by Dr. Angelika Brinkmann
Supreme excellence can be measured, at least according to social scientist
Charles Murray and his book: "Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence
in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C.to 1950", Murray evaluates accomplishments
that could be labelled "eternal". His book presents a systematic
list – he calls it a panoramic view – of such diverse figures
as Aristotle, Mozart and Einstein.
He uses a quantitative not a qualitative method (e.g. regression analysis), as he discussed in presentations and interviews given in Germany. He distills relevant facts from encyclopidias, anthologies, general histories and biographical dictionaries; knowledge of foreign languages was not required. An individual registering with at least 50% of the selected sources for a particular field was marked 'significant figure'. This yielded to about 4000 entries, 88 of whom are women, a total of 2%.
This method yields distorted results, although such is denied by the author in a prolix article in "Die Zeit“. It discriminates against less affluent cultures which used other methods of transmission, as well as against women, who received little acknowledgment in earlier encyclopidias.
Wealth and access to information only available in a few cities proviedes one reason for the greater incidence of excellence among men, especially in Western Europe between 1400 and 1950. It may be that the predominanently male authors of the reference books consulted did not ignore contributions by women and other cultures completely, but they, too ,are probably not immune from the influence of society's "status quo",subjective considerations and self-reflective attitude: Men usually cite the accomplishments of other men. Therefore with respect of the criteria applied, it is fair to ask: Who is mentioned and why? What was important in the process of selection and to whom?
Murray's assessment assigned for a highest score of 100 points. As a result, the woman with the highest score, 86 out of 100 is the Japanese author A.Murasaki Shikibuand whose novel, "The Tale of Genji“, was written a thousand years ago.Virginia Woolf gets highest recognition in western literature. Moreover, Murray is convinced that even in a hundred years from now every airport bookstore will still carry Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice'.
Murray puts forward a firm opinion regarding modern art, created after 1950, which did not make it into his book. For the lack of excellence within modern art he blames the artist himself. As a follower of "nihilistic“ modernism, the artist no longer aims for the beautiful rejecting the true and good as an elementary criterion of his profession.
Today, we produce predominantly "wonderful entertainment" lacking enough substance to survive in the long run. Against this background the author offers his belief that virtually none of the 20th century novels,musical compositions and paintings will survive the next two hundered years. But of course, there is no proof. What a pity that we will be unable to witness a quantitative verification of this prediction.
Technological progress important to science and art gets little notice, specifically, the internet in its relation to the arts, film and modern music. The years 1400 to 1950 present a period of time with little competion and a different time factor. Other criteria existed in order for someone to become "significant". But even then, information about artists hat to be spread, though some gained fame after death.
In the digital age, information travels faster and exerts a different impact on culture.In my opinion, Murray will find little sympathy with his conservative-idealistic view of art and his supreme accentuation of the "classical arts" Today we obviously need an alternative look at the arts. In the age of Instant Messaging and "multitasking" a multi-sensual experience of art should be envisioned. Why should it not be possible, to appreciate a "Little Night Music" and the Beatles alike? Who knows whether two hundred years from now people will not only listen to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos but also to Rolling Stones "Satisfaction", Madonna's "Matrial Girl" and Edith Piaf's "Je ne regrette rien"?
Likewise the term 'Star Wars' and its inventor Georg Lucas; this movie will surely remain a timeless classic, not so much as regards its plot but because of its influence on special effects and modern marketing in the movies, not to mention its "crossover effect" into politics; i.e. the unintended spilling over of the art of movie-making into security policy and arms control in the 1980s, when a U.S. President called a defense strategy "SDI" which immediately got the nickname "Star Wars". Probably not even the extraordinary film version of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy will be able to bring this about.
In summary it must be said that Murray's statistical method is of little use for determining the excellence of women. The panorama resembles a puzzle or a piece of guesswork where we do not exactly know which parts are missing.