Wednesday, January 26, 2005
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Does the genius grant work as advertised?
Marc Scheffler has an interesting story in Crain's Chicago Business arguing that the MacArthur Fellows Program -- a.k.a., the genius grant -- hasn't worked as advertised in the case of writers:
One could argue that recognizing past achievement is hardly a bad thing -- except that as Scheffler observes and MacArthur's web site announces, that isn't really the goal of the genius grant:
Of course, this begs the question -- beyond great past performances, what are the available metrics that can be used to measure genius and/or creativity?
Oh, and I look forward to the free-for-all in the comments section regarding the "Crain's determined that 88% of the MacArthur recipients wrote their greatest works before being recognized by the Chicago-based foundation" assertion.posted by Dan on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM
Forget the assignment. They should just give Tyler Cowen a MacArthur.posted by: Virginia Postrel on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
As you've stated, the problem with the genius grant, aside from the pretentious name, is that it's given to people AFTER they've done substantial work. It would be better to give smaller grants to many more unknown writers and hope that one of them is a hit, kinda' like a VC. $500K is really too much for writers, anyway. All they need is a steady supply of pencils and booze.
I think this kind of problem is unavoidable. Note that it is unusual for a nobel prize winning author to write a very good book after winning the prize. The only one I can think of is "Love in the Time of Cholera" by Marquez, and it is still not better than "one hundred years of Solitude".posted by: joe o on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Creativity and creative output have next to nothing to do with money. Those who write do so because of an inner determination, not because of some hope for official recognition by a philanthropical foundation. To the extent that great artists and writers are motivated by fame or fortune, those forces are really subsidiary to a desire to displace or excel the achievements of other great artists and writers, living or dead.
Much better criteria for applying grants would be to ask first whether the activity or project in question would be done at all were the money not forthcoming, and then to ask whether the money is a decisive factor in the quality of the outcome. There is not a single work of great art or literature produced in the last two centuries that would not have been created without a ridiculously large grant such as the MacArthur grants, and there is little reason to believe that wealth improved the quality of the output, either.
MacArthur would do more good with the money to distribute free immunizations to poor children on the South Side.posted by: thibaud on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
It strikes me as a very difficult assignment to locate those who would make a genius-level contribution -- if only they were financially secure. How do you do it? Scour the Web for oddballs with a good turn of phrase? Scan the city dump for interesting doodle pads? If you go by word-of-mouth, you will always be looking at old news. Maybe, however, the current method keeps the tired genius working a little longer than otherwise expected. Maybe the award provides the notoriety and seed money for more ambitious group tasks. Your implication that the money might actually reduce productivity is pretty disturbing, and I suspect, inaccurate. Creativity has a certain "lightning strikes" aspect that can't really be orchestrated.posted by: jj on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
One of the recent MacArthur grant recipients is a local man, Ruben Martinez. He runs a Hispanic bookstore in Santa Ana, CA.
His award seems to be for his influence on society.
It used to be called "genius grant", but evidently, they've enlarged the field.posted by: Mike on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Too funny, Mike: a grant for an entrepreneur. If he's as successful as MacArthur claims, then he doesn't really need a grant, does he?
This isn't money making a difference; it's merely PR for MacArthur, in this case playing up MacArthur's credentials as uno Amigo de La Raza. A colossal waste of money.posted by: thibaud on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Let's look at some recent geniuses and see what effect, if any, money had on their creative output.
Joyce: was starving when he wrote Ulysses, which was a commercial failure and took years to earn wide recognition.
Picasso: produced his greatest work while desperately poor in Paris. As his fame and fortune increased, his work steadily degenerated into schlock.
Van Gogh: no comment needed.
Tolstoy: was born rich, squandered most of his time and wealth, then turned to writing. His great masterpieces were accompanied by his rejection of wealth and comfort.
Rembrandt: achieved commercial success as a young man, when he painted fashionable biblical scenes, but produced by far his greatest work, the portraits of friends and elderly impoverished jews, when he himself had fallen from grace and had lost his fortune.
Cervantes: imprisoned, enslaved, impoverished. Wrote the greatest novel ever, perhaps the greatest work of literature ever written, a few months before his death.
There is zero correlation overall (and in many cases a negative correlation) between cash and creations of artistic genius. The MacArthur Grants as applied to famous artists are a complete waste of money that can only be explained as a kind of marketing/publicity expense item for MacArthur.
The whole notion of the MacArthur grant seems to be that we have too little great literature, art, etc. and that therefore there should be a (private) subsidy to promote it. Much like the NEH public subsidy, except instead of peer review panels, the foundation picks the "genius" candidates. Well, it's their money so they can waste it whatever way they choose. But the underlying assumption seems dubious to me. If I were running the MacArthur show, I think I'd concentrate on literacy projects -- especially abroad in LDCs.posted by: Rav Shah on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Somebody handing me half a million dollars would definately put me in a happy state of mind which is probably not conducive to writing compelling works. Furthermore the massive partying binge the money would be spent on might create some great stories, but they would probably be confined to the black out section of my memory. And also the lure of laying in front of my new plasma screen playing x-box would dwarf the desire to sit in front of a keyboard. Worrying about paying the electric bills tends to focus the mind.posted by: Mark Buehner on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Eh, who knows? Works of real genius should have the best chance to survive and still be read 100 years from now. At that point you can tally up the successes and failures.
My bet is that almost none of the writers awarded to this point will be read 100 years from now.
Some genius.posted by: Iconic Midwesterner on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Here's an idea. Instead of giving huge awards to established clever folks who have already won lots of stuff, give a couple thousand 5K grants to people who have published an interesting story or two (comb the college towns! search every garrett!), with the promise of ten times that amount should they cough up a manuscript worthy of publication (and no help--they have to slog their way through the market forces like other aspiring geniuses) within a year (with one 6 month extension for documented cases of "almost there" or personal hardship). THEN see what you come up with.
Oh, but that would require actual work on MacArthur's part, right? Nevermind.posted by: Kelli on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Errol Morris certainly has been able to use his to great effect. Stephen Jay Gould seems to have been a good choice. Ditto John Sayles, Peter Sellars, Bill Irwin, Julie Taymor...Twyla Tharp may have done her best work before her award, and *gasp* :::whispers::: there's Susan Sontag!
I can see, though, that increased comfort and security might not be the best food for the creative process. Still, I'm hoping they award one in my field one of these days. To me! :-)posted by: Opus on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
I'm not convinced poverty has a causal effect on quality of artistic output. Melville did OK before and after writing Moby Dick, though the book itself took decades to catch on. Hemingway wrote some of his best material well after he became famous and successful, and he enjoyed a level of celebrity that has not been seen since.
The more interesting question in all of this is how much Great Art we've lost because artists gave up their vocation to earn a decent living before producing work of value. If success can taint artists who are provably great, then the material comfort of bourgeois life can surely lure away a starving young unrecognized one.
I spent my first year out of college working at an assortment of part-time jobs and writing. I finished a good part of a novel that may have been decent or compleat shite, but I gave it up to hop on the dot-com gravy train because I simply couldn't survive on $350/week before taxes in Boston in 1998. An extra $10,000 would definitely have kept me going for another year. Whther the result would prove worth the investment cannot be ascertained, but done properly, this is clearly an entrepreneurial venture. Money in this case is like manure--you need to spread it around in order for it to work. Most angel investments yield nothing, but once in a while you get a Google or eBay.
-cwk.posted by: the snob on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
"It strikes me as a very difficult assignment to locate those who would make a genius-level contribution -- if only they were financially secure. How do you do it?"
"American Idol" for writers, duh! And that's not a new idea, either.
Seriously, if you look at a LOT of early to mid 20th century writers you'll find that they got their start winning essay/fiction contests for literary mags or by submitting unsolicited manuscripts until someone published them.
Since then, the writing of literature has been de-marketized AND acedemized, and the quality of output has declined tremendously. Serious literary mags are few and far between, and fewer still are those that have to survive on their profits rather than the whim of a college english department or wealthy sponsor.
Where has writing gotten better in the last few decades? So go that its now our pre-eminent creative medium. On TV, and its no coincidence that TV is the most market-influenced and least academically -influenced creative medium.
The MacArthur folsk would be much better of launching a series of serious literary mags and supporting for a limited time until they could fly on their own.
Writers that deserve to rewarded will be. And the rest will try harder.posted by: Jos Bleau on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
"The more interesting question in all of this is how much Great Art we've lost because artists gave up their vocation to earn a decent living before producing work of value."
About zero, I'd think. There is no such thing as Great Art or intrinsic value - all value is the creation human opiniions & desires.
That dot com cash didn't compete agianst your writing - you don't have to write all day long. Your writing competed against whatever your free time was spent on when you weren't at work. Your ski-trips (or whatever) is what ate your book, not your dayjob. So if your novel wasn't worth your taking the time to finishing writing then it wasn't worth anyone else's time to finishing reading, either.
Of course, you could proove me wrong. Go over to seedwiki & start a brand new wiki for free: call finishing the unfinished or whatever you want. Post whatever you've got and invite others to continue it. Build up enough traffic to take site off seedwiki and set up as a blog & sell ads or whatever. Innovate. Compete.
People who quote Tyler Cowen (OK, so that's V. Postrel, not you, but still ...) should be creating markets in everything, not longing for MacArthur manure.posted by: Jos Bleau on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
To what extent do you see "good art" and "marketable art" aligned with each other? As someone who writes poetry, I have certain opinions on the matter, but I'm curious to see what other people think.posted by: Rachel on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
My bet is that almost none of the writers awarded to this point will be read 100 years from now.
Not so. Anders Winroth of Yale who got his for his The Making of Gratian's Decretum completely revolutionized the study of medieval canon law. Moreover, he did so by noticing something that a century and a half of German academics never really thought of. So the things that win these grants are pretty damned impressive.
I think that the best way to think of the grant is not as a spur to future scholarship, but a reward for having done something really brilliant and/or ground-breaking. "You just rendered the last hundred years worth of scholarship in your discipline obselete. Congratulations. Here's your millions." is the way it ought to work, and probably the way it's thought of by those who win it.posted by: Andrew Reeves on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Okay, let me get this straight. Compensation does not encourage output. Tell me why we have copyrights again?posted by: Dave Schuler on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
from the pretentious name
For whatever it's worth, the foundation doesn't refer to them as genius grants. From the FAQ:
Q. Why does the program not use the term "genius" regarding its Fellows?
A. We avoid using the term "genius" to describe MacArthur Fellows because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess. The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches.
zzzz-snr-snrgle-huh? oh, yeah.
I suspect that the foundation is actually perfectly happy that the grant has acquired its headline-grabbing nickname, but it is a nickname, not the official name.posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Spend a few moments on the MacArthur website and you will see that the foundation does engage in both international and Chicago area philanthropy in a number of regions. The MacArthur Fellows program is just one of their activities.
Assuming it is true that, as Sheffler's story says, the MF grants don't really foster the production of new great literary works, what are we to make of the Foundation's claim that the "program works fantastically"?
In several respects, the grants have worked fantastically. First, the program works as PR for the Foundation, which gets associated with genius and artistic merit. My guess is that the Foundation's reputation is more associated with the existing work of the recipients at the time of the initial grant, and not so affected by the future work done during or after the term of the fellowship.
After all, the Foundation doesn't assert any creative control over the recipients, so if a Fellow's next book is a piece of crap it isn't the Foundation's fault. On the other hand, if the Foundation chose someone who had only produced crap, then clearly the Foundation's reputation would suffer. So they maximize their reputation by attending to existing works, not future works.
If MacArthur did exercise explicit post-award control over the Fellows, then the Foundation's reputation would be more closely associated with the (risky, unknown) quality of the Fellow's new work.
Second, the programs do work culturally by signaling what the Foundation finds to be of value. Clearly, capitalism directly rewards many of the creative contributors to society, but by spending large sums to reward writers and artists (among others), the Foundation is saying to society, "These creative contributions, too, are valued."
Now, it isn't clear the society undervalues novelists in general. The supply of fiction these days clearly exceeds the demand, ask any publisher about their inbox, and many people labor away at their keyboards and dream. But in the cultural sphere, willingness to put this kind of money into the hand of artists serves as a signal of value.
Third, by giving fellowships both to relatively well-known authors and to relatively unknown scientists and social entrepreneurs, the program transfers some of the "superstar" status associated with successful artists to the more pedestrian world of science. It is a way of saying, "Hey, these folks are doing cool stuff, too."
So long as you judge the Fellows program as a PR effort to enhance the reputation of MacArthur and, perhaps, as a vote in favor of Culture-with-a-capital-C in a culture that more readily funds others kinds of enterprise, there the program seems a success.posted by: Mike Giberson on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
As I recall, any number of European composers were able to devote their lives to music because of patronage from royal houses and the aristocracy. Technically this might be described as a fee-for-service arrangement, and there were probably many forgettable composers for every Mozart or Haydn, but functionally MacArthur grants look pretty similar to me. It also occurs to me that Charles Ives' technically brilliant but often unlistenable music might have had a stronger connection to his audience had he not had to make a living in the insurance business.
Is it wrong to think MacArthur grants might be more useful to advancing science than literature or music?posted by: Zathras on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
"'My bet is that almost none of the writers awarded to this point will be read 100 years from now.'
Not so. Anders Winroth of Yale who got his for his The Making of Gratian's Decretum completely revolutionized the study of medieval canon law. Moreover, he did so by noticing something that a century and a half of German academics never really thought of. So the things that win these grants are pretty damned impressive."
O.K. I'll stand corrected, and admit that the couple hundred people studying medieval canon law may very well still be reading Dr. Winroth. But do we have anything for the other 9 billion?
any number of European composers were able to devote their lives to music because of patronage from royal houses and the aristocracy... there were probably many forgettable composers for every Mozart or Haydn, but functionally MacArthur grants look pretty similar to me
This point isn't relevant to grants for writing literature. Music in the pre-phonograph era could only earn significant income by being performed for a live audience, and such audiences were hard to come by outside of opera houses. Anyone wishing to write symphonic or chamber music would invariably need a patron, preferably one with a strong position at a large and wealthy court which could furnish a steady audience of more or less discriminating listeners.
But even if we focus on music, again, there is no correlation between the quality of creative output and external financial backing. Mozart produced his greatest work after he had been dropped by his patrons, indeed was broke and miserable.
I'm not convinced poverty has a causal effect on quality of artistic output.
I wrote that "there is zero correlation overall (and in many cases a negative correlation) between cash and creations of artistic genius." Zero correlation implies no causal effect either way. Tolstoy, Eliot, Tennyson, Pope and Dickens were fabulously successful and rich, as was Shakespeare; Joyce, Whitman, Pound, Kafka, Cervantes, Blake (as a poet) were not.
The more interesting question in all of this is how much Great Art we've lost because artists gave up their vocation to earn a decent living before producing work of value.
Here's the point: contrary to Pope's dictum that "none but a fool ever wrote for aught but money", the ambition that drives any creative genius is the need to create, to make a vision real, and as per Harold Bloom, to excel other creative geniuses who've come before. In fact we should reverse Pope's line and observe that anyone with huge creative talents chooses to create because he or she could not imagine a life spent doing anything else.
There are a few exceptions: Montaigne was a talented jurist and judge, and Wallace Stevens was pretty good insurance man. But examination of the lives of great artists across nations and different art forms shows, again and again, the crucial distinguishing factor to be an inner fire that overcomes extraordinary obstacles of any kind-- ostracism, illness, imprisonment, whatever. Artists are martyrs for their craft.
Van Gogh was humiliated, scorned, half-mad. Akhmatova composed poetry in her head while waiting in freezing weather for hours to hear news of her imprisoned son. Remembering their struggles and those of thousands of others helps to put in context the complete absurdity of the MacArthur Self-Congratulation Grants to Writers Who Don't Need and Won't Benefit From Them.posted by: thibaud on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Not performing as well after receiving an award for achievement is simply a statistical fact of life - if you're being awarded for your best work, it's awfully hard to do even better. This, of course, has nothing to do with poverty, social standing, or even latent ability.
For a pop culture example, see the Sport Illustrated 'curse', in which there is a prevailing belief that athletes featured on their cover are doomed to failure soon thereafter.
As much as I enjoy this thread, however, it's not what got me to post. Instead, I am extremely amused by the resemblance of the guy pictured in the 'Ultimate Fitness Program' ad to one of our mutual classmates at Williams. It cracks me up.
My (not particularly heartfelt) apologies for both the inside nature of the joke as well as the time-sensitive nature of it which will fade as soon as the ad changes.
Maybe it's just me, but isn't Thibault's zealous assertion of "zero correlation" between money and artistic achievement pretty funny? It would be one thing to say "lots of artists overcome poverty" or "many artists only work for the sake of artistic achievement." Who can deny that? But zero correlation? No causal effect? Come on. You can't make such blanket assertions based on a few examples. Either Thibault has data which he is withholding or he is mischaracterizing his normative conception of artistic creation for polemical purposes. I submit that artists might largely be unmotivated by the prospect of profit but there is a substantial historical corellation between wealth and artistic creation because, until recently, only the relatively well-off possessed the liesure and resources to develop artistic skills and most art forms cannot exist without substantial capital.posted by: Finn on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Thibaud, that's Johnson's dictum, not Pope's.
Seems to me that the source of MacArthur's problem a conflict between a) the foundation's explicit agenda, which is to invest in "future potential," and b) their implicit agenda, which is to achieve the PR effects Michael Giberson notes. Giving the grants to established writers optimizes performance on (b), but suboptimizes (a). Giving the grants to unknowns would optimize (a), but suboptimize (b).
In other words, it's not a problem you can solve with better measurement systems or more accountability on the part of recipients.posted by: Sam on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Should read: " ... source of MacArthur's problem IS a conflict..."posted by: Sam on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Try again, Finn. I've given more than a dozen examples and could give dozens more if I thought it were worth my time. As to your blindingly obvious point that societies (my emphasis) need a certain level of wealth in order to enjoy and appreciate and cultivate skills in the fine arts, that's irrelevant to the question at hand, which is money's impact at the margin on the creative output of an individual artist in an advanced society. (Even so, there's still no strong correlation between the level of wealth and the quality of a society's artistic contribution. Genius appears as frequently in hard times as in boom times, in piss-poor communist Russia and in bourgeois 17c Holland alike.)
For those in today's society who have real talent and a burning drive to create, external assistance is irrelevant. As Rilke puts it in his Letters to A Young Poet, the poet writes because he cannot imagine living without writing. Ditto for artists and musicians. Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg made this point the other day in a program on NPR that showcases and is aimed at young performers. She noted that there are great hardships in pursuing a classical music career and that those hardships are first and foremost the extraordinary mental discipline, time demands and other pressures required to achieve anything of significance. Money has f-all to do with anyone's decision to pursue such a career, or with the quality of output by those who have taken such a path.posted by: thibaud on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Humpf . . . Thibaud, can't you see that you are relying on anecdotal evidence to make extremely broad claims? No one denies that there have been and will be brilliant artists who don't eat well or that some artists are wholly consumed by their art. But that does not mean that some artists don't care about money or that money is not very important to the ability of an artist to be an artist. Anyway I submit that your assertion is false as a positive matter. Money does matter for many people generally considered to be artists. And I can't see how you can dispute that until recently only the relatively privileged could devote themselves to the unremunerative task of cultivating their abilities and engaging in artistic creation --- much less affording artistic materials. Really what I think you are saying is that those people who make art - but care about monetary rewards - are not real artists. Instead only those people who burn with the willingness to martyr themselves for art should be deemed artists. This is a perfectly consistent and respectable point of view --- though I think it is a suffocatingly narrow and exclusionary view of artists. But it shouldn't be confused with an accurate description of the motivations of those persons commonly thought of as artists. Seriously --- Dickens, a martyr for his craft? Come on.posted by: Finn on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Consult Ellmann, aetat. 32-40, and see how much there is in there about Joyce and family starving while he wrote Ulysses. Intermittent income? Yes. Starving? No.posted by: Jonathan on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Didn't slog through all the above comments, so forgive me if I'm repeating someone, but:
This phenomenon is probably a manifestation of a kind of regression to the mean. If Smith produces a truly exceptional book, he's not likely to produce another that good. So if he gets a "genius" grant after the exceptional book, we should expect his subsequent books to be more ordinary.
Right?posted by: Winston Smith on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
The MacArthur Awards were never meant to recognize genuis. They were meant to assist potentially creative people who were down on their luck or not recognized by existing institutions. There is no rationale to give awards of this kind to senior profs. at Harvard with three course teaching loads and significant research budgets. The MacArthur Foundation, I infer, is merely another in a long list whose original mission has been subverted by its trustees.
Which brings up another problem. How do you structure a charitable trust to adhere to the spirit of the donor's original vision? I don't know much about that business, but it strikes me that it is usually populated by lawyers and society types who have their own groupthink issues and too much else to do.posted by: jj on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
How do you structure a charitable trust to adhere to the spirit of the donor's original vision?
Set a time limit on it. Force it to achieve its mission within, say, 20 years, and then shut down. The prob with MacArthur is the same as with General Motors: it's first and foremost a bureaucracy aimed at preserving the fiefdoms that have been built within the org rather than directing its resources to the areas that most need and deserve them.posted by: thibaud on 01.26.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]
Tolstoy was alive in 1901 and they gave the first Nobel Prize for Literature to:
Rene Francois Armand Prudhomme
whoever he might have been, and I am sure his mother loved him and he had a great many fans in his day.
All prize systems are the same. They consecrate conventional wisdom. Always too late.
The thing about young genius is that it is *NOT* going to be found in conventional places doing conventional things.
Einstein was educated in Zurich, which was provincial, instead of a major German university, because he could not stand the German system. He worked as a patent clerk because he had no entre into the closed academic world of the time. He was awarded one Nobel prize, for one of his his less important 1905 papers, not the four he easily deserved, and that was in 1921 after General Relativity had been published and established by the 1919 eclipse observations.
The MacArthur Foundation hands out prizes subject to the same sorts of biases and errors as the Nobel Foundation. MacArthur seems to focus on academics and soft-left public intellectuals. John Sayles, Susan Sontag, MEGO. Like I said the consecration of conventional wisdom.
Personaly, I think it stinks. If a foundation is going to sit on a huge pile of tax free money, it should be required to do something charitable with it. Sending polio vaccine to Africa is charitable, giving more money to parlor pink old upper west side intellectuals is not.
JJ: The problem you raise is just another version of the classic agency problem. A principal can send an agent out on a mission, but it can be tough to keep him on target and have the mission executed profitably.
A recent example from the non-profit world is the litigation surrounding the Barnes foundation near Philadelphia. Mr. Barnes established the Foundation under an extremly restrictive and detailed trust. Years passed. The trust devolved upon a group that was not sufficently experienced or honest. The museum run by the trust suffered from attendance restrictions imposed by neighborhood NIMBYs in suburban Philadelphia. The foundation now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and is about to be hijacked by the mainstream cultural institutions in Philadelphia that Barnes abhored.
The moral of the story is that agency cost is always there and its even worse when the principal is dead.
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