Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it goes. Recognizing genius

Kurt Vonnegut
I wrote a post last November about Mr. Vonnegut. The theme was his fatalism and apparent readiness for his death. Apparently that end finally came yesterday. And so it goes.

I did love his books. I always meant to create a web page in his honour and now it will have to be a posthumous effort. I think that his work is yet another case of mankind not recognizing genius. How can one not read his books and not realize their simple truths and genius?

So many books are created in an effort to turn simple ideas into complexity. The author takes a simple idea and adds layer upon layer of bullshit. I don't think that Kurt Vonnegut knew the meaning of bullshit. He would take immense ideas and add some Kilgore Trout fantasies or perhaps some babbling about talking dolphins and Tralfamadorians; and suddenly that immense idea would appear just so simple and easy to Grok.

(Here is a link to my Amazon associate store where I have links to Vonnegut books and videos).

Recognizing Greatness
Perhaps we humans are not capable of recognizing innate beauty or genius. There was a great article in last weekend's Washington Post. It had some profound words, sounds and images. They performed a simple experiment. Last January they had Joshua Bell -- a violin player who commands tens of thousands of dollars per performance -- play a solo concert in at the entrance to the L'Enfant metro station. He played divine music on a three million dollar Stradivarius. (If you have a decent Internet connection and sound card you can hear the proof online).

Apparently more than a thousand people walked by and barely a dozen stopped for even a moment's pause.
Washington DC commuters were apparently incapable of recognizing greatness when it was thrust into their faces.

This article prompted pages and pages of comments. Many of them complained that it was unfair to do this when these commuters were on their way to important jobs. Many of them were keeping the American dream alive and trying to not go postal in their jobs at the Post Office headquarters. Some others thought that if Tupac Shakur was playing they would have stopped.

I think though that these comments are disengenious. The biggest point should be that some things are simply inheritably great in themselves and some things are actually more important than being five minutes late for work. I like to think that I would have stopped; but should I blame a single mom who is working two jobs and never got any music education in school from recognizing greatness and taking the risk of stopping?

The picture here is of a string quartet that I saw in the Moscow subway in March 2000. I sat and enjoyed but I had the excuse of being on vacation.


Recognizing Visual Greatness
Here it is time for me to make a confession. I don't have a muscical bone in my body and don't know the difference between a C Sharp and an F flat. But I do have some pride about my eye for art.

Just as some music is has greatness built into both its design and its performance, some art also has greatness built in. On that same trip in Spring 2000 I spent a day at the Louvre in Paris. There are galleries of paintings and I can understand how some rooms are nearly empty. Of course seeing too many Old Masters can be, well, just old. Other rooms are packed with people determined to see those paintings that are famous for being famous.

On the other hand some paintings are perfect. I stood in the room that contains Vermeer's Lacemaker. Some people stopped but most gave it barely a glance. Here was the perfect painting -- featured on book covers and posters -- and few seemed to recognize it. I wanted to stop people and shake them. "Don't you know what that is!".

When we are presented with the opportunity of greatness -- whether by written word, well played music or fine art -- I am afraid that most people refuse to recognize it and are happy to go back to their Tupacs, video games and conceptual art. Am I a snob? So it goes.