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Picasso, Schoenberg, Moss: how humans unlock social capital and spark progress (leonardofederico.com)
73 points by anacleto 6 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 21 comments

I might sound naive here, and I'm not an art expert, but I feel like only some artists are interested in technical innovation and social capital (though I think it definitely plays a big role.)

Success in art is different for every artist, some musicians want to innovate and challenge people with new approaches (avant garde composers), others want to tell stories and spread ideas (hiphop, folk musicians, film and musical theatre composers), or help people dance and have a good time (EDM), or a million other reasons.

Maybe I've missed the point of the article, but I think there are so many reasons why art gets made beyond the artist trying to prove themselves as a master of the craft

This is one of those posts that is easy to disagree with and it is easy to find fault with the some of the arguments. Nevertheless, it is an attempt, an essay as Paul Graham would say, to understand a thing that is worth exploring. The concept of "proof of work" is one that is much easier to understand now that we have bitcoin. If I look at art movements, it is interesting to wonder if proof of work is mixed in there. Did the collaboration of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne involve proof of work?. And social capital or a social currency is to me worth more thinking.

Thanks for this.

> There wasn't much left to discover.

I'll bite.

Let's take the most banal and fundamental structuring element of common practice harmony-- the root position triad.

Are you absolutely certain I cannot find a 20th century composer doing something so innovative with root position triads that no composer before 1900 could even conceive of using them in such a way?

There are probably more examples than the one I'm thinking of, which is Nancarrow's Study No. 37 for player piano. The thing I love about that example is that it completely undercuts the serialist argument that tonal tropes create an inescapable harmonic push-and-pull that ends up structuring the music, regardless of the composer's will. The rigors of early twelve-tone music were designed to "liberate" the composer from this seeming inevitability.

And in Study No. 37 we almost have a kind of Alice in Wonderland response to that mentality. There are many root position triads. There is a tonal ending to the piece. There are little tonal segments of melody. We have all the ingredients necessary for a piece that ought to be chock full of evidence that the tonal building blocks of the common practice period put the composer in a kind of structural straight-jacket. Well, just listen to it. It ain't that.

So author-- don't be "that type" who repeats high-fallutin' historical myths because they happen to fit the pattern you're going for. Besides, even if that mentality were based in fact it is leads to absolutely insufferable behavior. Ghost of your futures past: "Ooh, I love that song by [The Beatles, Radiohead, Otis Redding, etc.]. Too bad it uses a system already completely exhausted a century earlier. Imagine what it would have sounded like if it hadn't been so harmonically regressive! Oh, I'm hearing it in my head right now and truly it is wonderful. Quick, give me your address so I can send you a million slips to donate to my concert series..."

While I'm amenable to the thesis, the portion on Picasso is distractingly inaccurate in its portrayal of art history. Cubism wasn't so much swimming against the flow as it was riding the wave of non-representational art that the tumult of the turn of the century and previous experimentation had triggered (let alone the opening of Western eyes to the artistic traditions of Africa and East Asia). There's a fairly clear through-line crossing over Monet, fauvism, negrophilia, perhaps turning at Fountain (what I personally would have picked to illustrate the author's point), and then continuing through cubism to modern art. That branch which turned left rather of right at dada is perhaps then more applicable, as it connects more neatly with postmodernism and the idea of resetting the social capital game.

The portion on Schoenberg isn't much better. Serialism was an attempt at a new music, but outside of academia it never had the momentum of the classical mainstream.

There's a niche core of contemporary classical music fans who like serialism and its descendants (New Complexity, and so on) but there's literally only a few thousand of these fans worldwide.

The most popular serial piece is Berg's opera Wozzeck, closely followed by Berg's other opera Lulu. Both are in steady rotation in opera houses. But the original serial orchestral and piano pieces don't get much air time because audiences just don't like them much.

Compare with contemporary art which gets plenty of popular interest, even if it's abstract. In fact abstraction is now so mainstream it's corporate. You won't find many bank or VC foyers without brightly coloured non-representational oils on the walls.

I think if you look outside mainstream classical music you will see contemporary classicals influence. Many hollywood movie scores use many of the techniques created from serialism and onwards. Sampling audio with tape began in the 60s with Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros at the San Francisco Tape Music Centre. You can see the influence in Hip Hop and Dance music. Synthesizers were originally only used by Academics making Contemporary Classical like Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbit. They have obviously had a huge influence on pretty much all popular music. So even though the music itself has few fans its influence is fairly widespread.

That may be a case of simultaneous but unrelated discovery; audio sampling in hip-hop was an evolution of DJing techniques that helped to transition between or embellish songs, with beats or "get downs" being repeated to allow MCs to maintain a flow while rapping.

Interesting about Picasso borrowing from African art: https://www.wsj.com/articles/through-the-eyes-of-picasso-rev...

I can't read that article, but as an addendum (or possible summary): Western European art pretty much had naturalistic and romantic representationlism down by the mid 19th century, but this turned out to be a poor platform for expression (and outmoded somewhat by the invention and apparent advancement of photographic techniques). There was a lot of experimentation with subject matter (common people al a Tanner's Young Sabot Maker, early futurism [and, interestingly, post-apocalyptic ideation with Hubert Roberts paintings of ruins e.g. the Louvre]), framing (a contemporary of Monet's whose name escapes me but whose paintings are highly reminiscent of the composition of cell phone photography), etc., but the drift toward non-representationalism didn't really start until Monet and (and, to a lesser extent, Van Gogh) got his hands on some ukiyo-e prints. Likewise, several waves of negrophilia (and the accompanying vernacular art) sweeping Europe inspired Picasso and Man Ray, among others.

That's my undergrad-with-16-credit-hours-of-vaguely-remembered-art-history speaking, though; I could be off. Still, this speaks to me od the importance of - wait for it - diversity, in a rather concrete manner. The Western tradition of artistic practice was simply unable to see and experiment meaningfully with non-representational construction before being exposed to entirely foreign traditions. If you think of how much of contemporary design relies on modernist bases, it's scary to think how much we might be missing out on with, say, the contraction of XR work largely to engineering.

The assumption of progress you claim is a by-product of linear modes of thinking -- the growth of modernism in art represents a philosophical tendency in broader culture towards deconstruction and nihilism. Painting is a reflection of consciousness, not simply a skill or set of techniques that is developed and innovated on -- as many technologists are wont to believe.

It is true that Picasso broke barriers, but the barriers were broken through a regression in consciousness.

I really recommend the work "Madness and modernism" by Louis Sass, and Jung's writings on Picasso. I am a huge fan of Picasso, but Picasso's artwork, as well as the artwork of Dali -- represents a regression into archaic portions of the subconscious -- an amalgamation of meaning that leads to meanings destruction.

This is not a critique of the artists nor the artworks -- they are phenomenal... but the modes of thinking that led to them should be understood beyond the techniques being novel, or new. The progression of western art mirrors the progression of it's consciousness.

> Renaissance, impressionism, pointillism, abstract expressionism, realism, etc, were all micro-steps part of the same bigger effort: representing the reality for what it is.

> So, we needed a radically new thing. A new greenfield and new proofs of concept.

> Introducing cubism.

I think impressionism had the same "radical" property—the colours are not realistic, but they are emotional. Green smoke; pink haystacks. But perhaps there is still a stronger link to reality than for cubism. van Gogh's swirls I would guess are inspired by real things such as vortices in wind or water. In any case, for me the progression to cubism was linear from impressionism, and not radical. But I think the author means that you need abrupt changes to reap social capital, and that I do agree with—but I would maintain it holds for classicism to impressionism too.

> Shoenberg's twelve tonic technique comes with no musical tonality. All 12 pitches of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music without emphasis on any specific note. In other words, all 12 notes are thus given more or less equal importance, and the music avoids being in a key. Consequentially, there can't home base.

> It was a radically new game.

I don't know if I agree with this. The innovation was equal temperament and the creation of the piano. The key was that you have approximate harmonic intervals based on the 12th square root of 2: sqrt(2,12)^7 = 1.498 ~= 1.5 = 3/2.

Using chromatic notes is a logical consequence for later composers. In terms of composition, I would say that modes (think Wicked Game) are rather the innovation that reaped social capital in more modern times; as well as the idea of direct repetition (all pop music) rather than themes with developments on themes.

In any case, I would agree with the author. There is a clear proof of work aspect to social media. Hours spent that would lead to some Instagram picture; hours spent on some HN post...

I would compare art to reinforcement learning rather than social capital. The artists may or may not strive for social capital, but the branching happens because of reward and reward comes from consumers who crave and appreciate something different from the trite, old saturated, predictable forms on the market. Hollywood of today with its predictable repeatable plot lines is ripe for this kind of disruption. Creativity and art stands out when it calls out a truth nobody has noticed before. When it engages your mind far more than predecessors because it poses more questions than it answers, but it still makes sense (Game of Thrones was unpredictable, as was Breaking Bad). In marketing it’s Seth Godwin’s Purple Cow. The craving of a bored/ignored audience is the spark, but just like fashion, the only guarantee is that the audience will get bored of you again in time as you may no longer help them stand out as unique for their early adoption skills, and they need a new flag to stand out from the crowd in their own pursuit of social status.

I'm not sure I agree about the point of a certain space and endeavor getting exhausted and the pickings too slim to be elevated upon progress wise. Essentially this exit from a crowded space into a sparse and less competitive spaces makes me think about the hyperspecialization in academia. When everything becomes pretty fragmented everyone can claim to be an expert in some niche area unmoored from demand and usefulness. But if its fragmented out to an island no one wants to visit there's little value in that too even if it has the widest potential for social capital to be mined. That new field whatever it may be still has to attract enough folks to get a sport going in the first place, even if it's just reactionary to rally up a revolt and teardown what came before. At the end what's lacking is that absolute point of reference.

One of the things which always surprises me is the various permutations of the burger that exist. I pondered at one point the success of Five Guys. And if someone pitched to me as an imaginary investor a newcomer to the field would I buy into it. I had thought my answer being "no, that I can't imagine another variation of a burger being successful". But man there's still so much of a parameter space with permutations and combinations I could not imagine myself that there could still be success in other burger variations. The Habit, The Counter, Five Guys, Smashburger, ... (sure I'm leaving some out). Wow, it's been like a burger Renaissance, who'd have thought.

And never mind the fact that just doing things well can be it's own permutation. Sometimes a field seems played out, and then someone comes along and knocks it out of the park by just executing.

well said!

> One of the things which always surprises me is the various permutations of the burger that exist.

Yep. And, one of the things which always surprised me is how all these American permutations remain popular and pretty expensive, yet are generally quite lower quality than the burgers throughout Europe, which are often half the price.

Sounds like an opportunity for someone to erect one of those European establishments over here. Should be a market for it indeed. I'd try it out for sure.

I'm not sure I even agree with the claim that Twitter needs to offer social capital to be a viable business. There are significant other products which can be offered from a social network, such as entertainment and utility.

So, made up history or art plus men are geniuses and women are pretty. Gotcha.

Warning, NSFW image about half way down.

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