Deadly Genius and the Back-To-Zero Problem

There are entire genres of art that have self-destructed in the last
hundred years — become drained of vitality, driven their audiences
away to the point where they become nothing more than museum exhibits
or hobby-horses for snobs and antiquarians.

The three most obvious examples are painting, the literary novel
and classical music. After about 1910 all three of these art forms
determinedly severed the connections with popular culture that had
made them relevant over the previous 250 years. Their departure left
vacuums to be filled; we got modern genre literature, rock music, and
art photography.

Other art forms underwent near-death experiences and survived only
in severely compromised forms. Jazz, running away from its roots in
honky tonks and dance halls, all but strangled on its own
sophistication between 1960 and 1980; it survives today primarily as
smoothed-out elevator music. Sculpture, having spent a century losing
itself in increasingly meaningless abstraction, is only now feeling
its way back towards a figurative vocabulary; the most interesting
action there is not yet in the revival of mimetic forms but in artists
who speak the vocabulary of mathematics and machine technology.

What makes an art-form self-destruct like this? Many things can
contribute — hankerings for bourgeois respectibility, corruption
by politics, clumsy response to a competing genre. But the one we
see over and over again is deadly genius.

A deadly genius is a talent so impressive that he can break and
remake all the rules of the form, and seduce others into trying to
emulate his disruptive brilliance — even when those followers
lack the raw ability or grounding to make art in the new idiom the the
genius has defined.

Arnold Schoenberg (classical music). James Joyce (literary
novels). John Coltrane (jazz). Pablo Picasso (painting). Konstantin
Brancusi (sculpture). These men had the knack of inventing radical
new forms that made the preexisting conventions of their arts seem
stale and outworn. They produced works of brilliance, taught their
followers to value disruptive brillance over tradition, and in doing so
all but destroyed their arts.

Artistic tradition can be limiting sometimes, but it has one thing
going for it — it is the result of selection for pleasing an audience.
Thus, artists of moderate talent can imitate it and produce something that
the eye, ear, heart and mind will experience with pleasure. Most artists
are at best of moderate talent; thus, this kind of imitation is how
art forms survive and keep an audience.

On the other hand…imitation Schoenberg or Coltrane is
unlistenably bad. Imitation Joyce is unreadable. Imitation Picasso
looks like a toddler’s daubings and imitation Brancusi is ugly junk.
Worse still is when mediocre artists strain themselves to be the next
disruptive genius. And perhaps worst of all is what happens when bad
artists turn disruption into cliche.

Art forms self-destruct when enough of their establishment follows
a deadly genius off a cliff. And we had a bad streak of this sort of
thing just about a century ago; three of the four deadly geniuses I’ve
named above flourished at that time. Why then?

Tom Wolfe argued in From Bauhaus to Our House that the
breakdown of the traditional patronage system in the late 19th century
had a lot to do with the degenerative changes in modern art. Wolfe never
identified deadly genius as a core problem. but his argument readily
extends to an explanation of why deadly genius become so much deadlier
at that time.

Wealthy aristocratic patrons, had, in general, little use for
disruptive brilliance — what they wanted from artists was
impressive display objects, status symbols that had to be
comprehensible to the patron’s peers. Thus, artists learned to
stay more or less within traditional forms or starve. Evolution
happened, but it was relatively gradual and unsconscious. Geniuses
were not permitted to become deadly.

After 1900 all this changed. Wolfe elucidates some of the complex
reasons that artists found themselves with more freedom and less
security than ever before. In an increasingly bourgeois climate, the
cry went up that artistic creation must become autonomous, heeding its
own internal imperatives as much as (or more than) the demands of any
audience. The breakneck pace of technological change helped reinforce a
sense that possibilities were limitless and all rules could be
discarded.

In the new environment, artistic tradition lost much of its normative
force. “Back to zero!” was the slogan; forget everything so you can invent
anything. And when the next wave of deadly geniuses hit, there was nothing
to moderate them any more.

It is unlikely that anything quite like the Modernist disruption will
ever happen again, if only because we’ve been there and done that now. But
as we try to heal all the fractures it produced, this one lesson is worth
bearing in mind. Genius can be deadly when it goes where mere talent
cannot follow.

23 thoughts on “Deadly Genius and the Back-To-Zero Problem

  1. | Jazz, running away from its roots in
    | honky tonks and dance halls, all but
    | strangled on its own sophistication
    | between 1960 and 1980; it survives
    | today primarily as smoothed-out
    | elevator music.

    That and bump music for public radio news programming.

  2. And ESR’s deadly talent for blogging these mind-blowing concepts that the rest of us strain to imitate – does this mark the self-destruction of blogging as an art form?

  3. Pretty interesting read. I’m not a big art guy, but at first the thought of advising someone to mold to tradition kinda made me feel dirty. Then I compared it to web design. Someone breaks all the standard rules, and yet makes a fast, easily navigatable masterpiece. Then every wannabe around tries to imitate, leaving garbage around the ‘net. I guess the lesson is that tradition has some value to it, just use it as guidelines.

  4. Eek, sorry to make this two comments, but I prematurely enterd the first one. I wanted to mention that I think a balance would be prime. After all, you don’t want it to end up like television, do you?

  5. From a certain perspective, movie and television theme music carries on the spirit of classical. Where once there was the Flying Dutchman Overture, there now is the Futurama Theme. Where once there was Eroica, there now is the Imperial March.

  6. Good point. The first 3 Star Wars films are a good example of that. I’m a Trek guy myself, but they have some beautiful music. Never realised how good untill my school band started playing it, and there were no explosions to distract me. Just good lookin women. ; -)

  7. Perhaps not so much “deadly genius”, as “empty genius”.

    Between the Renaissance and the Enlightment (speaking broadly, and of course we can disagree about when the Renaissance began and the Enlightment), a great many questions were generated. Not all of these questions could be answered in philosophical discourses; many had to be — and were — answered in artistic, politival, scientific, etc., terms.

    But, as they were answered faster than new questions could be asked, these fields of endeavor became intellectually incestuous; instead of answering the questions generated by society, they turned to answering meaningless question that no one, not even those who asked them, cared about.

    By the end of this century, I think that modernity will be, by consensus, swept under the rug as one of those things too embarassing to mention in polite society. The price of that, of course, is that it will become nyekulturnii to ask questions, let alone expect answers. So has it ever been, when a culture dies.

  8. You left out poetry — this may be evidence of how thoroughly it self-destructed. For a while, song lyrics moved into poetry’s place, but I don’t know whether popular music is still producing lyrics/verse that people quote and remember.

    One of the things that happened to jazz was WWII. There was a heavy tax on dance halls, so jazz moved toward sit-and-listen music. For whatever reason, jazz didn’t recover anymore than the fiction pulp magazines recovered from the paper shortage.

    It may not be a coincidence that most of the disruptive genius happened at about the same time–there’s a theory that WWI had a profoundly dispiriting effect on Western Civ. People thought they were moving towards utopia, and instead that tremendous pointless disaster happened which led to a lot of distrust of the usual ways of doing things.

  9. > Art forms self-destruct when enough
    > of their establishment follows a
    > deadly genius off a cliff. And we had
    > a bad streak of this sort of thing
    > just about a century ago; three of
    > the four deadly geniuses I’ve named
    > above flourished at that time. Why
    > then?

    May the “economics of superstars” have something to do with it? Originally, that’s a term microeconomists use to describe income differences between entertainers, but I think the idea behind it can be hacked to fit your problem.

    Here’s an example of how the original idea works: 50 years ago, the field of stand-up comedy was full of good but not great perfomers whom people watched life in theaters. But nowadays, thanks to the advent of TV and other mass-media, it has become easy for superstars to reach infinitely large audiences. As a consequence, people tend to watch Jay Leno and David Letterman on TV while theaters stay empty and second-rate entertainers who play there can’t make a living anymore.

    A variant of this superstar logic can be applied to the development of art. Bevore 1910, being a deadly genius got you high entry fees into your concerts. But the number of pupils they could have was limited by the amount of time they could devote to them person to person. As a consequence, the solid, conventional second-raters had no less pupils than the deadly geniuses. The average apprentice artist learned his craft from one of the many good-but-not-great artists, who couldn’t compete outside the conventions and tought the conventions of the craft to them as a result.

    But nowadays, apprentices can, and frequently do, learn their trade by watching their ‘masters’ on DVD and imitating them. There is no limit to the number of apprentices each master can have in this setting, so the average apprentice is now much more likely to learn from a deadly genius than from a solid convention-implementer. Because deadly geniuses don’t teach conventions and genius itself is not teachable, the apprentices learn badly, and they end up flunking in the eyes and ears their audiences.

    If you feel like testing this theory, I would suggest looking more at the timing. Because newspapers came before cinema, which came before radio, which came before TV, the theory would predict that the demise of literature came before the demise of music and acting; that makes it easy to refute the theory if wrong.

  10. [sorry for not auto-BR-ing; here's the readable version.]

    > Art forms self-destruct when enough
    > of their establishment follows a
    > deadly genius off a cliff. And we had
    > a bad streak of this sort of thing
    > just about a century ago; three of
    > the four deadly geniuses I’ve named
    > above flourished at that time. Why
    > then?

    May the “economics of superstars” have something to do with it? Originally, that’s a term microeconomists use to describe income differences between entertainers, but I think the idea behind it can be hacked to fit your problem.

    Here’s an example of how the original idea works: 50 years ago, the field of stand-up comedy was full of good but not great perfomers whom people watched life in theaters. But nowadays, thanks to the advent of TV and other mass-media, it has become easy for superstars to reach infinitely large audiences. As a consequence, people tend to watch Jay Leno and David Letterman on TV while theaters stay empty and second-rate entertainers who play there can’t make a living anymore.

    A variant of this superstar logic can be applied to the development of art. Bevore 1910, being a deadly genius got you high entry fees into your concerts. But the number of pupils they could have was limited by the amount of time they could devote to them person to person. As a consequence, the solid, conventional second-raters had no less pupils than the deadly geniuses. The average apprentice artist learned his craft from one of the many good-but-not-great artists, who couldn’t compete outside the conventions and tought the conventions of the craft to them as a result.

    But nowadays, apprentices can, and frequently do, learn their trade by watching their ‘masters’ on DVD and imitating them. There is no limit to the number of apprentices each master can have in this setting, so the average apprentice is now much more likely to learn from a deadly genius than from a solid convention-implementer. Because deadly geniuses don’t teach conventions and genius itself is not teachable, the apprentices learn badly, and they end up flunking in the eyes and ears their audiences.

    If you feel like testing this theory, I would suggest looking more at the timing. Because newspapers came before cinema, which came before radio, which came before TV, the theory would predict that the demise of literature came before the demise of music and acting; that makes it easy to refute the theory if wrong.

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  12. Eric, you might enjoy this quote by Gian-Carlo Rota an inspirational mathematician, which is one of my all-time favourite quotes:

    The idea of genius, elaborated by German romantics, is destructive; it is a night into fantasy. There is reason to believe we’ve killed classical music because of that idea. People think that they will be either geniuses like Beethoven or nothing. But look at the Baroque Age–there were hundreds of little Italians who wrote good music and didn’t give a hoot about being creative.

    The idea there, that genius is itself a harmful and creativity-inhibiting idea, clearly supports and is supported by your thesis.

  13. Personally, I think the problem is a desire to be original and different: to throw away the conservative (or traditional) achievements as narrow minded and dross. Here conservative is “Western Institution”.

    You can see this in the politics of the left (insane ideas like “multi-culturalism”), in art with ideas like “primitivism” which have as their root the concept that there is significant value in unsophisticated tribal art, rejection of classical music’s resolution of dissonance for music that just doesn’t sound good, and perhaps culiminating in the ’60s rejection of almost all of Western Civilization’s institutions.

    I don’t think it is genius, frankly, I think the rejection of the traditional arts and other institutions is just arrogance of a very high degree. I think that some feel that by rejecting they have elevated themselves above that which they reject. If they can find sufficient numbers of like minded people, then somehow they have won.

    My only beef: too bad they never figured out anything better before trashing the old. That’s what honest people do.

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  15. I’m not programming-savvy at all, so maybe this is crap… what do you think about the idea that computer programming is a cultural area operating under the same conditions that set up the “Modernist disruption”?

    As I understand it, in the proprietary model of software building, a company patron spends money to create products that are “comprehensible to the patron’s peers.” In open-source software building, programmers self-select, working on projects that are interesting to them (art for art’s sake…). “The breakneck pace of technological change” certainly applies to this chunk of human history, as well.

  16. This sounds very similar to what Frank Herbert said, only he used “superhero” instead of “deadly genius”:

    “I had this theory that superheroes were disastrous for humans, that even if you postulated an infallible hero, the things this hero set in motion fell eventually into the hands of fallible mortals.”

  17. I think this analysis is fundamentally flawed in so many ways.

    Firstly, I don’t think classical forms in art, literature or music had much connection to popular culture, save occasionally mining them for ideas. Even when that happened though, the result was not being produced for the populace, but for a very tiny minority of the population, perhaps only the artist himself. If anything, classical music is more popular now than it’s ever been due to increased wealth (and the growth of the middle class) and recording technology. If anything, it’s less snobbish if its audience is calculated on a per capita basis. The same for other forms.

    However, nowhere is this supposed loss of connection to popular culture more absurd than in the example of literature, given the rate of illiteracy prior (and into) the 20th century. How was literature relevant in the slightest to anyone but the upper classes, since they were the only ones who could read? Literature, both contemporary and antiquated, is more popular and relevant than ever before.

    Likewise, the following argument about disruptive geniuses seems almost completely oblivious to history and the fact that such people have always existed in every generation, as have their followers, admirers, and imitators, as well as their detractors and would-be Cassandras.

    The thing I find hardest to grasp in this analysis (and conservatism in general) is the seeming contraction between the anti-intellectual/anti-snobbery arguments or jibes on the one hand, and the idea that a break from tradition has led us into some sort of moral/cultural/social abyss from which we must rise, as though the king should be overthrown but the peasant’s voice ignored. It seems like it can be one or the other, but not both. It’s a case of having one’s philosophical cake and eating it too otherwise.

  18. I think the key is “Artistic tradition …is the result of selection for pleasing an audience.” Art forms get into trouble when their creators lose interest in pleasing lay audiences.

    After that I think it’s difficult to see a universal pattern. Two common elements are the urge to be original and the desire for high status among some in-crowd – other creators, critics, whatever. These 2 factors reinforce each other – a creator seeking to be original produces an innovation which makes the result less acccessible to a lay audience, the in-crowd over-praises it because in-crowds always want something new to show off about and to differentiate themselves from the general public, etc.

    Modern arts funding doesn’t help – it’s dispensed by people who automatically become an in-crowd as a result of controlling the money and attracting hangers-on.

    So I think “deadly geniuses” are not necessary for the decline of an art form, and would not be sufficient to cause the decline if the urge to be original and the influence of in-crowds have not already created suitable conditions.

  19. Current News: In Spain, already known, the genius of the twenty-first century art, is called Vicjes Gonród. Genius is a modern, contemporary, current, has nothing to do with the antics of Dalí.

    Genius Web XXI century art: http://www.GenioDelSigloXXI.com

    Art Geniuses Goya, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and now Vicjes Gonród, Spain is a land of geniuses, no question.

    – Note: Many thanks for this article is very good.
    Thanks
    Juliet

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