“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulder of giants” – Isaac Newton.
Simple, isn’t it? People do stuff so when the people who come after them do the same kind of stuff they can learn from the original efforts and improve the end results.
But it doesn’t happen as often as you might think: nobody has improved on the guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix; movies are far worse then they were in the 70s; no one has managed to balance readability and literary excellence beyond that of Charles Dickens; no artist has captured the depths of humanity better than Da Vinci, Michelangelo or Raphael; and, of course, ads are nowhere near as good/liked/impactful as they were a decade ago.
After all, we have all the knowledge of those who went before us; the least we can do is get to their level. Then, with the added benefits of improved technology, greater tools and a more civilised world (better medicine, longer life expectancy, lower likelihood of going to war etc.), we ought to surpass any previous efforts. But we clearly don’t, so here are some possible reasons why:
- The people who did the amazing thing first will always be held up for their greatness because of the added element of pioneering a new path. Many people can play like Hendrix but the ability to blaze an entirely new trail in an art form is not something that happens by standing on someone else’s shoulders. True greatness comes from originality, so the people who merely reiterate will never be perceived as giants to the same extent as the trailblazers. I think that Wolf Hall could sit up there with great 19th Century literature, but the fact that it has appeared 150 years after Dickens somewhat diminishes the perceived quality.
- Great creative minds explore new areas that may not have previously existed. So a person who might be able to further the art of the movie could now be inventing Snapchat or the Tesla or (more likely) writing Breaking Bad, The Wire or The Sopranos. TV is far better than it used to be and movies are far worse. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the two situations might be related. You could make the argument that TV writers such as Matthew Weiner and David Simon stood on the shoulders of the giant David Milch or the giant David Chase. (Why so many great Davids? No idea). But that meant that they did not stand on the shoulders of Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese.
- Circumstances can make it harder to improve things. Let’s take the ad industry: a brain drain to other creative jobs; smaller budgets; smaller real wages; the rise of new media, which is inherently less immediately impressive (try explaining an experiential takeover of a town square vs showing a 60-second TV ad); the rise of the global corporation and the pan-global ad, which has to appeal to far too many people at once; the overall malaise caused by all of the above… These factors have contributed to the general reduction of quality in advertising to such an extent that the likelihood of a spunky youngster coming in and setting the industry alight is much smaller. The shoulders are not just the artwork of before; they are the situations in which those shoulders do or do not exist. A contextual pull for Hendrix’s music (the rise of the Beatles, Stones, Clapton, Floyd etc.) helped to make it happen. Ditto the onrush of great 70s movies that railed against the lies and paranoia of Nixon-era USA.
- Distraction. Is it a coincidence that the last decade has seen worse movies, music and advertising at the same time as the rise of Facebook, Twitter and a million other online tidbits? I speak from experience when I say that the lure of the internet makes it really hard to stay focussed on your creative endeavour, and I’m not the only one. The tyranny of choice can seep into most of your life, strangling your ability to find a thing you want to do and stick to it. Where will this end? How many of us have the discipline to disregard something so tempting and concentrate on the hard yards of creating greatness?
- It’s been done. So many art forms have reached such a level of excellence that the idea of taking one on and improving it can seem intimidating to many people. For every brave fool who thinks he/she can better Mozart there are a million others who decline the opportunity to even attempt such a thing. And the road narrows, so that each subsequent generation has to wade through an ever-increasing mountain of brilliant work. Seems like a bit of ball-ache, so let’s just have another evening of Netflix and chill, yeah?
Are you trying to be the next Dylan/Monet/Hitchcock? If so, do you feel helped or cowed by the previous excellence? And if you’re not bothering, is it because of one of the reasons above, or something else?