Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Rising Marginal Cost of Originality or What is Wrong with Modern____

Suppose you are the first city planner in the history of the world. If you are very clever you come up with Cartesian coordinates, making it easy to find any address without a map, let alone a GPS—useful since neither GPS devices nor maps have been invented yet.

Suppose you are the second city planner. Cartesian coordinates have already been done, so you can't make your reputation by doing them again. With luck, you come up with some alternative, perhaps polar coordinates, that works almost as well.

Suppose you are the two hundred and ninetieth city planner in the history of the world. All the good ideas have been used, all the so-so ideas have been used, and you need something new to make your reputation. You design Canberra. That done, you design the Combs building at ANU, the most ingeniously misdesigned building in my personal experience, where after walking around for a few minutes you not only don't know where you are, you don't even know what floor you are on.

I call it the theory of the rising marginal cost of originality—formed long ago when I spent a summer visiting at ANU.

It explains why, to a first approximation, modern art isn't worth looking at, modern music isn't worth listening to, and modern literature and verse not worth reading. Writing a novel like one of Jane Austen's, or a poem like one by Donne or Kipling, only better, is hard. Easier to deliberately adopt a form that nobody else has used, and so guarantee that nobody else has done it better.

Of course, there might be a reason nobody else has used it.


Anonymous said...

It's superficially plausible, but I don't think it is the real reason for the problems of modern art/architecture/literature/etc. There is no good reason to believe that the space of possibilities was exhausted to the same point (where ____ isn't worth looking at) at approximately the same time in the various aesthetic fields. If we were to try to model the spaces mathematically I am quite sure that they would have vastly different sizes, and therefore should become exhausted at vastly different times. The simultaneity of the problems suggests a cause external to the fields - possibly a political cause or an economic cause, or both (e.g., the economics of art changing due to political influence). I have seen a few accounts along economic/political lines.

Sohaib Hasan said...

I agree on your idea's application to modern art. However, the point applies only to fiction in modern lit. This is only a minor point.

The big one though is music. Music is completely different because of all the innovation caused by new technologies. Classical music only had classical instruments to work with. Nowadays the computer alone has completely changed the possibility-space of sounds. These innovations in technologies allow new sources of productive originality.

Arthur B. said...

You observe the past with a filter where only worthy innovations are retained. Naturally some experimentation will produce bad results, that's the nature of it. A fair comparison would be between art that is a century old and art that is, say five century old.

I get the impression that your criticism is targeted as recent planning, recent art, recent architecture etc, but if your overall point is valid you should observe the same kind of difference between the 19th and 14th century. Do you ?

Anonymous said...

This is certainly a plausible theory: it would predict that the "quality" of new, original work would gradually go downhill in any field in which the design space of ideas that actually work is exhausted. (I'm leaving the door open for fields with a strong synergistic effect, where one idea begets others more than it exhausts the space.) And that the effect would be stronger in cultures that highly prize originality, as opposed to cultures that highly prize adherence to tradition.

As Arthur B. points out, however, many of the same predictions would follow from the alternative hypothesis that new, original work is roughly equally good in all eras, but the likelihood of a work surviving to the present increases with its "quality". In a culture that prized originality over tradition, this likelihood would be generally lower, but it's not clear that its correlation with "quality" would be stronger.

How would you test which (if either) of these hypotheses is true?

Anonymous said...

Arthur and hudebnik - Filtering is plausible (and is indeed one reason that "foreign films" seen in the US tend to be of high quality), but I believe that something else is going on because of various rapid changes that occurred in the early 20th century. Among these, buildings lost their ornamentation (ornamentation surely accounts for much of the beauty of older buildings), artists became ideological - in many cases allied with political ideologies such as fascism or communism - and began to write manifestos, the taste of the elite among the art appreciators moved rapidly away from the taste of the average person (an example of this is the rise of non-representationalism) as demonstrated by the cliche of someone who does not understand art, the bureaucratic government became highly prominent (both directly and through its domination of the universities) in the economics of art (Mencius Moldbug talks about this extensively), and so on.

I agree with Arthur and hudebnik that we should see the aesthetic fields gradually go downhill, but I can also understand that someone might expect a sudden exhaustion as some kind of limit was reached. However, I recommend consideration of my earlier point (first comment is mine) that, if exhaustion of the space of possibilities is truly the cause, we should not expect to see exhaustion occur simultaneously in the various aesthetic fields, as these fields are very different from each other (architecture, music, painting, sculpture, literature).

BlackSheep said...

Interesting. I've been thinking about the economics of software, especially that to sold as merchandise, and competition there seems to follow such dynamics. Producers don't compete for price (marginal cost is zero), but they do compete to displace the "incumbent" program by adding value, and eventually you do have turnovers even if the dominant producer today has the network momentum and the advantage of his code stack working for him.

Michael F. Martin said...

The trick is to be able to filter out what will eventually be considered classic from the noise. I find it a fun game.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous suggests that my explanation is inadequate. For some cases, such as literature, an alternative explanation is filtering. We are comparing the 19th century work that was good enough to survive to the 21st century with 21st century work, most of which will be forgotten in fifty years.

Wirkman Virkkala said...

It's a neat hypothesis.

But take music, for example. Traditional harmony, which reached maturity by the time of J.S. Bach and developed through Haydn and Beethoven into Romanticism, is almost arbitrarily limited by the diatonic scales. Seven notes as a subset of the semitone (12-tone) scale may seem natural, but there exist two other seven-note (heptatonic) scales that are constructed as the diatonic scale is constructed, by minor second and major second steps. Further, each of these scales has numerous modes.

Traditional diatonic harmony has concentrated on two modes of the possible seven of the diatonic scale, one mode of one the alternate heptatonic scale mentioned above, and one mode of a minor-key gap scale. That's it.

By composing in melodies and harmonies of these other modes, other scales, many 20th century composers achieved some fascinating advances and originalities. Composers doing this include Sibelius, Respighi, and Howard Hanson.

Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, and others achieved some originality by essaying octatonic scales, as well as novel chords and more complex harmonies.

Alexander Tcherepnin explored, for years in his very listenable music, nine-tone scales.

The cost of embracing all twelve tones, though, seems pretty high to my ears. My least favorite "originals" of the last century's music are Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. They embraced the semitone scale as a whole, and as such stretched our ability to follow their musical thoughts. Further, they substituted the traditional methods of melodic and harmonic elaboration (repetition, variation) with the attempt to make non-repetitive music using mathematical formulae (serialism). This music is usually (but not always) unpleasant in some sense, and to most people, and demonstrates your thesis pretty well: the attempt to be always original, moment to moment, comes at the expense of beauty. Too high a cost.

And yet some of their progeny, such as Rochberg, Wolpe and Kirchner, strike me as utterly great composers who wrote some eminently listenable music. (Kirchner and Wolpe string quartets, and Rochberg's Blake Songs are good examples of retrieving music from the maw of hyper-originality.)

There is an opposite and competing principle to the one you mentioned: Diminishing marginal utility of the same-old, same-old. I have difficulty listening to "new" music (that is, popular music) that sounds melodically and harmonically almost exactly like the stuff that immediately preceded it. Yikes, most of it is boring. Traditional harmony of the simplest sort backing up melodies of no especial merit.

Indeed, the continuance of popular music almost depends on fashion to discard old examples, and musical ignorance, to avoid contrast with better music of the past.

Are you familiar with the passage in John Stuart Mill's AUTOBIOGRAPHY where he contemplates, with despair, the possibility of running out of material, given the limitations of the diatonic scale?

Mill was more concerned about diminishing resources, you might say, for originality.

Glen said...

If "Modern" includes today, one should also consider the "grumpy old man" hypothesis. To some degree musical or artistic taste is subjective and relies on extending a bit - but not too far - beyond one's formative influences. Artists that come along 20 years later will have different formative influences so their own excursions are likely to exceed your comfort zone in some dimension. Too loud, too fast, too much rhythm, too coarse, too sappy, too modern, too old-fashioned...

Michael F. Martin said...

I missed how this explanation was distinct from the idea of filtering signal from noise over time on the first pass.

I'm skeptical about an explanation that permits for now temporal evolution in taste. In general, I believe tastes have become more specialized over time so that what is considered fine art now is consistent with the finest art in the past, but more nuanced in some dimension orthogonal to what was done in the past. There are some constraints on what can be considered fine art that do not change, but these are quite loose, and there seems always to be room for innovation.

Anonymous said...

Some artistic innovations are initially rejected by the public, but later come to be accepted. On the other hand, some innovations lauded by art critics turn out to be dead ends.

It is certainly a tough task for artists today to compete with all the dead Greats of the past. Even if your work is superior, it's not likely to be recognized by either the critics or the public. Tough life.

markm said...

Creative people have usually built on the successes of their predecessors, so it would be equally reasonable to expect everything to keep getting better. Where this has failed, I think, four factors have been in play:

1) Technological change. For over a century, architecture has benefitted immensely from new materials that allow building forms that were never achievable before. OTOH, labor costs keep rising and all the painstaking bric-a-brac work of typical Victorian architecture is now prohibitively expensive - let alone a medieval cathedral, erected over centuries with the labor of thousands of skilled artisans. So we get slab-sided steel and glass skyscrapers repeated all across the urban skyline, this being currently the optimal balance between cost and functionality.

2) Tastes do change. Those slab-sided buildings do have an austere beauty, although I wouldn't expect Queen Victoria could have seen it. Or, in a less complimentary vein, there's a great change in taste evident between Beethoven and heavy metal. (Am I snobbish to see this as devolution?) And who has _time_ to read the stately prose of the Victorian novelists, but a schoolchild, probably too young to appreciate the depths of the slowly developing story?

3) Attitude: Many of those who would describe themselves as "artists" disdain building on the works of their predecessors. Often they also disdain to consider what would please their audience rather than themselves. If Rembrandt had acted that way, he'd have starved. But he thrived by painting mostly what the patrons expected, in an established canon, sometimes finding the opportunity to add to the canon, but never just ignoring it.

It's much easier to think of oneself as original if you remain ignorant of prior work. Occasionally efforts to create a style de noveau produce something that is both original and beautiful, Jackson Pollock for example, but I suspect he could have studied the old Dutch masters and outpainted Rembrandt if he'd chose to.

Another effect of "artistic" attitude is the throwing out of old limitations. The scale of classical music is clearly an artificial limitation, but if the composer doesn't adhere to _some_ standard, the effect is cacophony. And I'm talking about certain modern "classical" composers here, not just the pop performers. In architecture, if the financiers don't impose effective limits that tie the work to some tradition, the result is apt to be weirdly impractical, however much one can argue about whether it looks good or not. (But then, a completely unprecedented design worked out with well the Sydney Opera House.) In literature, the Victorians were constrained to describe passion obliquely and spent much creativity on working against those limits; with no such constraint, modern literature often descends to boring pornography.

4) There's always been a gulf between common entertainment (or house building, etc.) and the heights of the arts. It may have grown wider. Or maybe not, considering such past popular "entertainments" as gladiators, bear-baiting, and vaudeville. Furthermore, before offset printing and the phonograph, most entertainments were homemade - people could only rarely afford a night at a live theater or concert,and then repeatedly attempted to reproduce that experience in their living rooms, with amateur singing and playlets. Or they read penny dreadfuls. It was often bad enough to drive them to watch bear-baiting. In art, the rich could hire major works by great artists; thousands of other artists produced miniature portraits or almost mass-produced miniature paintings at affordable prices.

So Elvis, Alice Cooper, calendar photography, television and movies have replaced the home performances. We've got no record of those except the occasional description in old novels. Low-brow art and literature sometimes survived, but no one took pains to preserve them - and from the samples I've seen modern calendar photographs and SF/fantasy literature are improvements on their 19th century equivalents.

David Friedman said...

"And who has _time_ to read the stately prose of the Victorian novelists, but a schoolchild, probably too young to appreciate the depths of the slowly developing story?"

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is, I think, considerably longer than anything Jane Austen or Trollope or Dickens wrote, unless you count Trollope's series as a single book each--which Tolkien's is, even if published in three volumes. And there are a number of less distinguished modern authors producing works in the 500-1000 page range.

So on that point I think you are mistaken.

Hammerhead said...

Could it also be that sometimes the artists who follow earlier artists don't have the same ability - for any number of reasons? Perhaps knowledge of a given craft is not wholly transmitted to the next generation, leading to cruder, less broadly expressed techniques? I remember reading accounts of early Greek pottery (way before age of Pericles) in which the earlier period was considered superior to the later on a number of margins. The later works didn't innovate beyond the preceding period, but sort of dumbed it all down, cruder bas relief drawings, inferior glazes. Maybe not every age is a golden age. :-)

Patri Friedman said...

You seem to assume that art is created for a mass audience. People create art largely for status and appreciation, and status/appreciation are judged by the experts in the field. These experts have read/seen/heard all the things that came before. So originality is not only a way to stand out in the field, but it has meaningful value for the experts who are tired of the same old thing.

I believe this explanation, not just proposing it as a possibility. (For art, at least, not architecture).

William H. Stoddard said...

To some degree it's just a matter of niche saturation. Consider the superhero genre, which is not usually considered great art. It was possible to create original character concepts in the forties; we got the flying brick, the speedster, the rubber man, the darknight avenger, the archer, and a whole bunch of others. In the 1950s, the DC part of the Silver Age involved reviving classic 1940s heroes such as the Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman. Marvel in the 1960s created mostly new heroes, but a lot of them were from 1940s concepts: the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch, Mr. Fantastic, Ant Man, Iceman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Dr. Strange all had precursors, and of course Captain America and the Sub-Mariner WERE 1940s heroes. The big Marvel innovation was the "monster as hero": the Thing and the Hulk. Since then, original hero concepts have gotten increasingly scanty, and if you play superhero games, you probably will make up a minor variation on a recognized type because it's all but impossible to come up with a new basic concept.

Kim Mosley said...

Discoveries and progress occur in all fields of human endeavor, including art. For my eyes and ears, the 20th and 21st centuries provides provocative and meaningful expressions that surpass much of what was done in the past. Of course, the weeding is still being done.

VangelV said...

Easier to deliberately adopt a form that nobody else has used, and so guarantee that nobody else has done it better.

And to claim that the inability to appreciate the genius of the new form is a sign of a lack of sophistication.

My wife is a professional musician so I get to spend a lot of time around artists. Most seem to have figured out the problem of working in a profession where the compensation is scalable but are content because they are good enough to make a living. But the ones who are not talented enough or positioned properly to make it tend to be bitter and buy into the market, which provides most of the rewards to a small percentage of individuals. It is these people who try and push value free art and other such nonsense that makes the modern art movement.

If you are interested in the subject you may want to listen to or look at Paul Cantor's lecture series, The Economic Basis of Culture, at the Mises Institute.

Dr. Cantor, who comes at the subject of culture from an Austrian Economics perspective, presents a very interesting and very convincing argument.

mobile said...

If city planners are so original, where is the city where the streets are laid out in a hexagon pattern?

montestruc said...

You know I do not think it is at all reasonable to assert that "all the good ideas" on a given subject have been used. First off how do you prove that?

Second off from my personal experience as a working engineer the idea that "all the good ideas on a given subject have been discovered" is frequently proven dead wrong.

Give an example of a technology that has remained static for many generations with no significant innovations at all. I can think of several that did historically.

For example riding horses for example in the ancient world, was practiced for over 1000 years before the invention of the stirrup.

The modern compound bow (with pulleys on the ends of the bow)was invented in the 20th century and could have been invented practically anytime after man had invented a drill and the bow.

Troy Camplin said...

Art has long been recognized to go through stages: primitive, classical, baroque, and decadent. This results in a cycle. Look at Medieval art, ending with the Renaissance. Then the period between the Renaissance and Modernism. Also, if you look at it from a complex systems standpoint, you see art going from stable, through unstable, and into stable systems. In unstable times, you get a proliferation of forms. During stable times, you get investigations and perfection of those forms. And then you get decline, when you have truly run out of things to do with what you have. The good news is, when you get to that point, another Renaissance is on the way.

Personally, I think literature is at the end of its rope. But I am also hopeful, as there is a primitive movement afoot -- natural classicism. For whatever it's worth, I consider myself to be a second generation of that movement.

Robert W. Franson said...

Both filtering and niche saturation are substantial factors affecting what we perceive as creative.

But the "rising marginal cost of creativity" may also be a symptom of cultural ageing, of approaching an end of a Spenglerian cultural cycle. What would be freshly creative in the next cycle is, I suppose, by definition not predictable in the current cycle. In retrospect, the seeds may be traceable.

[No cultures were harmed in the course of this post. I think.]