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After I wrote Admit it – you really hate modern art (January 30), many readers assured me that I was quite mistaken about them. Especially among the educated elites there are many who will go to their graves proclaiming their love for modern art, and I owe them an explanation of sorts. At the cost of most of few remaining friends, I will provide it.
You pretend to like modern art because you want to be creative. In fact, you are not creative, not in the least. In all of human history we know of only a few hundred truly creative men and women. It saddens me to break the news, but you aren’t.” one of them. By insisting that you are not creative, you think I am saying that you are not important. I do not mean that, but will have to return to the topic later.
You have your heart set on being creative because you want to worship yourself, your children, or some pretentious impostor, rather than the god of the Bible. Absence of faith has not made you more rational. On the contrary, it has made you ridiculous in your adoration of clownish little deities, of whom the silliest is yourself. G. K. Chesterton said that if you stop believing in God, you will believe in anything.
For quite some time, conservative critics have attacked the conceit that every nursery-school child should be expected to be creative. Professor Allan Bloom observed 20 years ago in The Closing of the American Mind that creativity until quite recently referred to an attribute of God, not of humans. To demand the attribute of creativity for every human being is the same as saying that everyone should be a little god.
But what should we mean by creativity? In science and mathematics, it should refer to discoveries that truly are singular, that is, could not possibly be derived from any preceding knowledge.
We might ask: In the whole history of the arts and sciences, how many contributors truly are indispensable, such that history could not have been the same without their contribution? There is room for argument, but it is hard to come up with more than a few dozen names. Europe had not progressed much beyond Archimedes of Syracuse in mathematics until Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz invented the calculus. Until Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, Europe relied on the 1st-century work of Ptolemy. After Kepler only Newton, and after Newton only Albert Einstein fundamentally changed our views on planetary motion. Scholars still argue over whether someone else would have discovered Special Relativity if Einstein had not, but seem to agree that General Relativity had no clear precedent.
How many composers, for that matter, created Western classical music? If only a dozen names are known to future generations, they still will know what is fundamental to this art form. 
We can argue about the origin of scientific or artistic genius, but we must agree that it is extremely rare. Of the hundreds of composers employed as court or ecclesiastical musicians during Johann Sebastian Bach’s lifetime, we hear the work of only a handful today. Eighteenth-century musicians did not strive for genius, but for solid craftsmanship; how it came to be that a Bach would emerge from this milieu has no consensus explanation. As for the rest, we can say with certainty that if a Georg Phillip Telemann (a more successful contemporary of Bach) had not lived, someone else could have done his job without great loss to the art form.
If we use the term “creative” to mean more or less the same thing as “irreplaceable,” then the number of truly creative individuals appears very small indeed. It is very unlikely that you are one of them. If you work hard at your discipline, you are very fortunate to be able to follow what the best people in the field are doing, and if you are extremely good, you might have the privilege of elaborating on points made by greater minds.
Beneficial as such efforts might be, it is very unlikely that if you did not do this, no one else would have done it. On the contrary, if you are at the cutting edge of research in any field, you take every possible measure to publish your work as soon as possible, so that you may get credit for it before someone else comes up with precisely the same thing. Even the very best minds in a field live in terror that they will be made dispensable by others who circulate their conclusions first.
Bach inscribed each of his works with the motto, “Glory belongs only to God,” and insisted (wrongly) that anyone who worked as hard as he did could have achieved results just as good. He was content to be a diligent craftsman in the service of God, and did not seek to be a genius; he simply was one. That is the starting point of the man of faith. One does not set out to be a genius, but rather to be of service; extraordinary gifts are responsibility to be borne with humility. The search for genius began when the service of God no longer interested the artists and scientists.
Friedrich Nietzsche announced the death of God, and the arrival of the artist as hero, taking as his model Richard Wagner, about whose artistic merits we can argue on a different equation. Whether Wagner was a genius is debatable, but it is beyond doubt that the devotees of Nietzsche were no Wagners, let alone Bachs. To be free of convention was to create one’s own artistic world, in Nietzsche’s vision, but very few artists are capable of creating their own artistic world. That puts everyone else in an unpleasant position.
To accommodate the ambitions of the artists, the 20th century turned the invention of artistic worlds into a mass-manufacturing business. In place of the humble craftsmanship of Bach’s world, the artistic world split into movements. To be taken seriously during the 20th century, artists had to invent their own style and their own language. Critics heaped contempt on artists who simply reproduced the sort of products that had characterized the past, and praised the founders of schools: Impressionism, Cubism, Primitivism, Abstract Expressionism, and so forth.
Without drawing on the patronage of the wealthy, modern art could not have succeeded; each day we read of new record prices for 20th-century paintings, for example the estimated US$140 million paid to media mogul David Geffen for a Jackson Pollock. Very rich people like to flatter themselves that they are geniuses, and that their skill or luck at marketing music or computer code qualifies them as arbiters of taste. Successful business people typically are extremely clever, but they tend to be idiot savants, with sharp insight into some detail of industry that produces great wealth, but no concept whatever of issues outside their immediate field of expertise. Because the world conspires to flatter the wealthy, rich people are more prone to think of themselves as little gods than ordinary people, and far more susceptible to the cult of creativity in art.
In his great novel Doktor Faustus, Thomas Mann portrayed this as the work of the devil. The new Faust who makes a pact with Satan in this novel represents the composer Arnold Schoenberg, who sells his soul in return for a system for composing music.
A new class of critics served as midwives at the birth of these monsters. I marveled in the essay noted above over the fact that museum-goers gush over Pollock’s random dribbles, but never would listen to Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositions at a concert hall. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham famously said that people don’t like music; they only like the way it sounds. In the case of Pollock, people neither like his work nor the way it looks; what they like is the idea that the artist in his arrogance can redefine the world on his own terms.
To be an important person in this perverse scheme means to shake one’s fist at God and define one’s own little world, however dull, tawdry and pathetic it might be. To lack creativity is to despair. Hence the attraction of the myriad ideological movements in art that gives the despairing artists the illusion of creativity. If God is the Creator, then imitation of God is emulation of creation. But that is not quite true, for the Judeo-Christian god is more than a creator; God is a creator who loves his creatures.
In the world of faith there is quite a different way to be indispensable, and that is through acts of kindness and service. A mother is indispensable to her child, as are husbands, wives and friends to each other. If one dispenses with the ambition to remake the world according one’s whim, and accepts rather that the world is God’s creation, then imitatio Dei consists of acts of love.
In their urge toward self-worship, the artists of the 20th century descended to extreme levels of artlessness to persuade themselves that they were in fact creative. In their compulsion to worship themselves in the absence of God, they produced ideas far more ridiculous, and certainly a great deal uglier, than revealed religion in all its weaknesses ever contrived. The modern cult of individual self-expression is a poor substitute for the religion it strove to replace, and the delusion of personal creativity an even worse substitute for redemption.
1. Josquin des Prez, Claudio Monteverdi, Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Haendel, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Frederic Chopin, Johannes Brahms.