Seriously? Yes. Seriously.

— There’s a peculiar but interesting interview with Charles Murray in one of the reader reviews of his new book Human Accomplishment. [Scroll down to the Steve Sailer review.]

Here’s the concluding exchange:

Q. You found that per capita levels of accomplishment tended to decline from 1850 to 1950. Would you care to speculate on post-1950 trends?

A. I think that the number of novels, songs, and paintings done since 1950 that anyone will still care about 200 years from now is somewhere in the vicinity of zero. Not exactly zero, but close. I find a good way to make this point is to ask anyone who disagrees with me to name a work that will survive — and then ask, “Seriously?” Very few works indeed can defend themselves against the “Seriously?” question.

Ah, nothing like the Scientific Method!

A more interesting, albeit unanswerable, question would be: What works would a cultured person in 1800 cite as likely to last 200 years? And then the followup: Would he have been right?

Murray’s question tests the resoluteness of his challenger, not the correctness of the challenger’s judgment. (Tyler, I believe, is prepared to say “seriously” of Eminem, and much else.) The difficulty here is that we have to learn how to appreciate great new works. So greatness isn’t obvious to us. Greatness can and does pass unnoticed beneath our noses. When we are too close in time to a work of art, it’s hard to separate it from the nexus of lesser works it references, or from its relationship to momentarily salient, but ultimately transient, matters of fashion. A work’s political, cultural and technical significance at the time of authorship can overshadow deeper and more lasting themes. So who knows what, exactly? I don’t. But I’d put solid money on there being something from our time two centuries hence.

And, after all, what does Murray mean by survive? It’s all digital. It will all survive. Thirty seven people in 2203 will listen to Kylie Minogue and love it.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center