May 6, 2008

Creativity vs. Personality

Here's Picasso's 1943 sculpture Bull's Head, which H.W. Janson's standard college textbook on art history uses in its Introduction to illustrate the concept of "creativity:"

"Now let us look at the striking Bull's Head by Pablo Picasso (fig. 2), which seems to consist of nothing but the seat and handlebars of an old bicycle. ... Of course, the materials Picasso used are fabricated, but it would be absurd to insist that he must share the credit with the manufacturer, since the seat and handlebars in themselves are not works of art.

"While we feel a certain jolt when we first recognize the ingredients of this visual pun, we also sense that it was a stroke of genius to put them together in this unique way, and we cannot very well deny that it is a work of art."

Okay, I like it, it's cute, but the thought that occurred to me in art history class in 1979 was this: "Why does everybody assume this was 'unique?'"

I would guess that more than a few people preceded Picasso in connecting handlebars and seat to imitate a bull's head. It's the kind of thing my dad came up with every year or two while puttering around in the garage. Maybe he got the idea of assembling two things to look like an animal from Picasso, but I really doubt it. I suspect lots of folks' dads came up with a bicycle seat and handlebars Bull's Head before Picasso did.

If somebody came up with proof that, say, a Bulgarian bicycle repairman created basically the same thing in 1927, would that render Picasso's 1943 version valueless? Would Janson take out Picasso's Bulls Head and put in a picture of the repairman's Bull's Head as the exemplification of artistic creativity?

Yeah, right.

Something that's frequently overlooked about art history is that there has to be a "story." That, say, Bull's Head was independently discovered/created in, say, Bulgaria in 1927, in Uruguay in 1930, in Siam in 1931, and so forth, isn't a good story. It's just a bunch of stuff that (hypothetically) happened. Random acts of creativity aren't a story.

On the other hand, that Picasso from Spain, the land of bullfighting, an artistic genius obsessed with masculine vitality, who had prominently painted a bull's head a few years before in his famous Guernica, one day looked at some junk from an old bicycle and realized that he could create from two everyday objects a bull's head ... now that's a story! It's easy to riff off that because so much is known about Picasso, unlike that poor Bulgarian bastard.

What people are really interested in are personalities. But not too many personalities or the thread of the story gets lost. We pay attention to familiar personalities. Thus, Britney Spears going to Starbucks is the kind of story that interests millions. Granted, it's kind of a boring story ... except that it's about Britney Spears! Similarly, Picasso noticing that two pieces of junk make a bull's head has been taught to millions of college students as the epitome of artistic "creativity," a "unique" "stroke of genius."

What this means is that there's a high degree of path dependency and thus contingency in terms of who is famous. Those who grab the brass ring of fame, whether Britney or Pablo, tend to stay famous.

Thus, Andy Warhol has been famous for 40 years for saying, "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." That Andy got the future backwards -- celebrity is much more enduring these days than in 1968 -- is not the point. The point is that he got famous, so he's going to stay famous. That's how it works.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


agnostic said...

Creating that work of art is like committing a crime, and therefore to fully convict the person, we need proof of mens rea, which the Bulgarian probably didn't have.

Anonymous said...

I never liked Picasso's "art."
He was a no-talent nothing that the left annointed as a genius.
He turned to modern art from real art because he was incapable of drawing.

Anonymous said...

Steve, what the story says is that Picasso lacked, at this point, any ability to be creative.

To be specific, he lacked, craft, discipline, ability, judgment, and any aesthetic sense to create something both original and beautiful. All he could do was take "found objects" and prance around with them. Warhol before Warhol. It's not art.

Pretentious, trendy junk yes. Art no.

At the time, Dianne Arbus, or Henri Cartier Bresson, or Ansel Adams were using photography to create things of beauty and passion and well, sometimes ordinariness in a way that painters, corrupted by fashion and trends and easy money from suckers ... er art buyers were not able to match.

Painting probably died around 1922 or so, give or take Guernica or the odd Hockney.

Anonymous said...

stuff arty white folk like

I used to think my addiction to history books made me self-improving and cerebral. Not like people with their noses in Harry Potter - they were wasting their time with tat.
Then I realised that history books are Harry Potter for smart folks.
Gibbon, Macaulay, it is all just narrative story telling. Probably contain just as much fantasy as well.

Anonymous said...

... and why is Paris Hilton famous? Can Rosie O'Donnell claim the title "comedian" if she rarely elicits laughter? Why is Kevin Costner considered an actor when he turns each of his characters into his dull old self? Why is Joe Biden refered to as a foreign policy expert when he voted for the biggest disaster in our nation's history?

Hacks thrive in this world. It is beyond comprehension.

mnuez said...

I violently agree with you. Modern art is almost all bullshit. Same for most music videos, the awesome "acting ability" of most famous actors, the singing ability (and composing ability) of many famous songwriters, the writing ability of many famous writers, the punditry ability of many famous pundits and the supposed brilliant "creativity" of some of the world's richest businesspeople.

The facts are that the world is FULL of talent. Some half a percent (1/200) of the American populace has some quality that we would be in open-mouthed awe of and declare Brilliant were it to be offered to our senses. But what ends up being offered to our senses is most often chosen on account of OTHER factors (such as WHO you know, dumb luck, charisma, stick-to-it-ness, over-encouraging parents, etc.) than true merit. Let all worshippers of American Capitalism consider that. Heck, let all believers in American DEMOCRACY consider that.

It's a comforting fantasy to believe that the greatest product naturally rises to the top to be adored and appreciated by the rest of us but that's so incredibly far from the truth that one hardly knows how to begin expressing that fact.


mnuez said...

A tiny addendum may be in order for those not in the know.

Aside for the fact that much of the famous "art" (of all sorts) that you've come across is easily recognizable as being as wondrous as the emperor's new clothes (hailed for being hailed but lacking in any charms whatsoever) there's another factor to consider. Much of the ACTUALLY GOOD art that you've come across was not actually created by the people whom we are led to believe created it. This extends far beyond the ghost-written/written-with/ghost-edited books of many famous "authors" and into every single field of fame. Anyone who's ever heard Miley Cyrus or The Red Hot Chili Peppers sing without musical accompaniment knows that you can become one of the world's most famous singing performers without having the singing ability that some 20% of the world's populace has. What you lack in singing ability is most easily rectified by a $99 computer program.

By the way, speaking of the nonsensical swooning over "art" that some in the Elite Left enjoy engaging in (the right prefers its bullshit in expenseive wines and similar nonsense) , how many of you are aware of the origins of Dada (and the "art forms" that built upon it)? If Hecht is to be believed, Dada began as a revolution AGAINST people's ridiculous "appreciation" of what they called 'art' but (though Grosz is said to have claimed that "our final battle cry will be down with Dada!") they sold out as soon as people started offering them insanely large amounts of money for their own, satirical, 'Non-Art'.


Garland said...

Besides, the bicycle seat itself _is_ a work of art. It's very beautiful, as are the bars, and bicycles themselves.

Anonymous said...

mnuez -- The Right doesn't drink wine, it drinks beer. It's the wine-and-cheese Liberals that love their wine. I'm sure Michelle Obama could speak for hours about the difference between a New Zealand and South African Sauvignon Blanc.

OT -- Steve, Fox News has very interesting breakdowns (exit polls) of IN. Which Hillary barely won. CNN has a fairly crap exit polls which avoid race (Fox doesn't) but does have a very illustrative county map.

It looks like Dems are doing it again.

Hillary took Catholics (probably in IN mostly Irish, Italians, Germans, Poles etc.), Union Workers/households, people over 40, whites (both men and women) somewhere around 60-40 vs. Obama (some categories varied). Also advantages, significant ones, in people earning 15-30K, no college, over 40, etc.

Neither poll has married though.

Short story, it looks like Hillary got nearly buried by College kids and a HUGE turnout of Blacks.

Link here.

Sorry to go OT, don't see your email link (or I'm probably just too stupid to find it).

I do find it interesting though that beautiful, interesting, and exciting (as opposed to gimmicky ugliness) work was done by photographers well into the middle of the Twentieth Century. Maybe because it was a means of expression rather than "art" it avoided debasement into gimmickry longer.

You could look at say, an Ansel Adams photo and see beauty. Whereas, Picasso? Only ugliness.

MensaRefugee said...

Fred Reed on the Arts. Interesting read...

mnuez said...

Testing, your naivete is cute.

The Right of whom I was (parenthetically) speaking was obviously the "Elite" Right, just as I was referring to the "Elite" Left, rather than to union workers or African Americans.

Now, I shouldn't be terribly surprised by your laughable claim that there somehow isn't an elite Right (or perhaps that these elitists are Bud drinkers?) because that is, after all, the Big Lie that Limbaugh, FOX and other voicepieces of the Wealthy Right work daily at propagating. The fact however that reader of isteve managed to BUY INTO that silly falsity is however somewhat worrisome.

You see my dear, unlike the Elite Left who love the limelight and can't shut the fuck up (in fact their money is generally MADE in the limelight), the elite Right knows how contemptible they are to the average man which is why they generally go about their lives exploiting us all far from and bugle horns. Though you obviously aren't aware of this, the fact is that the vast majority of (wine swilling) wealthy people in this country are lifelong Republicans. The fact that they've managed to bamboozle fools such as yourself and other cabin-dwellers in the Appalachian Mountains into getting them over the 50% threshold doesn't get rid of the fact of their existence and of the fact that they have absolutely Nothing in common with the average American with whom they decidedly DO NOT share a beer.

To the rest of you isteve readers out there, is Testing99 alone or is it commonly assumed around these parts that wine and cheese gatherings are generally populated by the likes of Barbara Streisand rather than the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal? That Limbaugh managed to convince low-IQ whites that their proper place on the right side of the ticket is not very surprising but I would have hoped that 'Fact n Stat' people such as populate this particular board wouldn't be taken in by such cheap propaganda.

Anonymous said...


This capitalism worshipper, I'd say appreciator, asks you: what's the alternative? I'm not deeply impressed by postmodern philosophy or abstract art. I'm even less impressed by the amount of art output in the ex-communist/socialist, i.e. non-capitalist, countries.

Capitalism may offer little and/or shitty art, socialism offers no art at all.

Anonymous said...

I am with garlard. Listen to Janson:

"Of course, the materials Picasso used are fabricated, but it would be absurd to insist that he must share the credit with the manufacturer, since the seat and handlebars in themselves are not works of art."

Ah yes, of course, QED. Ahem. I would say that the bicycle seat and handlebars are greater works of art.

If art historians can devote whole wings of museums to the pots and pans of the Shang Dynasty, then how can they ignore 20th century industrial design? You mean to tell me those WW2 era bomber planes, 1950's American cars, and (gag me) Apple products are not works of art, but Jackson Pollack's barf sheets are?

These people are jokesters.

Anonymous said...

Picasso at least had some skill. Jean-Michel Basquiat could draw a crude penis in oil stick on a metal door which would then be auctioned for $30,000. Why?

(Don't answer that question if you're an art student.)

There was a point recently when art threw skill out the window and just focused on who could do the next "new thing" or make the boldest social commentary. But I see that era farting its last fart. There are lots of new artists these days that evoke the old expression that once made being an artist respectful. That is...

"No matter how hard I try, I could never paint/draw/sculpt that."

Thursday said...

If you are a great artists, and Picasso was a great artist, you can coast on the rep you've built from your actually good stuff. That's what is going on here.

For example, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is a truly great novel, and is recognized as such by genuinely good critics like Harold Bloom and other writers, but he's known to the public for mediocre later works like the Border trilogy on through The Road.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the redefinition of "art" to include household junk glued together (creative, yes, deserving of being hailed a great masterpiece, no) is a left wing liberal plot to make art more egalitarian.

Before the left wing took over, you need to to have TALENT to be a great artist. The egalitarian left said "this is unfair that some people are born with talent and some not" so they redefined art so that even people without talent could become artists, making it more "fair."

Anonymous said...

Mnuez has a great comment here:

"It's a comforting fantasy to believe that the greatest product naturally rises to the top to be adored and appreciated by the rest of us but that's so incredibly far from the truth that one hardly knows how to begin expressing that fact."

This is true, but I carry it further to the world of capitalism. Some people think those with the greatest talents who contribute the most to the economy become the billionaires, but in fact there are thousands of people more talented and who have contributed more than Bill Gates, they just didn't have his luck.

Jody said...

Here's my understanding of Picasso and modern art - he actually had some nontrivial technical skills (see his early work), became fascinated with pushing the bounds of theoretical art and starting doing that to the exclusion of everything else.

Unfortunately, it's hard to tell the difference between someone skilled pushing the theoretical envelope and someone unskilled slapping paint on a canvas (e.g., Pollock, Motherwell), modern art descended into the hackery we see today.

Anonymous said...

I think it's largely the same story with the path of post–modern music. A lot of the chords and "melodies" composed by Schoenberg and others are probably things that Beethoven or Mozart dandied about on their piano when drunk but didn't think worthy to put down on paper.

C. Van Carter said...

Bull's head.

mnuez said...

Outland -

Writ large I don't know of any excellent alternatives (that isn't to say that there aren't any - and I'm eagerly interested in learning about viable alternatives from people better educated than myself - but I don't happen to know of any). Writ smaller however, the alternative is obvious (and quite common) an educated and intelligent elite promotes that which is most deserving. Of course no such system could ever be perfect, but it's certainly a better alternative to democracy (in the world of worthy widgets that is, government MAY (or may not) be a different story).

Half Sigma -

I agree with your point completely. I'm also a regular reader and appreciator of your blog and I thank you for it.