The Irish painter Francis Bacon once complained that “Everybody likes Vermeer, except me. He doesn’t mean anything. He has no significance.” Bacon is obviously being combative, but artists and critics do that—it’s a thing—and he’s not wrong that Vermeer was unknown until centuries too late to influence anyone other than filmmakers. But did he really mean that he truly doesn’t like Vermeer?
Three Studies For a Portrait of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, 1969
Girl With a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
Not exactly—he meant something stronger than that. It’s such an amazing thing for a painter to say that it can go right past you. He’s not really talking about Vermeer—he’s saying that he does not like paintings. “Nothing personal, Johannes, but a painting has no value except insofar as it is on the path to something else.” Seriously—if you heard someone say “Oh, I’d never date X because X has no hot friends.” would you doubt that the person not only doesn’t care much for X but also does not care much for X’s entire gender?
If you know Bacon’s work, the quote is not all that incredible, but it would surprise a lot of people to know that it’s a good summary of the default stance of critics of contemporary art for the last four generations. Bacon’s remark is the 20th Century’s aesthetic of originality distilled to its purest essence.
We’ve all been raised to think of originality as the sine qua non of art, but that notion took flight within the lifetime of people who are still with us, in the aftermath of the First World War, which once and for all broke the immemorial power of the European aristocracies, destroying four of the five sclerotic empires that had long dominated Europe, and leaving the fifth (The British Empire) a basket case. The influence of the Academies, which had been the aesthetic arm of the ruling class, vanished with them in a puff of high-explosives smoke, leaving an artistic vacuum that has still not been completely filled a century later.
The old structures were laid waste and revolution was spreading across Europe, with Russia already in flames. In art as in life, there was little for the young person of spirit between the reactionary and the revolutionary. Modernism was not then exactly newborn—it had been around, known mostly to insiders, for a good generation—but it caught fire in that instant when art became as much about revolution as about paint. There were some very fine modernist painters, but Modern Art’s greater purpose was simply to be something new, to not be that other thing, to be a bridge to the new world. The newness of Modernism was not incidental—it was it was its essential nature.
We don’t appreciate today how revolutionary this was. Prior to the collapse of the Academies, artists, both inside and outside of the academy, came in schools, like fish. Until the great collapse, originality had always been a grace note in art—something artists wanted a dash of. Mastery, not originality, was the dominant concern. Young artists, even the Young Turks, consciously adopted and mastered a style, typically that of an admired older artist. It was the younger artist’s goal to exceed rather than to supplant the master. After the collapse, “derivative,” meaning deriving from the work of another, suddenly became the most damning word in criticism.
The newly exalted status of originality was a complete inversion because novelty and mastery are incompatible. Newness as a legitimizing principle puts artists in a bind. Its short shelf-life means that each successive generation must up the ante without severing the chain of styles that gives them legitimacy. This is where Bacon’s quote is coming from—an intellectual environment where not to be new was to be part of the dying world that was being left behind, to be a nobody.
Look at these two Google N-gram graphs. Talking about creativity and originality is decidedly a post-WW1 thing. That simply wasn’t how people thought about art before the empires fell.
Art was warfare in those days and originality the bullets, but after four generations, originality has suffered a truly ironic fate: once the proud expression of a profound political and cultural revolution, originality and creativity now suffer the indignity of being cultural dogma preached by Sesame Street, the subject of educator’s relentless platitudes, a cliche of corporate-backed culture, an empty meme left over from a century-old political conflict, living on and on, stuck in everyone’s head as being a cardinal cultural virtue. It’s still the main thing that each generation of artists or musicians are formally required to care about, and it slops over into a culture-wide reflex that “creative” is good and everything else is just working for a living.
It is doubly ironic because the proportion of prominence of creativity and originality in culture has, in a counter-intuitive reversal, never been lower. Sure, there’s a certain amount of new culture around every year, but however much there seems to be, you have to divide that quantity by the largest number of people who have ever lived, multiplied by the unprecedentedly large increase in the proportion of people who are rich enough to be able to enter non-remunerative professions.
What should astonish us is how little there is today, given that literally thousands of times more people are in the creativity game than there were in earlier eras. The artist population of the entire European Renaissance probably did not equal the number of artists working in Brooklyn today.
The ubiquity of mass media and the Internet assure that anything that it is possible to feel, do, or think, in this moment of history is instantly transmitted around the world electronically, new for a nanosecond before everyone has heard all about it.
The true genius of our age is not creativity, but execution, primarily engineering, management and design. Engineering either underlies or enables virtually everything in the modern world that is worth having or playing with, yet if engineering is about one thing, it is about reducing creativity to the bare minimum required to solve a given problem—ideally, zero. Creative solutions are expensive, poorly understood, half-baked, and risky. A true engineer never invents anything that can be taken off the shelf, and never computes anything that can be looked up in a table, because the solutions in the table have been proven and refined ad nauseam. A true engineer can think as creatively as any artist but has the discipline not to noodle around when a solution to the problem has already been found and tested.
Engineering rigor, not creativity, has driven the price of almost everything to crazy lows while boosting the quality of the artifacts we produce to unprecedented highs and simultaneously boosted productivity—the amount of stuff and services we jointly generate and share—to levels that were science fiction a generation ago. After 35 years of inflation, a TV now not only costs less in unadjusted dollars than a TV did in 1980, but now it is seven feet wide and two inches thick, has invisibly fine resolution, and it gets hundreds of channels plus video on demand. You can also play with your computer on it—you know, the computer that is 10,000 times more powerful and costs 2% as much as the one you bought in 1980. They don’t make cars like they used to? Thank God—they used to get 5 miles per gallon and were shot after 80,000 miles. For the first time in history, it’s rare to die young, yet almost within living memory, it was rare to die old. Why? The art of medicine helps some, but the other 90% is sewer systems, clean water and the ability to farm, refrigerate and transport adequate wholesome food. That would be, uh, engineering, engineering, and engineering, respectively. The perfection of nitrogen fixing technology, a stupendous achievement you probably never heard of, all by itself boosted the food-growing capacity of the earth by at least a factor of five. Without it, peak farming output of every arable hectare on earth would have topped out at food for about 1.5 billion people before declining rapidly–that’s about a fifth of today’s mostly overfed world population.
So accustomed are we to admiring creativity in theory that we mentally impose it on everything that we admire, but originality, per se, is almost never what impresses. For example: what people raised to love modernism admire most often in Modernism is the bravura brushstroke, the confidence of execution seemingly tossed off without a thought. Yet seen without the romance, the bravura brushstroke may well be the attribute of art that is most opposite of spontaneity in that it only becomes possible through repeating the gesture so often that it is virtually automatic.
The irony of it all can make you cry. Creativity isn’t even a real thing. It is to art what ether was to 19th C. physics, an abstraction devised to account for phenomena that did not quite fit into the accepted framework for understanding such things.
If creativity and originality are real, please show me something important that exhibits them. I won’t wait—it’s going to take you a while. Most of the works of even the few genuinely original artists are not original in that the overwhelming majority of every artist’s paintings, especially their best, are necessarily repetitions or minor elaborations and improvements upon their earlier works. Maybe at the very beginning, there is something undeniably original, or maybe there isn’t, but we recognize the work of significant artists precisely because they imitate themselves again and again throughout their careers. A single “original” painting does not make a career. Might you choose Jackson Pollock as a true original? He is surely one of America’s most original painters; there had never been anyone quite like him. Really? Flip through the works of his teacher, the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton and tell me if you still think Pollock’s compositions or use of color were original.
This is not a bad thing; indeed, it cannot possibly be any other way. If any measurable fraction of the worlds creative output were actually new, life would be a torrent of the incomprehensible. People actually learn little after reaching adulthood; the rest of life generally consists of getting better at things, not at acquiring new ideas. This should not be controversial because it’s a truism. Even among the sciences, genuinely revolutionary ideas usually are accepted primarily by the young. They don’t get into the textbooks until the old geezers retire or die off.
It’s even truer in the performing arts, which are the arts that enjoy the widest and most cultivated fan base. Performance is execution by definition—musicians and actors are executors, not creators. When musicians are creative, they are called composers. Even musical forms that involve jamming aren’t truly creative for the most part–jamming, like design, is a matter of fluent selection from a limited set of options. It’s beautiful, but creative is the wrong word. But we have to think of excellence in execution as creative because to imply that something is not creative is to disparage it.
None of this is to say that creativity is bad—it has its place—but why encourage it, let alone fetishize it? Creativity doesn’t need encouragement, in fact, encouragement doesn’t even help. Nothing is more dispiriting to a genuinely creative young person than the enthusiasm of the official representatives of a trillion-dollar educational and media establishment. For the ordinary rest of us, creative thinking is usually a sign of bad planning and lack of knowledge or skill. This is overwhelmingly true in business and engineering, where there is a well-known best practice for almost every problem. Unglamorous but true. Nevertheless, a century of cultural indoctrination have led to a state of affairs in which the highest praise in business is that someone “thinks outside the box” even though literally nine times out of ten the need to think outside the box is caused by someone’s failure to think inside the box.
The educational establishment with its Sesame Street political platitudes from Great Grandma’s day has now trained four generations to think that creativity is what it’s all about; that mere excellence is for the grunts. It’s hard to argue with because there’s so rarely a status quo that doesn’t cry out for upending. The fallacy is in the belief that you need a vast bureaucracy and a vested cultural establishment to pound the lesson in. But almost by definition you can’t raise revolutionaries—they’re revolutionaries, duh—so what you get is an army of regular people trained to think that mere excellence is second best.
Why don’t and teach the boys and girls some real values for a change. Teach them that creativity is the lazy way out for people who haven’t learned how to solve a problem. In the unlikely event that creativity is called for, they’ll know it, if they’re capable of it. Celebrate the people who make things and make things happen, for a change. Celebrate mastery.