Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Weasels Ripped My Flesh

Not the 1970 Frank Zappa album, but the feeling you sometimes get being an artist in a world where nothing is original but originality continues to be held up as a lofty ideal by those (including me, at times) still dozing in the back seat of the twentieth century.

I've mentioned Kevin Kelly before, in reference to swarm theory and other paradigm-shifting nudges towards a more networked world. On a related subject, his "book in progress"/blog post, about the inevitability of parallel discoveries and simultaneous inventions, is strangely reassuring.

Kelly notes, for example, that if Charles Darwin had expired before he could publish his theory of evolution, a certain Alfred Wallace, who came up with the same theory at the same time, would have published his own version; and if Darwin and Wallace had both popped their clogs before the theory went public, perhaps Thomas Malthus, whose book on population growth influenced them both, would have gone on to formulate the theory himself. And so on.

A couple of other classic examples of simultaneous discoveries are the electric light bulb (see three independently invented light bulbs above) and the telephone. In fact, Alexander Bell and Elisha Grey both applied for their telephone patents on the same day, February 14, 1876. Grey applied three hours earlier than Bell. As if that isn't proof enough of the inevitability of certain inventions, Antonio Meucci had patented his "teletrofono" sixteen years earlier, in 1860 (but didn't renew his patent in 1874).

With regards to art, Robert Hughes covered some of this - at least the upside of the bell curve - in his 1980 TV series and book The Shock of the New. But what happens when the law of diminishing returns kicks in and the "shocks" stop coming? Perhaps art swarms and the conceit of individual originality fades away.

As a friend once said, when I suggested that some of his paintings looked a little too much like Mondrians, "It's all twentieth century."

PS: Frank Zappa borrowed his album title, and general flesh-ripping weaselry, from the 1956 Man's Life magazine cover above.

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