Archive for the Opening salvo Category

Because I was attached to an anthropologist back in 1994, I had heard of and read parts of libertarian researcher and author Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve–which argued, controversially, the genetic superiority of the affluent classes (i.e., the plutocracy) in America–but I had not heard until recently of his 2003 book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950.

In this, Murray argues that world progress in the arts and sciences has declined since around 1800, and this has happened despite the fact that “wealth, cities and their cultural endowments, communication, and political freedom have…improved in recent centuries.”

According to the Wikisummary of Human Accomplishment, the decline is the result of a diminishment of four conditions that Murray says are necessary for people’s creative work to reach their full potential. Achievement is best stimulated, he says, in a culture:

  1. “…in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose.” Moreover, Murray writes: “Human beings have been most magnificently productive and reached their highest cultural peaks in the times and places where humans have thought most deeply about their place in the universe and been most convinced they have one.”
  2. that “encourages the belief that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals.”
  3. where “organizing structures” are rich and old. Such structure can include “theories, styles, and techniques…such as the spectroscope in physics or the grand piano in music”.
  4. where people have “a well-articulated vision of, and use of, the transcendental good relevant to that domain.” Such a good can include truth, morality, or beauty.

I will have to read the full text of Murray’s Human Accomplishment, if only to see how his arguments about the decline of human achievement in art mesh with my ideas about the rise of artistic failure. There were large swaths of the Bell Curve that frustrated me by failing to show true causality for what was being argued. Granted, Murray is a master at manipulating statistics to prove a point that seems intuitively true, and apparently he does so again in this book, ranking great figures in several fields of human accomplishment from 800 BC to 1950 using various statistical means. We have to remember though, while many may be convinced that the arts are only getting worse, Disraeli’s adage about stats (”there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”) and the old adage about nostalgia (”that nostalgia is to memory as a diet soda is to a fine wine”) reveal that collective human belief is often faulty.

Still, artistic failure is real enough in America… I’ll stake my steak on that much.