“People like me are aware of their so-called genius at ten, eight, nine. . . . I always wondered, “Why has nobody discovered me?” – John Lennon
Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe, Kyd, Fletcher. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn Beethoven. Dickens, Thackeray Eliot, Trollope, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Hardy. Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola Whether or not you’ve ever read, listened or watched any of these artists’ work, my guess is that you know precisely who I’m talking about by their last names alone. Now, one might say “Of course we know who they are – they’re the best in their fields in their times.” Sure, I agree they’re all great talents, but can you name five great classical composers off the top of your head? I know I can’t – and even if I know the names of a few composers I honestly have no idea whether professionals consider them so great as to be worthy of standing alongside Mozart. How about painters? Writers (aside from David Foster Wallace who everybody immediately goes to)?
My point is simply this – while we obviously know certain artists for their talent, the ones who immediately associate with genius tend to live around the same time. In some cases, their birth years are hardly ten years apart, as is the case with Dickens and the other Victorian writers I mentioned. Hell, even the ninja turtles lived in the same era – Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci produced their best work around the same time, they were closely preceded by Donatello, and Raphael was just becoming a rising star when Michelangelo was an old man.
I’ve thought about this question on and off for some time, and after seeing that my girlfriend didn’t think it was that bad of an idea, I’ve decided to post it and see what you think.
(I’ll note now that neither theory has anything to do with God, fate, nature, destiny or anything so vague – besides, saying this is so simply because God has a thing for grouping geniuses together isn’t very compelling to me. Or satisfying).
To begin with, it’s reasonable to propose that the main reason geniuses in a particular field seem to crop up around the same time is that every generation is naturally predisposed to exalt a single kind of art. For example, we don’t have any great directors in the 1600s because the technology simply didn’t exist. Maybe some peasant could have been a Spielberg, but lacking a basic camera would pose a problem. Thus the farther back in time you go, there are fewer and fewer fields where one has even the possibility of achieving greatness until the only way you could be seen as a genius would be to become to best cave painter around.
If you accept what I’ve said so far, then I find it equally reasonable to believe that we are likely to find that the geniuses we know were working at a time when their specific field had just started but was well enough along to capture the public’s admiration – I include this caveat because even if you were a Beethoven when the first piano was invented, it would take some time before it ceased to be merely a curiosity, the idea of paying to see a single man perform his work made sense, etc.
Not being an expert in all the fields I’ve alluded to, I still think my hypothesis holds out so far. To use another example, scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler all lived during a time when scientific instruments were being invented, while Einstein and Bohr were becoming well known when it became possible to study subatomic particles as well as the universe as a whole. It also didn’t hurt that they were working at a time when science, particularly physics, was responsible for some of our greatest breakthroughs and our deadliest weapons. A certain bomb comes to mind.
To summarize, the reason geniuses seem to appear around the same time and in specific fields is the result of a natural bias to extol those who excel in a field when it is first taking shape (these are the people who are shaping it, after all) and when social conditions are such that their specific field is best able to capture the general public’s imagination and influence popular culture. There may indeed be a composer out there who deserves attention, but he or she isn’t likely to grab as much attention by the public as an actor, especially when an affair’s involved.
I could use one of my previous examples to test this idea, but it turns out it’s unnecessary – we are living in a time when we are literally witnessing this process occur. I am talking about video games.
Who could have guessed in the 1800s that one of the best known artists in America would be a Japanese game designer (Shigeru Miyamoto) working in an industry that is more profitable that movies or television? If you buy my answer, it shouldn’t be a surprise this is now the case. Consider that it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that video came arcade machines, let alone consoles, had the power to run something like the original Mario, which in retrospect seems primitive. As I’ve said before, it wouldn’t matter if in this case you were a Miyamoto. You could only shine when the tools you needed were available. He happened to be one of those people who arrive at just the right time, for his first creation, Donkey Kong, was able to include a feature never before seen in gaming – the ability to jump. A year or so later, he was able to create one of the first games to allow the power to move in a world bigger than a single screen. And with Zelda, gamers could play a game where the goal wasn’t to score points but to complete a story. Plus, they could save their game and come back to it later.
I could point to other artists, such as Gunpie Yokoi (whose Metroid featured the first female heroine), John Carmack and John Romero (all of whom released their best work within fifteen to twenty years of each other), and but what I want to stress is that being the first game designers gave them to the unique ability to influence their field in a way that could never be repeated. It doesn’t matter if a Shakespeare of video games comes along – people like Miyamoto will always be praised because whatever amazing games this Shakespeare makes will necessarily be influenced by the foundation his or her predecessors laid.
One other interesting case with this area is indie games, which are now becoming more and more popular, as well as more mature. “Journey”, for instance, by thatgamecompany (that’s literally their name) has been described in reviews in ways you would expect people to criticize a novel. Distribution methods through the internet, as well as funding sources, have never been at a better place for indie developers, so I wouldn’t be surprised if, twenty years from now, you’ll be able to rattle off a few indie gamers’ names as easily as you could Dickens.
So what do you think? Am I onto something or have overlooked a fatal flaw? I would sincerely like to know if it’s the latter, though I admit writing a new post refuting everything I just said wouldn’t be the most fun thing to do.
Anyway, it’s getting late and I’m getting to be an old man now (turning twenty-five soon) so good night and thanks for reading.
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