Art and Disruptive Genius

In Deadly Genius and the Back-To-Zero Problem, ESR (Eric S. Raymond — the Open Source Guru, for the non-techies) puts forward an interesting hypothesis about demise of some art forms. Now, one can argue wether some of the art forms that he uses for illlustrating his point are actually dead. But that doesn’t take away anything from his theory.

According to ESR, one of the important factors in the demise of/destruction of art form is deadly genius, as he calls it.

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.

This, essentially kills the art form, as the hoards that go after the genius (obviously) don’t have his/her genius, but imitate anyway — with disasterous results. In other words, they end up being – na ghar ka na ghat ka, contributing in the demise of the art form as well.

Art, is more or less dependent on a degree of continuity, as the bulk of population (which supports art in one way or another) is rather conservative with respect to appreciating art. This is more than evident in the history. ESR stresses on this point:

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.

ESR observes that in the early twentieth centuary, the deadly genius phenomenon became really prominent. Why, he asks, and again postulates that it might have to do with the end of traditional patronage system for art, which was one of the major factors that worked for art establishment.

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…. [But 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.

However, there is one interesting problem with this theory: the more deadly the genius is, the more pattern-breaking his/her art is likely to be. So in the absence of patronage, there should be more pressure on the artist to conform. For once you break normative matrix, you’re essentially an outsider — and this is not just true for art, although it is more obvious in artistic realms. Naturally it takes years before revolutionary art is appreciated. So

  • What prompts the deadly genius to throw away the rules — and what stopped them from doing that in the patronage system?
  • What prompts the less-endowed to follow the struggling geniuses?

The questions (and I myself see an answer to the first one: that old Patronage system was more limiting than a societal patronage — as the latter is more decentralized) become more relevant in the wake of ESR’s prediction that:

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.

I’m no art expert, but I think this is a little-to-early to predict anything like that, however sound the hypothesis may look. Mainly because, a deadly-genius does what it does inspite of the surroundings, not because of them. So certain social catalysts can accelerate or slow down the process but it’s presumptuous to say that only one set of social conditions could bring around such a revolution/disruption (whatever way you look at it). One thing however cannot be contested:

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.

And it takes a deadly genius himself to come up with that!


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