Should we evaluate cultures by their peaks?

The most common benchmark uses “peaks” to compare one culture to another. Government funding is praised, for instance, for having supported Bach, Velàzquez, and Edmund Spenser. The same invocation of peaks has been used to compare “the moderns” to “the ancients.” We might ask what modern composer compares to Beethoven or what modern poem measures up to Homer’s Odyssey. Or we might ask "Which age has produced the best symphony?"

Why should the greatness of the best composer, or the best poet, be the relevant unit for judging a culture? What if one culture (modernity?) produces lesser creative titans, but produces many more of them? How are we to weigh the quality of the peak versus quantity of the total?

It is also an open question what is the right unit for judging a peak. Instead of looking at the highest peaks, we could judge an era by how good its "one hundred best composers" are, or by the aesthetic worth of its “best five thousand hours of music.” Or consider a peak of a different kind: “How many excellent musical genres does an age have?” By these standards, contemporary times fare better, vis-à-vis the era of Beethoven, than if we just compare the best composer from each period. We have many talented composers today, in many different musical fields, even though today’s best composer is not the equal of Beethoven.

Why the focus on a single artistic work and its greatness? Mozart’s Don Giovanni has musical beauty, terror, comedy, and a sense of the sublime, making it a favorite of opera connoisseurs. But what if consumers draw their comedy from one work, their terror from another, their beautiful music from yet another, and so on? Artistic peaks typically bundle qualities together. Yet arguably a world with unbundled qualities is superior, since it allows consumers to pick and choose how much of each quality they want, and from which source.

We cite “peaks” when making an aesthetic assessment because they are relatively easy to observe and talk about. Few individuals know much about eighteenth century culture except for its peaks. But the peaks standard remains incomplete. The notion of a peak does not correspond to how much aesthetic value is produced in an era or to how much that value is enjoyed.

That is from my Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding.  Comments are open…


The opportunity cost of consuming art A is the quality of the art B for which art A is substituted. For this reason, as the quantity of art increases utility is increasingly resistant to change from novel additions except those of extremely high quality, e.g. quality greater than the marginal art B being replaced.

I agree with Michael Vassar's point. The scarce resource here is the consumer's attention apan. Why would a typical consumer ever read a line of a mediocre modern poet? Sure, there are plenty of classical great poems that he has not read or does not remember. The modern art has the advantage of being able to talk about modern problems and being "new", so reading a mediocre modern book can still beat reading Shakespeare. But is does not mean that production of 10000 of modern mediocre books is better that production of 5 great modern books

I think this problem is mainly due to the relative view that we have here. If we take a look back in history we can only refer to peaks that have been established by some history scientist and cultural directors that use this research as a basis. You might think a few hundred years from now and I assume it seems that there were just a few peaks nevertheless they were all a product of a vigorous scene. To end it up I think that the quantity dimension of culture is always lost in historical summary and aggregation. In one way we forced to do that and this is a strong argument for the academic discipline of history (of arts). But this consciousness should made us wary not to compare culture along the temporal axis too deeply because this may suffer from serious imprecision.

Charles Murray's 2003 book "Human Accomplishment" offers a huge amount of objective data for exploring these kind of questions.

This would also question the wisdom of judging modern music artists by the quality of their hit singles versus their albums as a whole. It is generally agreed that pop megastars produce albums with 2-3 hits and the rest is filler, whereas many artists who don't achieve that level of peak success produce albums that are worth listening to start-to-finish.

Which is, of course, why Tool is the best band there is :P

Excellent passage, looking forward to reading the book. I confess that I may take an even more po-mo-ish view of art and culture. Rankings and reputations aren't etched in stone, and canons once upon a time didn't even exist. And who even knows if they're right? Any time I've looked closely into a culture-field, I've come away with a much different sense of what was "great" and what wasn't "great" than the consensus opinion. As far as I'm concerned, the only sensible way to rank "greatness" is in terms of its influence. You can like or not like Plato -- but his writing has certainly been influential.

Hoping that this isn't too, too self-promotional ... I've got some musings about "greatness" here. I blab a bit about the ups and downs of Piero della Francesco's reputation here.

Once again, looking forward to the book.

There's another important factor to consider. Once a medium exists, there will be some early high points and eventually a very small number of masters of it. They will become the classics of that medium. As such, their work will continue to have an audience that newer great works will have to develop over time.

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