Jean Starobinski sees the eighteenth century as the stage upon which an unprecedented freedom movement lit up and exploded in a tragic flash. This was the moment when Diderot made of the genius a personal, secret, and indefinable kind of soul, in the absence of which nothing beautiful or very great could be accomplished. The genius would be an exceptional calculator who attracts notice in things great and small. He is a sort of prophetic spirit.
The genealogy of creative genius has been quite rich since ancient times. For the Greeks, the daimon, a “personal god,” watched over men, places, and things, uniting the human with the divine. In the modern world, where God is absent, it is the individual creator who can take His place. One need only read and listen to some discourses on contemporary art to grasp how a Romantic conception of this exceptional being with superhuman powers, whose mission is modeled on a religious one, continues into the present.
We have asked the sociologist Pierre-Michel Menger to review the different types of explanation that make it possible to apply the notion of genius to artists. Using the case of Beethoven, he offers us an answer to the antinomies found in the human sciences. Bruno Moysan, a musician and musicologist, responds to him with a reflection on the virtuosic brilliance of Liszt in nineteenth-century society on its path of democratization. There, the artistic genius maintains equal distance from a rejection of the logic of democratic egalitarianism and from the essentialism of aristocracy and absolutism.
Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Seminar of May 15th 2008
Artistic Genius and its Analysis by the Social Sciences:
An Application to the Case of Beethoven
Writings on artistic greatness and genius [génialité] waver in the main between three types of explanation. Either the brilliant artist is endowed with exceptional talents, about which not much can be said, once they have been detected, except to look at how those talents succeed in expressing themselves[ref]See, for example, Peter Kivy, The Possessor and the Possessed: Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and the Idea of Musical Genius (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).[/ref]; or the brilliant artist is a pure social construction, the product of an ideology that wants to confer top value upon certain individuals whose labor is nevertheless fashioned by social forces, the vocabulary of genius stemming here from a mythology that celebrates, in the manner of new gods, those who are the victors in the organization of the arts into tournaments of celebrity[ref]See, in particular, Tia DeNora, Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; French Translation, 1998).[/ref]; or the brilliant artist is a statistically unlikely figure, a two-sided being whose labor is certainly determined by social and economic forces but whose works contain a truth-value that eludes determination on account of the context in which they are produced[ref]The argument is developed in particular by Theodor Adorno in Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music: Fragments and Texts (1993), ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).[/ref]. Examination of the case of Beethoven, one of the emblematic figures of creative genius in the modern era, allows us to compare these three conceptions, to bring out their respective weaknesses, and to offer a solution to the antinomies involved in the question of genius as the social sciences have approached it.
We have no absolute proof of the presence or absence of talent, because we do not know exactly what talent is, because we do not know how to measure it independently of what it produces–works–and because measuring the value of works is not a simple and natural process that would be invested with an incontestable objectivity. Evaluations diverge, they change, artists’ value can be revised upwards or downwards, and so on. How, then, is one to get a handle on it?
Can one do without the hypothesis that exceptional talent entails an overwhelming advantage in the competition for success and thus is the indisputable origin of a genius’s career? It suffices to make a slight alteration in this hypothesis in order to discover a more fruitful path.
Genius: Relative Comparison and Dynamic Amplification of Differences in Talent
We can very well assume that at the start there exists only a very slight difference in talent between two artists, one of whom will become what we call a genius. But we also have to assume that this difference is perceived rather early on by those who make comparisons (critics, musicians, audiences). And next we need to explain why this difference suffices to concentrate the main demand on the one who is judged slightly more talented and therefore to give that person a much higher reputation than what his real advantage in artistic value might be.
In the course of artists’ first formative experiences, abilities manifest themselves differently and unequally from one individual to the next. What remains indeterminate is the question of what kind of difference in talent there will be between certain creative persons who, in the more or less long term and whether lastingly or not, are going to succeed, and others, who will be less well off. Expressed in terms of probabilities of success, the advantage a hopeful talent procures at an early date in his career may be slight, but it suffices that there be, in each test of competitive comparison, a perceptible difference, whether small or large, in order for this talent to be able to attract the investments and secure the bets of the system’s actors (the artist’s teachers, professional musicians, patrons, concert promoters, critics, audiences). The intrinsically formative character of labor situations points to the same mechanism: there exists an optimum profile for increasing one’s skills which is a function of the number and variety of one’s working experiences and of the quality of the collaborative networks the artist calls upon in the unfolding of his projects.
This dynamic argument indicates how differences in talent, initially perceived as slight, can give rise to an increasing differentiation between the careers of two originally comparable artists. A self-reinforcing mechanism acts on the pace and breadth of talent development: the creative person who is more highly valued and is sought after to a greater extent can find better learning opportunities and better occasions to test his abilities, thanks to the extent and variety of the support he receives and the collaborations in which he engages, thanks to gains in experience that are connected with the dissemination of his works, and thanks to the forms of social and psychological self-reassurance a growth in his reputation brings his way. The competition and uncertainty that permanently preside over creative action ensure that tests of talent will retain their dynamic tension.
Here the second lever of differences in reputation fits in. For a promising artist to obtain the best chances of developing his talent, it is important to link him up with professionals of comparable value in the other trades that are necessary to the production and circulation of works: a film director of repute will seek to engage first-rate professionals for key posts (cinematography, scenario, editing, costumes, etc.); a publisher can entrust to his most seasoned literary editor working relationships with the publishing house’s most talented or most promising writers. Artistic worlds combine flexible organizational architectures (networks, projects) with a way of structuring artistic teams that brings in professionals of good quality or equivalent reputation–or, to put it more precisely, that establishes selective matchings: labor markets for the most skilled jobs are thus structured through professional match-ups.
It is on this basis that an analysis of differences in success makes networks of relationships constructed by the artist play a decisive role. Whether one is talking about Beethoven’s patrons, his performers, or the various categories of professionals with whom he established working and collaborative ties, it was by following a formula of selective matchings that his networks of activity were organized. When artistic labor is no longer based on an ongoing connection with an employer within a stable organization–as was the case, for example, with the employment of the kapellmeister in a prince’s court–one’s career is built up from project to project within relationships of negotiation and cooperation where the various partners (musicians, concert organizers, patrons, publishers, critics, instrument makers, writers and poets, etc.) are brought in as a function of the level of their reputation and as a function of their artistic and social influence. The dynamic of a successful creative career involves a movement of rising mobility within a stratified world of networks of people who know each other and who collaborate among themselves: when talent is a complementary factor of production and not an additive one, the gathering of talents of approximately equivalent level, each in his own field (as performers, organizational intermediaries, publishers, financiers), has a multiplier effect on the project’s chances of success and on each collaborator’s chances of building up a reputation.
Among the profits drawn from this hierarchization of networks involving match-ups, not the least of these is that of mutual apprenticeship–as is shown, for example, by numerous cases of fruitful collaboration between the most talented composers and performers who are held in the highest repute, and, here, between Beethoven and the renowned performers (Clement, Duport, Kreutzer, Rode, Schuppanzigh, Stich, etc.) with whom he worked and who were able to provide him with assistance, support, and new relationships with other patrons in other social worlds. Charles Rosen emphasizes the decisive role of these musicians: “the few aristocrats who financed Beethoven were advised by musicians who told them where to put their money for the best cultural investment.”[ref]Charles Rosen, Critical Entertainments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 118.[/ref] He also insists on the major role literary circles of poets and novelists played in giving Beethoven support as well as in acclimating people to the idea of music as great art, Hayden’s work having previously offered an internationally celebrated model of cultural greatness.
It is in this way that I can explain how differences in talent that were initially slight or of uncertain import can quickly be amplified and consolidated via the play of selective matchings: artists increase their chances of developing their skills through contact with equally talented partners and can embark upon demanding creative projects with greater ease. We now better understand how, starting from rankings of reputation whose initial measure is often quite vague (promising or minor talent, first-rate or second-rate artist, valuable works or run-of-the-mill products, etc.), a finely graduated hierarchization is constituted–one that is, of course, constantly open to question because it is subject to interpersonal competitive tests but that will also engender very unequal chances for the flowering of creative talent.
A Land of Acceptance: Greatness as an Aesthetic Canon
Having reached this point, I can now bring together the two sides of my analysis. Individual differences in talent, whatever their origin, and a segmented structuration of the market for creative labor that works through the play of selective matchings constitute, through their dynamic interaction, the two forces whose combination produces the considerable variance in reputations that exists and points, through statistical distribution of aptitudes, toward the exceptional artist who will be declared a genius. Still, exceptional talent requires a land of aesthetic acceptance. This will be the object of an analysis of the matrix that works out “greatness” as canonical aesthetic value. It constitutes, moreover, the other point that separates our analysis from a constructivist and functionalist analysis of a high style in music, which proceeds instead through an exhaustive reduction of layers of meaning to pure social relations of force.
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Pierre-Michel Menger who studied philosophy and sociology at the École Normale Supérieure on the Rue d’Ulm, received his doctorate in sociology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in 1980. He is a director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and an university professor at EHESS, where he teaches the sociology of work and the sociology of culture and the arts. He is also visiting professor at the University of Quebec. Among the works he has published are: Portrait de l’artiste en travailleur (Paris: République des Idées/Le Seuil), Les intermittents du spectacle, sociologie d’une exception (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS), Profession artiste. Extension du domaine de la création (Paris: Editions Textuel), and Le travail créateur (Paris: Gallimard/Le Seuil/École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, forthcoming). Menger is also the author of numerous articles that have appeared in such reviews as Revue française de Sociologie, Sociologie du travail, L’Année Sociologique, Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales, Annales, Annual Review of Sociology, and Poetics. He is a member of the editorial committees at the Revue économique, Poetics, and Twentieth-Century Music.