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…


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