Monday, November 03, 2003

The Yartz Are Dead ...

I've spent far too much time over the past few days thinking about the state of the yartz, and especially this concluding remark from Charles Murray in his recent interview with Steve Sailer:

Q. You found that per capita levels of accomplishment tended to decline from 1850 to 1950. Would you care to speculate on post-1950 trends?

A. I think that the number of novels, songs, and paintings done since 1950 that anyone will still care about 200 years from now is somewhere in the vicinity of zero. Not exactly zero, but close. I find a good way to make this point is to ask anyone who disagrees with me to name a work that will survive -- and then ask, "Seriously?" Very few works indeed can defend themselves against the "Seriously?" question.

This fatuous exchange produced the same sort of nagging irritation that you might feel if you'd run out of Rectinol after the local chemist has closed. Although I was initially disinclined to take up Sailer's "Seriously? Challenge", I find my thoughts continually returning to it.

If nothing else, Murray's pronouncement is a lazy one; especially for someone who was prepared to take the trouble to write a book which attempts, using statistical methods, to identify the greatest thinkers of history. If Murray's method - of surveying "top scholars" in various fields and statistically analysing their references to various artists to see who scores the most mentions - is valid for identifying past greats in various fields, then it is equally applicable to identifying present greats, whose works stand a good chance of surviving until the year 2203. It's simply a matter of identifying and polling the experts, and running their input through the same statistical grinder.

I'm just as lazy as Murray; although I've described how he might go about identifying works that people might still care about in 2203, with the same so-called objectivity as he has produced his objective league ranking of history's greats in Human Accomplishment, don't expect me to do it. It might be an interesting task, but if you published a book about it, you'd probably get the same enthusiastic "so what?" that the Publisher's Weekly reviewer gave Murray's magnum opus.

So let's look at this another way; seriously, but with nowhere near as much earnestness as Steve Sailer's correspondents have brought to the task Most of the contenders that have been identified so far (with the possible exception of JRR Tolkien's pastiche of the Rhinegold Saga) are all very worthy and that's a problem. Ideas of literary and artistic worthiness are apt to change over time so it's a poor basis for predicting the future.

The question we should ask is not which modern works have enough merit to attract attention in 2203, but which modern works will people find interesting in 2203. By today's standards these migh have all the artistic merit of the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall, whose work remains in print a century after his death. I think it's safe to predict that they'll still be around, in some published format, in 2103 and that people will still care about them in the same perverse way that McGonagall lovers do today.

While a salutory example, McGonagall is a poor precedent for judging modern works. There are a few modern poets who might be considered likely to supplant him as the worst poet in the English language but if we confine our search to cultural freaks, we aren't going to identify too many works which have what it takes to be of interest in 2203. A more realistic approach is to look at the past works we currently value and identify the factors which have fostered their cultural survival. Modern works with similar traits can reasonably be expected to be around, and cared about, in 200 years.

There are, in my view, six Ps of cultural survival; patronage, popularity, productivity, provocation, protection and plagiarism. A writer, musician or artist who is well patronised, popular, prolifically provocative is more likely to produce works that will be discussed two centuries after their creation, than an obscure dabbler with no gumption. Especially if their works enjoy good institutional protection or they are extensively plagiarised.

Plagiarism can benefit an art-work's long term survival as an object of interest in two distinct ways. Firstly, blatant copying of the ideas of others is a useful aide in producing a large corpus of works and the works produced are likely to attract scholarly interest, commentary and controversy; firstly in tracking down the original works referenced and secondly in long running disputes over the chicken/egg Bacon/Shakespeare issues that inevitably arise. A plagiarised work benefits from attracting scholarly interest, either as the original source of the plagiarism, or as a lesser imitation of it.

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings will derive both benefits. Future scholars of the Nordic sagas will find it of interest as an adaptation and retelling of the Rhinegold Saga, with a few nods in the general direction of other famous sagas along the way. Scholars in the area of twentieth century literature will look to it as one of the prototypes for the whole appalling Fantasy genre. If, sometime in the next few years, Tolkien and his imitators get their much needed Cervantes, their cultural survival is assured. There's a large number of very popular novels there which have very good chances of being cared about, at least in academia or its future equivalent.

The role of patronage in fostering works for future generations to revere as great classics is very clear in the case of renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo Buonorotti and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. None of these artists would be known today if they had not had wealthy patrons. Michaelangelo's case, in particular, is also illustrative of the importance of institutional protection. If his David had been in the Vatican, rather than Florence, he'd would be lucky to have a willy these days. There are rumours going back for over a decade of a store of marble todgers, somewhere in a Vatican basement, which were hacked off various sculpures by prelates who deemed them unseemly. Similarly, had any of Pope Julius II's successors ever decided that the Sistine Chapel ceiling would look better with a nice coat of pink distemper, it's unlikely that it would be the tourist attraction it is today.

The institutions which protect art works in the modern world are of course, art galleries and insurance corporations. Any modern work which fetches a high enough price on the secondary art market, that is in auction rooms, will enjoy a high level of institutional protection (either because it's in an art gallery, or because it's in a private collection whose insurer insists on it). Not all of the works that are on display in current public art gallery modern art collections are going to be cared about by future generations, but that's where most of the candidates will be. Even if the end result is that in 2203 people only care enough about twentieth century art to say "What a load of rubbish!" before moving on to Landseer's Monarch of the Glen and other works which are sadly underrated today. On the other hand if the visual arts continue the alleged decline that set in somewhere around the turn of the century, I expect art lovers of 2203 to do a lot of grousing about how artists just don't put shit in a tin as well as they did in the twentieth century.

When we look for musical works which still be well regarded in 2203, we must resist the impulse to look to the high culture areas of opera and ballet music, orchestral music and chamber music. We're more likely to find long-term cultural survivors by looking for modern equivalents tp Danny Boy, Home Sweet Home, The Camptown Races and Way Down Upon the Swanee River than we are by looking for a modern rival to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Or we could look at who's been producing music to match that of Johann Strauss the Younger, Tielman Susato and Michael Praetorius.

So whatever happens to the works of Phillip Glass or Andrew Lloyd Webber - both contenders in the area of high-brow music (by 2203 I expect Webber to enjoy at least the same regard that we now have for Arthur Sullivan) - there are plenty of stars in the area of popular music who can expect to be well known, at least to future generations of children in primary schools or their future equivalents. They'll be able to get through the first verse of Mama Mia or Stayin' Alive with the same facility that I can get through the first verses of The Minstrel Boy and Home on the Range. There will be a disco section in whatever passes for a record store in 2203 and a lot of universities will have disco societies in the same way that modern universities have ballroom and renaissance dancing societies. And the Boston Pops, and similar orchestras, will be putting on concerts featuring arrangements of Smoke on the Water, Stairway to Heaven and Roll Over, Lay Down and Let Me In. As well as a lot of music from Cats, of course.

Will Murray's Human Accomplishment make the distance, as a great work of either sociology or cultural history? I don't think so. Seriously.

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