In Praise of the Choir

When I looked back on my week of attention paid, as represented by what I chose to post to these blog pages, this post by Maria Popova resonated. The title, Against the Cult of Originality, caught my eye.

As I thought about the idea of a “Cult of Originality” I thought about the number of times I have come across the idea that one had not, could not hope to, arrive as an artist until they found the unique voice that distinguished them from all others, the voice that made them an “original,” a soloist.

Maria Popover writes this about genius and originality:

The best things in life we don’t choose — they choose us. A great love, a great calling, a great illumination — they happen unto us, like light falling upon that which is lit. We have given a name to these unbidden greatnesses — genius, from the Latin for “spirit,” denoting the spirit of a universe we can only submit to but cannot govern.1

She is getting at the concept of the spark of creativity as a gift. Our charge is to become the medium through which the genius of the cosmos is delivered to our species and to take no ego gratification from it. Of course, the very idea of genius in our society is that of the prodigy soloist.

In the paragraph immediately following her declaration above she cites Wordsworth who proclaims that genius does that which is worth doing and hasn’t been done before, well. But wait a minute, isn’t that the same as being unique, qualified of course by the stipulation that it be done well and in a direction deemed useful? Even while writing against the cult of originality it is hard to free oneself from the adoration of… originality.

But then she gets to the point with Emerson, who has a somewhat different spirit in his take on genius:

Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ah, she has circled back to where she began! I am more in line with this thinking about genius which moves it away from prodigality and in the direction of a gift transmitted through us. This is the Lewis Hyde concept of the creative act2. The idea that we are gifted an ability and set of circumstances that favor a different way of seeing and that we have an obligation to suffer “the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.” In this way of thinking, we are the medium, not the point. We are participating in something larger than ourselves.

As I am writing this I am listening to a recording of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. I think it was probably my most listened to recording of 2022. I adore choral music. And what I adore most are the passages utilizing the full choir. I understand and appreciate that soloists are important and appreciate their counterpoint to the choir as they deliver whatever unique piece of information and beauty they have to deliver. But what truly gut punches me every time is the full choir in all its synchronized beauty and power. There is little in this world that is more sublime to me.

Personally, I think we place way too much emphasis on the soloists of the world, as exemplified by our fetishization of genius and originality. We are fascinated by the individual, the celebrated, the notorious. I would guess that most of us harbor the hope, deep within or psyches, that one day the world will discover the wonderful soloists we are capable of being. I know I do. We must all be exceptional at something? Right? But the idea that we should all be soloists is untenable and leads to a great deal of disappointment in most people’s lives, in addition to being a recipe for the dysfunction of society.

I remember, many years ago, attending an exhibit of space photography in the then named IBM building in Manhattan. The photography was made by the Hubble Space Telescope which had been recently launched into orbit. What I saw was the most beautiful art i could imagine and what blew me away was that it was art made by all of us. A choir of engineers, scientists, analysts, technicians, politicians, educators, tax payers, and on and on.

We need soloists. But we also need to appreciate that no soloist exists with out a choir. It needs to be ok to be part of the choir and we need to value it as we value our soloists. It requires all of us to receive the gifts of the cosmos and move them out across our collective being.


  1. https://www.themarginalian.org/2023/01/21/emerson-genius-shakespeare/ ↩︎

  2. See Lewis Hyde, The Gift. https://lewishyde.com/the-gift/ ↩︎

Some visual notes from this morning…Ice pattern in a puddle.

Holiday scene, ceramic penguins.

Stuffed baby deer of some kind.

Elephant statue.

Talking Shakespear with the bullshit machine

… an interesting conversation between ChatGPT and Jonathan M. Katz… see also, my post Nick Cave vs ChatGPT from last week…

The Memphis police killing… black officers beating a black man to death and a black police chief bringing them quickly to justice. Nobody is talking about the difference in speed of justice if the officers were white. Hmmm…

Doing the hampster on the flywheel thing…

From yesterday morning…

Watched Tar Last night. I think I have to watch it again…

Tár Is the Most-Talked-About Movie of the Year. So Why Is Everyone Talking About It All Wrong?

(The) Biden… administration… (is) taking to the road to tout their successes to the country… If they can bring the Republican base around to support their economic policies, they will have realigned the nation as profoundly as did FDR and Theodore Roosevelt before them.

Pro tip: Instead of grilling grilled cheese sandwiches, bake them. 350 degrees, about fifteen minutes, flip halfway through. Best part? You can get sandwiches ready for multiple people all at once. Don’t forget to slather the outside of the sandwiches with butter!

Roasted garlic soup… it’s what’s for dinner! www.epicurious.com And then there’s the grilled gruyere cheese sandwiches…

Been trying out Brave browser. Anyone else using it?

I have now placed three separate photo apps on my opening screen. Each has qualities good for a different type of image. It’s like having a bag of cameras at your fingertips!

Books Reading: Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by John Steinbeck 📚

And then we thought of what they are, and what we are—products of disease and sorrow and hunger and alcoholism. And suppose some all-powerful mind and will should cure our species so that for a number of generations we would be healthy and happy? We are the products of our disease and suffering. These are factors as powerful as other genetic factors. To cure and feed would be to change the species, and the result would be another animal entirely. We wonder if we would be able to tolerate our own species without a history of syphilis and tuberculosis. We don’t know. —John Steinbeck, Log From The Sea Of Cortez

What is joy? Where is it?

If we do not attend to the work of projecting delight upon the world, what are we actually doing? If we do not look for joy, search for it, reach deep for it, what are we saying about the world? —Nick Cave,

Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind. –Ralph Waldo Emmerson

What’s a few classified docs amongst friends?

Pro tip, no salt cajun spice is an awesome popcorn flavoring. Add a touch of salt separately.

A new page on my portfolio site, Everyday Mandala

Been going through a box of CD’s I inherited from a friend who left this earth a number of years ago. She had not one, not two, not three, but four CD’s of music featured on the TV show Miami Vice. Was a big fan of the show back in the day. Apparently she was an even bigger fan!

From The Dispatch 

… a new paper from Luis Martínez at the University of Chicago attempts to quantify just how much various countries are overstating their economic activity—using light. “Satellite images can capture the amount of nighttime light a country produces…

From this past weekend on Block Island…

In the middle of the sea heading back to the mainland with my dogs, wife, mother in law and her hippie married husband. Looking forward to a normal stretch of life as my mother in law is doing much better’s and we don’t need to attend to her so closely.

Books Read: The Gift by Lewis Hyde 📚

The more we allow such commodity art to define and control our gifts, the less gifted we will become, as individuals and as a society. The true commerce of art is a gift exchange, and where that commerce can proceed on its own terms we shall be heirs to the fruits of gift exchange: in this case, to a creative spirit whose fertility is not exhausted in use, to the sense of plentitude which is the mark of all erotic exchange, to a storehouse of works that can serve as agents of transformation, and to a sense of an inhabitable world–an awareness, that is, of our solidarity with whatever we take to be the source of our gifts, be it the community of the race, nature, or the gods. But none of these fruits will come to us where we have converted our arts to pure commercial enterprises. 205-06

Nick Cave Vs. ChatGPT

This past week a musician friend of mine posted a link to a Guardian article in which Nick Cave takes on song lyrics written “in the style of Nick Cave” by ChatGPT. She quoted at length from it, as will I:

Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.

What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognizes as their known self. This is part of the authentic creative struggle that precedes the invention of a unique lyric of actual value; it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering. This is what we humble humans can offer, that AI can only mimic, the transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings. This is where human genius resides, deeply embedded within, yet reaching beyond, those limitations.

Much as I admire Nick Cave and my musician friend for being the valiant and vibrant creators that they are, I think the argument that ChatGPT doesn’t feel and hasn’t experienced is beside the point. It doesn’t need to feel, it only needs to make human beings feel in this particular game. It only needs to predict what will bring tears to our eyes and laughter to our faces, what will draw us deeply in and help us transcend ourselves. I suspect that ChatGPT and other AI like it can and will get very good at that.

If you reject the idea that algorithms can learn to make us feel, then consider what has been said about Facebook (and other social media) algorithms that can suss out what is most likely to draw our attention and hold it. Consider how that played out in recent elections and how it plays out fueling white supremacy and hatred of the other. It turns out anger is a powerful motivation for people to coalesce around and AI has gotten pretty good at feeding us on a banquet of hatred of the other.

AI generated everything is inevitable and it will get better and better. The thing is, AI is a product of mass organization economic systems, capitalism in particular. It is doubtful it could have happened without capitalism or other equally disconnecting ways of operating an economy and, by extension, society. The key point to remember is that we don’t have to participate in that economy, at least, not all the time. I don’t know if we can completely eliminate capitalism or other mass organizational systems. I don’t know if we would even want to. There are some breathtaking benefits. But it does seem possible to organize parallel economies that are more local in scale, which is the scale at which the alternatives can thrive and be satisfying; the scale at which it matters that the song channeling our personal human experience and making us feel was created by another human being; the scale at which it matters that we go to hear that song performed by the creator and participate in the communal activity that live performance creates.

I have been reading about alternative economics. Two books are very influential to my thinking. Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein and The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. I have finished the first and am halfway through the second.

Sacred Economics helped me understand why growth is essential to capitalism—there is always more debt than value being created through production—and how capitalism fills the void between debt and product by converting the commons—that which should belong to everyone—to privately held resources to be exploited for profit. ChatGPT is another attempt to lay claim to the commons, in this case, the creative commons that all art product aspires to be part of. In Sacred Economics, Eisenstein argues that eliminating usury (the ability to make money on money), creating currency that devalues with time (not through inflation, but through planned devaluation over a specific time frame), and practicing a gift economy as tribal and other types of small communities have often done.

In Part I of The Gift, Lewis Hyde explains the history and functioning of the gift economy in great detail, as well as the history of usury and modern economies which have supplanted the gift economy. In Part II, which I have just now started to make my way through, he explains the relevance of a gift economy to the arts.

AI is a product of mass economic systems, capitalism in particular. AI couldn’t happen without these systems and will function best within these contexts. Human rendered art can and sometimes does function well within that mass economic context, but, when you get beyond the few giants and near giants in any creative industry human creative output struggles to function in that context and starts to require an economy built on community. This is the gift economy that Hyde and Eisenstein, drawing heavily from Hyde, describe.

My guess is that we need to relearn the gift economy if we are to have a satisfying way of being human creatives and connecting our creations with other human beings. I don’t presently believe that one excludes the other but we must actively and intentionally reclaim the gift economy if we are to benefit from it. There is much work to do in this direction.

This is all I can say about economic alternatives at present because I am still reading and thinking. The important point I am making is that it’s not AI vs human artists but an economic system that by its design breaks down community as against one that builds it. The choice is ours as to which one we want to labor and participate in.

From a couple of days ago…