This question seems to be obvious to answer, but is actually curiously difficult. It’s pretty easy to write that Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Virgil are classic authors (as writers of works from the ancient Greek and Roman periods). But what about the Greek and Roman works that are extant but not engaging and rarely read? Further, when one includes books such as Moby Dick, War and Peace, and Emma into the classic category, the question of what makes a classic work becomes not just time-bound, rather it encourages other dimensions to the definition of classic. Finally, when one exclaims that the ‘69 Chevy Camaro is a classic car, what could possibly by meant by that expression?
Classic must mean more than objectively or relatively old. Classic must mean an art object that also speaks of the human response to the most important inquiries that have spanned over millenia, but which also spark a specific inspiration in the present day... hence, “this modern work is destined to become a classic.” We could suppose this last statement means that the contemporary work will be in the classical cannon someday in the future. How is this possible? It must mean that the work is speaking within the classical conversation of the deepest questions which have only an accidental or cursory interest in ancient or passing time. The obvious implications are that human nature and human experience are generally constants.
But classic, besides implying a launch of the Great Conversation, also involves aesthetic considerations. We speak of classic architecture, painting, sculpture, and engineering. We describe art that references past art as classical, or we encapsulate a period of time or a mode as classical, such as classical music. To further complicate definitions, we call contemporary music that is written for ensembles or orchestras as contemporary classical music. Even if we don’t particularly like a piece of ancient or modern orchestral music, we tend to think the activity and the artifact is worthy, and in at least some sense we think it is good. Classic seems to also imply good.
The Greek, Roman, Hindu, and Chinese ancients speak in ways that is surprisingly current. The problems, wonderings, and beautiful expressions they produced are among the same considerations, worries, and impulses we have today. If it is true that the human condition is a constant, then classic might mean that which is speaking intelligently and beautifully to these perennial considerations. If that is true, classic is possible now.