Commentary Magazine


Artistic Standards

To the Editor:

I was disappointed by Terry Teachout’s discussion of Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 [“Charles Murray's All-Stars,” November 2003]. Mr. Teachout alleges that Murray—who lays out his methodology in excruciating detail—“is indiscriminately hostile to modernism” and has “cut his analytic cloth to fit his aesthetic tastes.” Yet he provides little evidence for this serious charge against one of the leading social scientists of our time.

In fact, as Murray makes crushingly clear, his hostility is directed not at modernism, but at the postmodernist aesthetics Mr. Teachout himself dislikes. In a passage Mr. Teachout does not cite, Murray writes, “I find it impossible to take postmodernism seriously . . . If the criteria for the choice are rootedness in human experience, seriousness of purpose, and intellectual depth, choosing the classic aesthetic tradition over postmodernism is not a close call.” Like Mr. Teachout, Murray disdains postmodernism for rejecting the idea that one work of art can be aesthetically superior to another. This hardly seems like what Mr. Teachout calls a nefarious “private agenda.”

In attempting to provide specific evidence of how Murray’s supposed anti-modernist bias has distorted his findings, Mr. Teachout writes:

In, for example, his description of the highest-scoring significant figures of Western art, [Murray] observes: “The presence of Picasso in second place will surprise and perhaps outrage some readers.”

Anyone who fought last spring to get a ticket to the Museum of Modern Art’s hugely popular Matisse-Picasso exhibition is likely to wonder just who could be “outraged” by Picasso’s high index score, second only to Michelangelo’s. The answer, one eventually concludes, is Charles Murray himself.

But lots of people dislike Picasso, including many who love Matisse. There is nothing at all unreasonable about Murray’s note, which goes on to explain to the many Picasso-haters, “The amount of space accorded to [Picasso] reflects not just the high regard in which his art is held, but also his seminal role in several phases of the break with classicism that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century.” More to the point, unless Mr. Teachout wants to contend that Picasso is actually even more eminent than Murray’s first-place finisher (Michelangelo), Picasso’s sky-high rating is, logically, an endorsement of Murray’s objectivity.

If Mr. Teachout thinks that Murray’s methodology is biased by his aesthetic tastes, he needs to offer reasons for this assertion, not just baseless slanders.

Steve Sailer
Los Angeles, California

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To the Editor:

I greatly enjoyed Terry Teachout’s review of Human Accomplishment, but he misses an important point. Charles Murray compiled his list of high achievers in art from standard reference works that focus on Western art and often compress entire non-Western traditions into short entries, or acknowledge only the very best artists in a non-Western tradition. This is like using a microscope to study Western culture and a telescope to look at non-Western civilization. Such a method finds, of course, that Westerners are the main producers of great art, but this conclusion is a product of the data base, not an objective measure of cultural achievement.

Further, musical and visual arts in nonliterate societies (ones that do not record their accomplishments in encyclopedias) cannot be measured by Murray’s method, although we have no a-priori reason to believe that such cultures are unable to produce great music or art.

Fabio Rojas
Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana

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Terry Teachout writes:

Steve Sailer is right to say that Charles Murray claims his quarrel is with the recent phenomenon of postmodernism. As even the most casual reading of my piece will show, I readily acknowledge this fact. It appears to me, however, that Murray has confounded postmodernism with modernism.

Early in Human Accomplishment, for instance, Murray asserts that the postmodernist project began in “the first half of [the 20th century] with influential new voices, especially those of Benedetto Croce and John Dewey,” and the publication in 1923 of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning. In the same chapter, he cites what I take to be three tenets of (what he believes to be) postmodern thought, namely that “melody and harmony are boring and outdated,” “representational art is boring and outdated,” and “the concept of beauty is meaningless.” As is perfectly obvious from this and from various passages quoted in my piece, Murray has in mind not merely comparatively recent developments in art but a larger phenomenon whose origins he dates to “a period starting in the late 1800′s and extending through World War I”—that is, the early years of modernism. All this (and much more) suggests that he does not distinguish between the radical relativism of contemporary postmodernism and the related but nonetheless very different phenomenon of hermetic modernism.

Murray’s personal opinion of Picasso may or may not be implicit in the particular passage I cite. Only he can answer that question. But context is everything, and that he has no use for most modernist art, and no awareness of its extreme stylistic diversity, is similarly clear from numerous other passages in Human Accomplishment, notably this one, which I did not quote:

One can easily imagine that worthy poetry went unpublished in [the 20th century], for example. But did 1900-1950 really have an invisible oeuvre of beautiful symphonies or exquisite representational art created but never exposed to the world? It is hard to imagine. Isolated cases of competent work, yes; a substantial body of fine work, no. It is more plausible to believe that people who could have created beautiful symphonies in the classical style or exquisite representational art didn’t because those genres had fallen out of critical favor.

Those are the words of a man who does not know enough about art in the 20th century to be generalizing about it—a category that would also appear to include Steve Sailer.

Mr. Sailer further claims that I have “slandered” Murray by claiming that he has “cut his analytic cloth to fit his aesthetic tastes.” According to Webster, to slander is “to defame; to injure by maliciously uttering a false report; to tarnish or impair the reputation of by false tales maliciously told or propagated; to calumniate.” That is strong language, especially when used by a correspondent who has apparently not read Human Accomplishment (or my piece) closely enough to realize the far-reaching implications of the fact that in assembling the “experts” on whose published works he has based his charts and tables, Murray has deliberately and avowedly selected only those who subscribe to the “classic aesthetic tradition” of which he approves. This proves that the statistical apparatus of Human Accomplishment is constructed in such a way as to supply “evidence” supporting its author’s anti-modern aesthetic predilections: Murray tells us so.

Fabio Rojas, on the other hand, does Murray a disservice. Appendix 3 of Human Accomplishment makes clear that the “standard reference works” on which Murray has drawn in creating his lists of “high achievers in art” include a large number of works written specifically about non-Western traditions, many of which were the work of non-Western scholars. Whatever else Human Accomplishment is, it is not deliberately Eurocentric, save in the specific case of music, where Murray explicitly excludes non-Western achievements because of “the lack of a tradition of named composers in non-Western civilizations.”

Mr. Rojas’s suggestion that there is “no a-priori reason to believe that [nonliterate] cultures are unable to produce great music or art” deserves to be discussed at length. For now, I will say only that it all depends on how you define the word “great.”

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