays. But what would the "greatest playwright of the English language" have made of his own contested reputation?