Wednesday, May 02, 2007

An Epidemic of Art?

Here's a passage from an intriguing article from Gene Expression, Toxoplasma gondii's South American origins and its influence on culture:
To return to the theme of genius germs, artists show a stronger bias toward being born during the Winter and Spring than scientists, which is consistent with the hypothesis that an early infection (more likely during the 'flu season') starts the individual's personality off on a more Neurotic groove. So perhaps the flourishing of T. gondii among a virgin European population contributed to the explosion of artistic creativity that we see starting about the 17th Century. Greg Clark's new book, A Farewell to Alms, argues that the Industrial Revolution could not have happened far earlier than it did, in part because the English were simply not genetically prepared for it -- they were predisposed to abandon rather than conscientiousness. Maybe the same is true for artistic revolutions -- a population may have to wait for an outbreak of nuttiness in order to produce a Beethoven or a Goya. As the population adapts defenses against pathogens that affect personality, and as sanitary conditions improve, the frequency of bona fide weirdos diminishes, and what remains are faux iconoclasts like we see in Modern Art. Andy Warhol is a good example: his eccentricity was probably little more than an affectation.

The case of Western Classical music is particularly instructive, and anyone's theory of what produces artistic genius has to contend with this medium and time-frame. Unlike all other art forms, there is almost nothing of impressive value from "Ancient music" or even most Medieval music. There is a hint of sophisticated music during the Renaissance, and then suddenly there is an explosion during the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras -- after which there is a figure here or there who you might compare to a "mediocre" Baroque composer, but none you would comfortably rank alongside Bach. The early great works of the Baroque begin about the 1720s, and by the mid-1800s most of the rest of the Greats were dead; Wagner died toward the end of the 19th C., and most of the leading candidates for "Great 20th Century compositions" debuted before 1920. How can the near entirety of an artistic domain have been created within scarcely 200 years, burning out as abruptly as it caught fire?
Since I love Bach, I can excuse whatever excesses of conjecture this blogger is making...

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