What artists of today or recent history will one day be considered some of the greatest of all time alongside the likes of Bach, Mozart, Michelangelo, van Gogh, and Shakespeare?
This is a virtually impossible question to answer. If you had asked people in 1630 which Elizabethan playwright was likely to be remembered for all time, the majority would have confidently answered, “Ben Jonson.” In 1900, the majority opinion would have held that the phenomenally popular novels of Marie Corelli would inevitably be joining Jane Austen’s work in the canon of English novels. Do you know who Marie Corelli is? Probably not.
So, with that caveat out of the way, I nominate: J.R.R. Tolkien
The reason for this is not, primarily, the popularity of his novels in the ’60s and ’70s or the popularity of the Jackson movies in the ‘naughties. It is rather that Tolkien’s novels have proven to be a persistent influence on the creation of new fantasy across multiple generations. Whether we’re talking about the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ‘naughties, or today, new fantasy works are constantly being both created under the influence of Tolkien and interpreted through the lens of Tolkien.
I suspect that this influence will actually increase over time: Beyond The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien left behind a large and rich body of mythic material, much of it half completed or extant in multiple and contradictory forms. When those works fall out of copyright, there’s almost guaranteed to be a Tolkien renaissance as authors delve into that material.
In addition, we’re slowly starting to see a trend of increasing academic study in Tolkien’s work. And that’s an essential element in any artist’s long-term canonization: If they can get entrenched in academia, academia will sustain and constantly rejuvenate their presence in popular culture. It looks like Tolkien might make that hop. (And he’s an excellent candidate for it, given that The Lord of the Rings is a rich and complex text in its own right and the rest of his corpus is enigmatic in precisely the ways that can indefinitely fuel theses.)