Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Talent, Culture and Character

My anonymous commentor left a brilliant observation on my post On Musical Talent. Here is the basic argument:
Innate musical talent is undeniably a prerequisite for greatness. It's a requirement but one of many. Let's say that in any group of 10,000 people in the world, there is one person with the innate ability of Bach. (The plethora of painting geniuses in Renaissance Florence shows that this number is unlikely to be much bigger.) The likelihood of Bach is less than one in 1 billion (to restrict ourselves to 1000 years of Western music and assuming that Bach is the greatest and that the total population over 1000 years of Western history is over one billion, which must be the case), not one in 10,000. So assuming all these variables are independent (a big if, I know), we need to explain the remaining 1/100,000 likelihood. I think the rest is culture and character. 
If talent is evenly distributed by genetics (not sure it is, but just for the sake of argument), then why doesn't every city have the artistic flourishing of Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BC? Names to note: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripedes. Or of 15th century Florence? Names: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Machiavelli, Brunelleschi (who designed the Duomo). Or 16th century London? Names: John Dowland, William Shakespeare, Sir Francis Drake, Christopher Marlowe, William Byrd and Thomas Morley. And of course, 18th century Germany and Austria. This flourishing was less concentrated with Bach in Leipzig and Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in Vienna.

There are brief periods of intense flourishing surrounded by dull stretches of mediocrity. Some factors are undoubtedly historic. Wars, revolutions and social unrest undoubtedly drain resources and redirect talent away from the arts and humanities. But the role of culture and character also seems to be important. Some cultures seem to produce more art than others. Some kinds of character seem to produce more arts than others. The role of patronage also seems crucial. The society must be prosperous enough to support artists and must value the arts highly enough to support them. In Athens the whole population went to see the plays just as in Leipzig, the whole congregation heard Bach's cantatas. My commentator's assertion that a faculty of hard work and an intense curiosity both played a role is also correct.

I also think that artists compete with one another and learn from one another, which is why we get communities of artists that because of mutual influence produce more interesting work than they would have if they worked in isolation.

Well, this could go on and on, but I'll close here with this:


Anonymous said...

It's always fashionable to decry one's own era as one of artistic mediocrity, but I believe that we're living through one these eras of what you call "dull stretches." (Again I need to make it clear this only concerns Western culture, as I am too ignorant of other cultures to pass judgment). The worst decline is almost certainly in painting, which for all practical purposes is a dead art form. (Certainly when the world's most celebrated "painter," Damien Hirst, cannot, by his own admission, paint.) Perhaps we also suffer from the close proximity to the first half of the 20th c, which was an era of unimaginable creative fervor (so much so it might have killed creativity per se). In the intellectual arena, ours is also an era of frightening mediocrity. Even though science is perhaps 10 times richer and bigger than during 1900-1950, no scientist today would make the top 10 list of 20th c science.

The only genuinely new art is film-making and, amidst all the commercial dreck, there might be gems of historical importance being produced today.

When Tommasini compiled his top 10 list of composers, he said he omitted living composers because one can't judge recent art. Well, perhaps, but that's rather disingenuous (or overly polite). No composer today measures up to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. This is simply a truism.

Bryan Townsend said...

We could indeed be in a "dull stretch", but it is hard to tell. Tommasini had a point: it is very hard to judge one's own time because you have no critical distance. I also think that aesthetic judgement is a kind of collaborative effort. Bach's rise to universal acclaim was the effort of many different people: his successors in Leipzig who preserved his music, Mendelssohn and a host of others in the 19th century who revived his music and another host of performers and listeners from then to the present.

I have no expertise to speak about science and not a lot with regard to film. But I would like to disagree with one point you make. I don't think it is a truism that no composer today measures up to Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. I think that if you have a close look at Dmitri Shostakovich you would say that he is certainly in the running and, given a hundred years to evaluate, may well join that small club of great composers. I did a post on him, just a brief introduction:

Anonymous said...

When I said today, I really meant today. Shostakovich fits squarely into that phenomenon I describe of the period 1880-1950 being one of the most creative in history. Today is different.

You're correct about Bach being discovered by the public late but he was known by composers all along. They all knew his keyboard work. Mozart took a trip to Leipzig to play Bach and shouted "Finally, a musician I can learn something from."

Today's media landscape is different and professional composers have many more outlets, hence fewer excuses. The music of well-known composers is readily available today and no one is heard saying that X, Y, or Z is the new Mozart. This matters because, in their days, the masters were (mostly) acknowledged as such. Even Wagner stifled the whole of European music with his outsized influence. Debussy's main purpose in life was to break free of Wagner's shackles. No composer today can claim that kind of influence. For most people, the name John Adams evokes US history and not music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, it is fascinating that while the Well-Tempered Clavier was not actually printed until early in the 19th century, people like the young Beethoven had copies that they studied.

I'm afraid that the only widely known musicians nowadays are all pop musicians.