October 29, 2003

Human Accomplishment

Charles Murray, he of the Bell Curve, has written a new book that argues, according to David Frum, "that Western man has lost his sense of artistic excellence because he has lost his faith in God" (a latter day Michelangelo cast as an atheist could never have painted the Sistine Ceiling, for example). In Frum's words, Murray posts a challenge: Come up with, "even one artistic or scientific achievement. . .of the past 50 years that will still matter to people in the year 2200." Frum comes up with the following 10. Here�s one critique of Frum's list, which follows below. Surely we can do better?

1. A. Solzhenitsyn, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich."
2. Frank Gehry�s Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao.
3. The paintings of Jackson Pollock.
4. The Godfather I & II
5. C. Milosz, The Captive Mind.
6. West Side Story.
7. M. Kundera, "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting."
8. The collected "I Love Lucy."
9. VS Naipaul, "A Bend in the River."
10. Watson and Crick�s discovery of DNA.

Posted by Matthew at 03:19 AM GMT

Off the top of my head:

Miles Davis, 'Kind of Blue'
Reaching the moon
Maya Lin's Vietnam War memorial
Graham Greene, 'The Quiet American'
Bob Dylan, 'Blood on the Tracks'
Roy Lichtenstein
Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and the Troplicalia movement
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'
David Letterman's top-10 lists

Posted by: jame on October 29, 2003 09:47 AM

What I want to know is whether Charles Murray then makes the argument that great art is seen as evidence for divine inspiration, and hence God.

Because it hardly seems controversial to argue that faith in God, however misplaced, has inspired great art. Cathedrals alone prove that.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on October 29, 2003 11:12 AM

Actually, isn't it unfair to ask us to pit the last 50 years agains the previous 40,000? Let's do the last 50 years against a random 50-year interval in the past and see how often we modern era-ists win.

And finally, if this is a case of secular art against godly art, why are we not allowed to claim such notably a-religious artists as Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad or early Picasso?

Posted by: Stefan Geens on October 29, 2003 01:19 PM

Frum's plain wrong about this:

[A]lmost nobody in a secularized world can see any reason to sacrifice the rewards of the here-and-now for the artistic vocation. Michelangelo painted to glorify God � had he been offered a big commission to paint the walls of a nearby tavern rather than the Sistine Chapel, he would have scornfully refused.

In Michelangelo's day, especially, there was no conflict whatsoever between glorifying God and sacrificing the rewards of the here-and-now. No nearby tavern could compete with the kind of money the Vatican was offering him, and Michelangelo died one of the richest men in Italy.

Posted by: Felix on October 29, 2003 02:47 PM

Right, and I don't think it grapples with that late-19th century aesthetic of sickly, tubercular artists eating bugs in his Parisien garrett for the sake of his art. A differnet kind of passion, possibly. In any case, stop being so picky, you two. It was just an excuse to come up with lists. I'd suggest these for consideration:

Mapping the genome, "Sunset Boulevard," the development of precision weaponry, John Rawls, "A Theory of Justice," um, the commercialization of the Internet (I suppose that might be classified as the invention of HTML?).

Posted by: Matthew on October 29, 2003 03:11 PM

Although religion has indeed inspired great art, don't many artists go to the human nude as the supreme muse? Whether because they're pervs or because they see the human body as the expression of God, or maybe because the human race is irretrievably self-infatuated.

Posted by: jame on October 30, 2003 03:37 AM

For the sake of consistency, I'd add Eurof's collected commentary...

Posted by: charles on October 30, 2003 02:08 PM

i would add your ability to wear the same red t-shirt for 20 years, charles, as one of mankind's greatest achievements, though whether it's an artistic or scientific thing i have no idea.

Posted by: eurof on October 30, 2003 04:48 PM

Ahhh, thank you. My very own comment. Although not as original as some. Don't think it will be in your best of collection.

Posted by: Charles on October 30, 2003 06:11 PM

the idea that you think people in 2200 will be reading my comments on stefangeens.com and memefirst is very touching, charles. i don't know how to react to such compliments, so i try to reach out in the only way i know how, via thinly veiled insults.

doing this also covers me in case you are being sarcastic, too.

Posted by: eurof on October 30, 2003 06:26 PM