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1 in 14 Of History's Greatest Artists Are Alive Today: The Upside to Overpopulation

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | February 20, 2013 | Comments ()


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"It's no surprise that some of our greatest novelists -- Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene -- were Catholics." Will Willimon, formerly a Methodist bishop, wrote this. Now you can of course queue up thoughtful statements as to why the Catholic experience would generate novelists, or equally fantastic sarcastic remarks like "of course Catholicism leads to a predilection for long winded fiction," but it's also a rather irritating sentiment that we see all over the place.

It's pretty easy to take essentially any category that we might attach individual importance to, and then list off examples to support it. It's no surprise that some of our great novelists are [insert category]! And then list a few from that category. Boom. Cherry-picked data points presented as a pattern. That's half of what passes for journalism today anyway. The bottom line is that if Catholics represent 30% of the population, then even if being Catholic has no effect whatsoever on the chances of someone becoming a great novelist, it's likely that about one in three great novelists is going to be Catholic.

Of course, one can have all sorts of fun with this sort of mixture of statistics and qualitative interpretation. For instance, if our statistics demonstrated that Catholics actually were underrepresented among great novelists, we could posit that this has nothing to do with Catholicism per se, but is just a statistical artifact of the tendency of alcoholics to have shorter attention spans while in the sauce. Thus many would-be great novelists who become trapped in the bottle instead become great poets. And since Ireland is both disproportionately Catholic and disproportionately alcoholic, well, the statistics get warped. This demonstrates three facts. First, all statistics can be made meaningless with a little creative thought. Second, James Joyce wrote something, but they must not be novels. And third, all topics can be turned into racists jokes about Irish alcoholism.

But I don't want to just discuss the sensual art of data massage. One could quite easily test the hypothesis as to whether certain backgrounds are more likely to produce certain types of art. Someone probably already has run some statistics somewhere, but let's twist the thought experiment in a slightly different direction.

There are more people living today than have ever lived in human history. By most estimates, the number of human beings who have ever lived is somewhere in the ball park of 100 billion. About 1 in 14 people who have ever lived are currently drawing breath (or at least holding it). So in strictly statistical terms, of all the great writers who have ever published back to hieroglyphic times, one in fourteen of them ought to be publishing today. That fudges on young people who aren't old enough to have published yet, but let's just roll with it.

But the ability to publish is not independent of the society that you live in. Prior to the rise of the modern west, with its notions of equality of opportunity, most people were born into lives that would never grant them any capacity to become that which they were best fit to be. There's an old thought experiment about the tragedy of the world's greatest writer being born before a serf and never learning to read, or the world's greatest physicist being born before the scientific method. And of course there are the specific examples like Srinivasa Ramanujan. If we think that artistic ability is randomly distributed, sprinkled among the population like genetic pixie dust, then most of human history was a genocide of potential. And by the same logic, we would expect that those born with it today would be more likely to be in the position to publish than those in the past. Shakespeare's talent might have only had a few percent chance of landing on someone who could make use of it in his time, but today? Add in the effects of the Internet thrashing the threshold of entry for publication, and the picture becomes even more stark. If anything that 1 in 14 number is grossly underestimating the proportion of productive talent alive today.

Ah, but of course art doesn't come without context. Different societies produce different quantities and qualities of thought not only because of their relative openness to its production, but because art has to be about something. Certain periods of history were wellsprings of artistic production, counterarguments to that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times. That's only a curse if you care more about being happy than being a writer (which, as an aside, acts as convincing evidence that writing is a mental illness). So one could argue that by virtue of the boring time that we live in, that maybe we should actually have proportionately less artists than previous periods. Or at the very least, less artists producing good art. Let's not have that argument here though; it's been argued elsewhere in greater depth.

If we just roll with the idea of greater population and greater access to the ability to publish though, there are some curious effects. If you have two Shakespeares at the same time, or twenty, they're not all going to write King Lear. There are two possible outcomes of this situation. First, because the magic of modern communications is such that we can make infinite copies quite easily, it's possible that only one of the Shakespeares gets published at all. There simply isn't a need for the other nineteen. In terms of efficiency, we pick the best and sell a billion copies of his work. The argument is that in the past, prior to modern communications, we needed more artists. China had to have its own Shakespeare because it would be decades before they got his plays, and then good luck finding a translator. Today, we simultaneously release the latest Harry Potter in so many languages that a few dead ones probably snuck in accidentally.

The other option, and the one that I think better reflects what is happening in the world, is that our twenty Shakespeares are going to specialize like sweet book loving insects. Writing is personal and so is reading. It will always make more of an impact when it is precise than when it is general. While a lot of the "great" literature we remember makes the cut because it speaks to universal truths of the human experience, there is so much of the human experience that isn't universal, that affects small pockets of humanity in individual and discrete ways. If society is geared towards only producing a handful of great artists, their work is going to tend towards the universal, because if they don't produce it, no one will. Supply meeting demand, universe abhorring a void, however you want to metaphorize it, I think it's true.

But if we can produce more great artists and thinkers, and provide them with technology that lets them reach smaller audiences while still breaking even on production costs, then they can settle more and more into niches, into specific and precise art. It's part of the process that generated genres in the first place, and now we see it in almost every avenue of art today. Smaller and smaller audiences spread out over more and more of the world. A chorus of a thousand voices is rising in place of the solo.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • I don't know about any of that, but I know that my next business card is going to have "Master, Sensual Art of Data Massage" as my title instead of the much more mundane "Software Engineer"

  • Well of course statistics can be used to prove almost anything. Forfty percent of all people know that.

  • Vi

    Would Shakespeare's talent have been able to shine under the onslaught of bad fan fiction and 50 Shades of Gray? Would Sorcese be the great director he is today under the pile of Youtube garbage and harlem shakes?

    We might have removed the publishing barrier, but we've also completely cut professional vetting and editors. We've lost the people who can define taste. There's really only so much crap a person can sift through in their lifetime before they can hope to catch a glimmer of Shakespeare. Perhaps if Shakespeare were born today, he would be buried in the mediocrity of every blogger who thinks they're some semblance of a great writer.

    There are certainly famous artists today, but that doesn't meant they're 'great' in any way.

  • BlackRabbit

    The fact that "taste" is subjective is important. What's your definition of "great"? It can't be "any writer who's works have survived this long" because a lot of crap gets recycled too.

  • PaddyDog

    But Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene were both adult converts to Catholicism and both were writing before they converted, so there's no real basis for saying Catholicism shaped their lifetime experiences that caused them to be good authors.

  • Mrs. Julien

    You and your logicks!

  • Brett

    Fact-checking Andrew Sullivan is often productive. Willimon did retire from episcopal leadership in 2012, but he remains a bishop and is not a "former bishop" as Sullivan describes.

  • Dragonchild

    The numbers should be even more tipped in our favor because back in the old days, 60-80% of the population grew food. Let alone artisans, blacksmiths, cobblers, tanners. . . 2/3 to 3/4 of everyone, growing food whether they liked it or hated it because that was the minimum society needed to subsist.

    Ah, but even though farmers are now something like 2% of the working population in developed countries, we still have people toiling away at make-work jobs. Meanwhile, publishers glom onto what will sell, not in the least bit concerned about legacy.

    Now and then I hear people complain about how worthless our artistic minds are. What I wonder is why the hell a first-world nation would want to dilute its labor pool when it has the breathing room to have more people do what they want for a living. What would a writer do in America today if they couldn't write? Why, the same thing any one of us do now -- work a soulless job for a paycheck. If a writer couldn't sell books back in Shakespeare's time, they could starve. That shouldn't be a concern today, but if there's a good book in the server, fireman, janitor, middle manager or salesperson you meet, odds are the universe will never know.

  • BlackRabbit

    Personally I'd rather have the firefighter doing his job than writing, but i suspect that's not what you meant. And I'm uncertain what you mean by "breathing room."

  • Dragonchild

    I'm talking about competing for wages. That's what U.S. economic policy is about. You need to work to eat, I need to work to eat. . . even if the jobs are miserable and redundant, and even if only 2% of us need to be growing food to have an EMBARRASSING food surplus, the economy is designed so we desperately compete for each other's jobs. That drives wages down. But it also means very few of us are allowed to dream. We're too busy working.

    The firefighter doing is job is OK. The firefighter who is a firefighter because it's the only job available he's qualified to do, and a city has more than they need, and retirement isn't an option. . . that's social waste.

    America has managed to maximize misery and desperation in an era of excess. To quote SLW himself, "That's an achievement of sorts, as depressingly regressive as it is."

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