Thursday, February 27, 2014

Genius, Art and Money

A commentator left a long and interesting comment on my post the other day. In it he quoted an article in Wired magazine that talks about cultivating genius in the 21st century. My commentator quotes a bit from the article and adds:
"Bill James, the pioneer of Moneyball-style statistical baseball analysis, points out that modern America is already very good at generating geniuses. The problem is that the geniuses we’ve created are athletes." We basically value athletes & sports more than science, (classical) music, painting (although this one is valued quite much by certain rich people, you can own a painting after all, something that can't be said about music for instance) and so on.
Ah yes, what is the value of genius? I think the original article falls down badly in its analysis of what created clusters of genius such as we find in 5th century BC Athens, 15th century Florence, 16th century London and, for we music-lovers, 18th century Vienna. The article claims that:
We can begin to make sense of the “clotting” of creative talent. The secret, it turns out, is the presence of particular meta-ideas, which support the spread of other ideas. First proposed by economist Paul Romer, meta-ideas include concepts like the patent system, public libraries, and universal education.
Uh-huh. Does anyone even edit these off-the-cuff essays? Because if the "secret" is those "meta-ideas" there would seem to be a bit of a flaw as 5th century BC Athens, 15th century Florence, 16th century London and 18th century Vienna had none of this. Composers in the 18th century had no way of protecting their copyright and they had no access to any public libraries nor universal education. I guess we aren't supposed to notice glaring errors of logic these days.

But there is one element that we should examine: compensation. Is the reason that America is good at generating "genius" in the field of athletics (and I'm pretty sure that's the wrong word) is that they get paid enormous amounts of money? Let's have a look. Here is the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes for 2013. The top five range from around $50 million to nearly $80 million. Not bad! Now let's compare that to the earnings of some of the highest paid pop musicians. Now, of course, the article does not say "pop" musicians, but just musicians tout simple. It just happens that, through some quirk of fate, that all of the top musicians are in the pop field (including country, rap, and one dj). The top five here run from $64 million to $125 million. So, obviously, if compensation attracts genius, then we have a lot of genius in the field of pop. Aesthetically that doesn't seem to be the case.

Let's have another look at that quote from the article:
Bill James, the pioneer of Moneyball-style statistical baseball analysis, points out that modern America is already very good at generating geniuses. The problem is that the geniuses we’ve created are athletes. As James says, this is largely because we treat athletes differently. We encourage them when they’re young, chauffeuring our kids to practice and tournaments. We also have mechanisms for cultivating athletic talent at every step in the process, from Little League to the Majors. Lastly, professional teams are willing to take risks, betting big bucks on draft picks who never pan out. Because of these successful meta-ideas, even a small city like Topeka, Kansas—roughly the same size as Elizabethan London, James points out—can produce an athletic genius every few years.
But do we treat athletes differently? I don't think so. A lot of young music students get treated exactly the same way and there are also mechanisms to encourage success. Most places have music festivals and there are extensive programs (even though cut back somewhat in recent years) for music education from Suzuki up to youth orchestras.

Just out of curiosity, how are the superstars of classical music compensated? I'm not sure where to get the numbers for opera singers and other virtuosos, but a good indicator is how conductors are paid. Here is an LA Times article with the numbers. The top five range from $1.52 million to $2.17 million. That's just ... embarrassing! These are some of the greatest classical musicians alive and they get paid about what a successful real estate agent in a major urban center like New York can make. Yes, really.

My conclusion is that all of these explanations are off the mark. Genius does not come out of nowhere, as these clusters seem to show, but it certainly does not seem to be the product of careful cultivation through copyright protection, public libraries or universal education either. Because it would be fairly easy to demonstrate that the clusters of genius that we know about were not the result of any of this. And, as the figures for pop stars also seem to show, genius is not a product of huge amounts of money either.

So why not? I think a little quote from Einstein I recently ran across might give a clue. When the Nazis came up with 100 scientists who said Einstein was wrong about everything he simply replied "Were I mistaken, one would have sufficed." What I take from this is, for one thing, genius is not to be judged by mediocrity. Which is one reason why systems of education, universal, restricted or high-tech, do NOT produce genius. All systems of education are run by mediocrities for their own benefit and they, almost without exception, resent highly talented students because they always create problems for the institution.

Just as a speculation, I think that what creates clusters of genius are two things: genius itself and leisure to exploit it. You don't get an Aristotle by sending him to an Ivy League school with highly-paid professors and deluxe student dorms. But you do by exposing him at an early age to the thinking of Plato and Socrates. You need one potential genius exposed to another with the leisure to develop. So there does have to be some compensation. But I call it leisure because what genius really needs is not huge paychecks, but just time. You can't be a genius if you are slinging burgers because that just takes away too much of your energy.

Haydn was a potential genius who, through the patronage of the Esterházys was given the leisure to develop his abilities. In turn he was able to positively influence the genius of Mozart and Beethoven.

Let's listen to pieces by those three geniuses:


Rickard Dahl said...

Yes, it's probably a matter of time and resources. Basically, for a composer the ultimate would be composing with artistic freedom while not having to worry about not having enough money/having to work with other things. Ofc that isn't an option nowadays unless your name is Phillip Glass or Steve Reich. You basically have to get ensembles and orchestras play your music (unless you're a famous composer it's hard to get anyone (at least non-amateur) to play it) and if possible sell CDs and sheet music (looks bleak on that front considering how few people actually buy those things, especially if it's new classical music). I guess there is state support in some countries but the payments seem to be pretty bad (politicians on the other hand get paid a lot, yet most of them are really bad and don't do much worthwhile I think). And there pretty much aren't any rich people willing to support a composer. So unless a composer is very successful and/or knows the way around in the business and can get many commissions (thus reducing artistic freedom to a certain extent), he/she will have to live in poverty alla John Cage in order to compose full time. It seems like the most balanced option is working with something else that you enjoy and compose during the freetime (as Borodin and Ives did for instance). This gives financial stability while enabling the composer to compose, reducing the output however. Thus if there is a genius composer choosing this path it will reduce the potential for great geniusness.

It looks better in the engineering & science area, there you get paid well (ofc not as well as actors, pop artists, athletes etc.) while hopefully doing something that interests you.

Rickard Dahl said...

Oh, in the last sentence I'm mainly referring to the STEM fields, i.e. engineering/technology, physics, mathematics, chemistry & biology (I might have missed something here).

Bryan Townsend said...

A couple of observations, Rickard. Both Steve Reich and Philip Glass had a lot of lean years early on. As I recall, Philip Glass actually worked as a furniture mover for several years because he wasn't making any money from his music. State support for the arts tends to go to mediocrities who are well-connected politically. A lot of money goes to politicians mostly because they can provide valuable services in terms of favorable legislation and regulation to those people who have a lot of money. Composers, not so much!

I think you left out possibly the most lucrative field these days: software engineer!

Rickard Dahl said...

Good points. Yeah, I guess Steve Reich and Philip Glass had difficulties in the start at least. Even the biggest classical composers nowadays seem to have had some difficulties financially at one point or another. Some pop stars probably earn more in one year than most people in a lifetime while the earning of the modern day classical composers is probably much closer to the "most people" proportion.

Politics is a dirty game. While it may not be realistic, the Netflix series "House of Cards" gives an interesting view on politics. Lots of dirty deals there. I recommend that you watch that if you haven't yet.

Well, I counted all types of engineering under " engineering/technology" but yeah software or computer engineering seem to be well paying fields. Electrical engineering (what I'm studying now) is also well paid I think. A few years ago I was thinking about getting into game development but I changed my mind. I wanted to do something to improve the environment, now I don't feel that obligation. Still, electrical engineering is a very nice field and there is lots to choose from (other than electrical power engineering which was my original intent when choosing the education, there is for instance "communication engineering", "wireless, photonics and space engineering", "biomedical engineering", "systems, control and mechatronics" and even "sound and vibration" (that one could be of interest but I want to find out more details about it)). Maybe some good steps into the game development direction would be getting more programming knowledge, I only know two programming languages on a non-deep level. There is lots of online material to use. A good thing with various engineering educations is that many of the courses are the same (such as math and other general principles), so technically if you've done them once, you don't need to redo. So an option would be getting into the computer engineering and software/IT engineering areas. Still, it's just very much speculative things, just rambling. In a sense it's good to have a backup plan in case things would go wrong. There is a problem of outsourcing in the IT area for instance, thankfully not so much in the electrical engineering area but things could turn in the wrong direction. Ofc, game development is a lot less stable than engineering in general. I guess I could have programming and game development (working on independent projects such as mods) as a hobby but I'm already busy with school and busy with music. Maybe if I would plan my time better (i.e. less time spent in front of the TV). My point is, I think there are many interesting things to do but not enough time.

Bryan Townsend said...

Big classical composers never start out that way! Well, except Mozart...

I quite watching television about ten years ago. Saves an amazing amount of time!! But I do sometimes watch tv shows either streamed on the internet or on dvd. I will have a look at House of Cards.

Rickard Dahl said...

What do you mean? Start out how?

Well, I don't watch regular TV. The output is really bad most of the time and you have to watch at specific times. I do use Netflix to watch some TV-series and movies sometimes. Plus I also play on my PS3. In a sense I don't really waste so much time because I'm using Netflix or playing games in the late evening when I'm pretty much too tired to do other things anyways. I'm thinking about watching Firefly, I'm not much into sci-fi but I've heard some nice things about it. And I think you made a post about the show.

Bryan Townsend said...

I just meant that big classical composers always start out small! Except for Mozart who wrote his first symphony at the age of 8 and his first opera at 11!

I think Firefly is great--the best science fiction ever filmed.

Rickard Dahl said...

I've watched two episodes of Firefly so far and it's quite interesting. It seems quite odd in a sense. Technology seems to have been developed very much, yet most people seem to live a simple lifestyle. Plus the government is still in control and wars are still being fought. Plus there seem to be no humanoid robots or aliens. It's also like a new wild west in some regards. Basically, technology has changed, human nature and the nature of society hasn't.

Bryan Townsend said...

All those are the things I like about the show. Joss Whedon said once that he hated all the actors in rubber alien masks on most science fiction shows. What he always seems to do is combine genres. Firefly is a mixture of the wild west and science fiction. So, sometimes they ride horses, but they also fly around in spaceships. The subsequent movie, Serenity, is also very good.