Writings on artistic
greatness and genius [génialité] waver
in the main between three types of explanation. Either the brilliant
artist is endowed with exceptional talents, about which not much
can be said, once they have been detected, except to look at how
those talents succeed in expressing themselves(2); or the brilliant
artist is a pure social construction, the product of an ideology
that wants to confer top value upon certain individuals whose
labor is nevertheless fashioned by social forces, the vocabulary
of genius stemming here from a mythology that celebrates, in the
manner of new gods, those who are the victors in the organization
of the arts into tournaments of celebrity(3); or the brilliant
artist is a statistically unlikely figure, a two-sided being whose
labor is certainly determined by social and economic forces but
whose works contain a truth-value that eludes determination on
account of the context in which they are produced(4). Examination
of the case of Beethoven, one of the emblematic figures of creative
genius in the modern era, allows us to compare these three conceptions,
to bring out their respective weaknesses, and to offer a solution
to the antinomies involved in the question of genius as the social
sciences have approached it.
We have no absolute proof of the presence or absence of talent,
because we do not know exactly what talent is, because we do not
know how to measure it independently of what it produces--works--and
because measuring the value of works is not a simple and natural
process that would be invested with an incontestable objectivity.
Evaluations diverge, they change, artists’ value can be
revised upwards or downwards, and so on. How, then, is one to
get a handle on it?
Can one do without the hypothesis that exceptional talent entails
an overwhelming advantage in the competition for success and thus
is the indisputable origin of a genius’s career? It suffices
to make a slight alteration in this hypothesis in order to discover
a more fruitful path.
Genius: Relative Comparison and Dynamic Amplification
of Differences in Talent
We can very well assume that at the start there exists only a
very slight difference in talent between two artists, one of whom
will become what we call a genius. But we also have to assume
that this difference is perceived rather early on by those who
make comparisons (critics, musicians, audiences). And next we
need to explain why this difference suffices to concentrate the
main demand on the one who is judged slightly more talented and
therefore to give that person a much higher reputation than what
his real advantage in artistic value might be.
In the course of artists’ first formative experiences, abilities
manifest themselves differently and unequally from one individual
to the next. What remains indeterminate is the question of what
kind of difference in talent there will be between certain creative
persons who, in the more or less long term and whether lastingly
or not, are going to succeed, and others, who will be less well
off. Expressed in terms of probabilities of success, the advantage
a hopeful talent procures at an early date in his career may be
slight, but it suffices that there be, in each test of competitive
comparison, a perceptible difference, whether small or large,
in order for this talent to be able to attract the investments
and secure the bets of the system’s actors (the artist’s
teachers, professional musicians, patrons, concert promoters,
critics, audiences). The intrinsically formative character of
labor situations points to the same mechanism: there exists an
optimum profile for increasing one’s skills which is a function
of the number and variety of one’s working experiences and
of the quality of the collaborative networks the artist calls
upon in the unfolding of his projects.
This dynamic argument indicates how differences in talent, initially
perceived as slight, can give rise to an increasing differentiation
between the careers of two originally comparable artists. A self-reinforcing
mechanism acts on the pace and breadth of talent development:
the creative person who is more highly valued and is sought after
to a greater extent can find better learning opportunities and
better occasions to test his abilities, thanks to the extent and
variety of the support he receives and the collaborations in which
he engages, thanks to gains in experience that are connected with
the dissemination of his works, and thanks to the forms of social
and psychological self-reassurance a growth in his reputation
brings his way. The competition and uncertainty that permanently
preside over creative action ensure that tests of talent will
retain their dynamic tension.
Here the second lever of differences in reputation fits in. For
a promising artist to obtain the best chances of developing his
talent, it is important to link him up with professionals of comparable
value in the other trades that are necessary to the production
and circulation of works: a film director of repute will seek
to engage first-rate professionals for key posts (cinematography,
scenario, editing, costumes, etc.); a publisher can entrust to
his most seasoned literary editor working relationships with the
publishing house’s most talented or most promising writers.
Artistic worlds combine flexible organizational architectures
(networks, projects) with a way of structuring artistic teams
that brings in professionals of good quality or equivalent reputation--or,
to put it more precisely, that establishes selective matchings:
labor markets for the most skilled jobs are thus structured through
It is on this
basis that an analysis of differences in success makes networks
of relationships constructed by the artist play a decisive role.
Whether one is talking about Beethoven’s patrons, his performers,
or the various categories of professionals with whom he established
working and collaborative ties, it was by following a formula
of selective matchings that his networks of activity were organized.
When artistic labor is no longer based on an ongoing connection
with an employer within a stable organization--as was the case,
for example, with the employment of the kapellmeister
in a prince’s court--one’s career is built up from
project to project within relationships of negotiation and cooperation
where the various partners (musicians, concert organizers, patrons,
publishers, critics, instrument makers, writers and poets, etc.)
are brought in as a function of the level of their reputation
and as a function of their artistic and social influence. The
dynamic of a successful creative career involves a movement of
rising mobility within a stratified world of networks of people
who know each other and who collaborate among themselves: when
talent is a complementary factor of production and not an additive
one, the gathering of talents of approximately equivalent level,
each in his own field (as performers, organizational intermediaries,
publishers, financiers), has a multiplier effect on the project’s
chances of success and on each collaborator’s chances of
building up a reputation.
Among the profits
drawn from this hierarchization of networks involving match-ups,
not the least of these is that of mutual apprenticeship--as is
shown, for example, by numerous cases of fruitful collaboration
between the most talented composers and performers who are held
in the highest repute, and, here, between Beethoven and the renowned
performers (Clement, Duport, Kreutzer, Rode, Schuppanzigh, Stich,
etc.) with whom he worked and who were able to provide him with
assistance, support, and new relationships with other patrons
in other social worlds. Charles Rosen emphasizes the decisive
role of these musicians: “the few aristocrats who financed
Beethoven were advised by musicians who told them where to put
their money for the best cultural investment.”(5) He also
insists on the major role literary circles of poets and novelists
played in giving Beethoven support as well as in acclimating people
to the idea of music as great art, Hayden’s work having
previously offered an internationally celebrated model of cultural
It is in this way that I can explain how differences in talent
that were initially slight or of uncertain import can quickly
be amplified and consolidated via the play of selective matchings:
artists increase their chances of developing their skills through
contact with equally talented partners and can embark upon demanding
creative projects with greater ease. We now better understand
how, starting from rankings of reputation whose initial measure
is often quite vague (promising or minor talent, first-rate or
second-rate artist, valuable works or run-of-the-mill products,
etc.), a finely graduated hierarchization is constituted--one
that is, of course, constantly open to question because it is
subject to interpersonal competitive tests but that will also
engender very unequal chances for the flowering of creative talent.
A Land of Acceptance: Greatness as an Aesthetic Canon
Having reached this point, I can now bring together the two sides
of my analysis. Individual differences in talent, whatever their
origin, and a segmented structuration of the market for creative
labor that works through the play of selective matchings constitute,
through their dynamic interaction, the two forces whose combination
produces the considerable variance in reputations that exists
and points, through statistical distribution of aptitudes, toward
the exceptional artist who will be declared a genius. Still, exceptional
talent requires a land of aesthetic acceptance. This will be the
object of an analysis of the matrix that works out “greatness”
as canonical aesthetic value. It constitutes, moreover, the other
point that separates our analysis from a constructivist and functionalist
analysis of a high style in music, which proceeds instead through
an exhaustive reduction of layers of meaning to pure social relations
The analysis that follows is developed in a forthcoming work:
Le travail créateur (Paris: Gallimard/Le Seuil/École
des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2009).
2. See, for example, Peter Kivy, The Possessor
and the Possessed: Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and the Idea of Musical
Genius (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
3. See, in particular, Tia DeNora, Beethoven
and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; French translation,
4. The argument is developed in particular by
Theodor Adorno in Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music: Fragments
and Texts (1993), ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Edmund Jephcott
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998) and by Pierre
Bourdieu in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the
Literary Field (1992), trans. Susan Emanuel (Cambridge: Polity
Press, 1996) and in his article “Bref impromptu sur Beethoven,
artiste entrepreneur,” Sociétés &
Représentations, 11 (2001): 15-18.
5. Charles Rosen, Critical Entertainments
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 118.
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_____. “Bref impromptu sur Beethoven, artiste entrepreneur.”
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