- How artistic ideas could get harder to find
By Holden Karnofsky 11 min read

How artistic ideas could get harder to find

In Where's Today's Beethoven?, I argued that:

  • Across a variety of areas in both art and science, we see a form of "innovation stagnation." That is: the best-regarded figures are disproportionately from long ago (for example, Mozart and Beethoven are considered by many to be the greatest musicians of all time), and our era seems to "punch below its weight" when considering the rise in population, education, etc.
  • The best explanation for this is what I call the "innovation as mining" hypothesis: ideas naturally get harder to find over time, and we should expect art and science to keep slowing down by default.

I've encountered somewhat polarized reactions to the latter idea. Some people consider it obvious, while others find it absurd. The latter argue something like:

I can see why ideas would get harder to find in science - there's only so much knowledge out there to be had, and perhaps people tend to find the most important, transformative insights first.1

But in art? Why should it be harder to write something as good as Beethoven's 5th symphony (aka "Dum Dum Dum Dummmmmm") in 2021 than it was in 1788? We don't love Beethoven's 5th because it 'invented' something, we love it because it sounds good. What's stopping some writer today from just writing a play, novel, movie or even TV episode as good as Hamlet?

If our era punches below its weight in great art, that's civilizational decline, not some fundamental 'ideas get harder to find' dynamic.

I disagree. This post will outline why. (Future posts will go through some other hypotheses about how the dynamic works, including from readers and commenters.)

  • First, I'll give a working definition of what it means for art to be great. We can't get this discussion off the ground if we take an attitude like "There's no 'better' or 'worse' in art." But I don't think we need to believe that some art is objectively greater than other art; we can simply use a definition of greatness that is according to a particular audience.
    • By this definition, I would guess (though I don't have direct data on this) that Beyonce is preferred to Beethoven by the average American listener in 2021, while Beethoven is considered greater by the average scholar of music history.
  • Next, I will argue that our interpretation and enjoyment of a given piece of art is heavily influenced by our knowledge of its relationship to other art. The simplest case here is that we tend not to appreciate art when we see it as too similar to something that already exists.
  • These are pretty much the only premises we need to see how artistic ideas can get harder to find. If you're trying to make art that is great for audience X, and you can't do anything too similar to what audience X is already familiar with, then each existing piece of art that audience X appreciates can make your job harder.2 So as more great-according-to-audience-X art is created, the creation of further great-according-to-audience-X art becomes harder.
  • With this framework in mind, I'll ask: "Why don't we see anyone today creating something like Beethoven's 5th or Hamlet?"
  • This post is filled with guesses and hypotheses. I'll close with some ideas on how one could test them.

Note: I'll be using the term "art" here very broadly. My intended use can include music, fiction, film, TV shows, and even video games - anything that could be considered great art, even if it is originally intended as mass entertainment (which I believe much of history's most acclaimed art, such as Shakespeare's plays, was).

What does it mean for art to be great? A working answer

I've had many exhausting conversations in my life about whether some art is "greater" than other art. (In one, my dad insisted that the sandwich he was eating was a great work of art, and refused to concede that it was less great than Beethoven's 9th symphony.) Many people seem to default to one of two positions, neither of which seems right:

  • "Some art is better than other art, and that's that. If you like Beyonce better than Beethoven, you're wrong."
  • "Hey hey hey, it's all just about what you enjoy! If you like the song Holden recently composed to calm down his infant in an airport better than Beethoven, who am I or anyone else to argue? There's no point in all this discussion of whether art has declined, because there are no differences."

I don't believe in the objective greatness of art, but I also am not a fan of simply dismissing interesting-seeming questions like "where's today's Beethoven?" I think we can do better by simply defining "greatness" of art relative to a specific audience: art is "greater for audience X" if audience X judges it to be greater, end of story.

Enjoyment of art is contextual

I believe we interpret, and even enjoy, art and entertainment through a lens that is partly checking for originality/authenticity. Knowledge that some similar piece "came first" can interfere with our enjoyment.

(This is different from saying that we are always evaluating art by how innovative it is - it's a weaker claim that art with too much similarity to other work we know of is harder to enjoy.)

This claim initially strikes many as silly: it seems like we watch a movie like Star Wars and just enjoy it, without going through any such intellectual exercise.

But now imagine that you sit down to watch some new film, and you realize as you're watching that it is basically a copy of Star Wars with minor modifications (most of them improvements, at least on a technical level) - as The Force Awakens has been accused of. My guess is that in this case, you end up enjoying the movie significantly less than you'd enjoy a re-watching of the original.

And I think originality is even more important when it comes to professional critical opinion about what the "greatest" art of all time is.

To broaden this idea a bit, I think we tend to subconsciously view most art as part of a sort of dialogue with other art. We notice how a book, song, film, etc. resembles and differs from those that came before, both in negative ways (repeating cliches and being "stale," as many forgettable pieces are accused of) and in positive ways ("extending" or even "subverting" classic stories, e.g. Unforgiven's relationship to classical Westerns or Chinatown's relationship to traditional noir films). Our experience is shaped by this sort of thing - and by broader critical opinion and reputation - while we think we're just experiencing brute enjoyment (or lack thereof) of some work.

I encounter people who say things like "When I listen to Beethoven or watch Hamlet, I just see their greatness directly, and modern works can't compare." But I suspect these people are in fact making unconscious adjustments - for example, perceiving certain simple and classic plot points, chord structures, etc. as "fresh" in these pieces that they'd perceive as "stale" in context of something more modern and less revered.

As an aside, I think the points I’ve made above open the door for a meaningful distinction between "lowbrow" and "highbrow" art, without having to say the latter is objectively better:

  • I’ve argued that our appreciation of art is contextual: we often appreciate the way in which some piece of art is similar to, yet different from, what came before. (I recommend the book Hit Makers as an exploration of the "similar, yet different" idea.)
  • So if person A has listened to a lot more music than person B (in some genre, or generally), they're often going to judge specific music differently - they will notice different things about what it resembles, and what it builds on. Same goes if person A generally is quicker to (even subconsciously) hear and notice subtleties in the music they're listening to.
  • I think the "highbrow vs. lowbrow" distinction maps pretty reasonably to something like: "art preferred by people who are sharp, notice things quickly, and have listened to a lot of other music such that they can tell how some particular piece is similar to vs. different from related work" vs. "art preferred by people with less of these qualities."

Artistic ideas get harder to find

If you're trying to make art that is great according to audience X, and you can't do anything too similar to what audience X is already familiar with, the natural default consequence is that "ideas get harder to find." For every great work of art that has come before your attempt, there's more that you "can't do" (it will be seen as unoriginal); this constrains your option space and makes it harder to create something both new and "great."

If not for this phenomenon, sequels should generally be better than the original - they get to copy over whatever worked well from the original plus whatever new things the creator thinks of. (And in software, where the point is usefulness instead of originality, sequels almost always are better than the original!) But sequels are usually worse than the original,3 even when (as is usually the case) they're made by the same people working with larger budgets.

There is, in some cases, an offsetting phenomenon. As noted above, existing works of art give you "more to work with": more classic themes to reference, extend, and subvert. For example, the existence of Romeo and Juliet arguably helped West Side Story.

I would guess how these factors net out depends on the audience:

When your only goal is pleasing hardcore fans looking for innovation, artistic ideas might not get harder to find.

  • In this case, you can count on your audience being familiar with everything that came before your work, and you can expect them to appreciate it when you focus on referencing/extending/subverting other works, without copying or "plagiarizing" good ideas from the past.
  • But at the same time, less experienced listeners may have no idea what's going on, and the lack of "classic" plot points, chord structures, etc. (which you refused to copy - you looked only to extend and subvert the cutting edge) could leave them lost. I think this is why the highest-brow modern music - acclaimed modern classical and jazz, and even rock - tends to wow some people while sounding like garbage to most.
  • Years ago, I was asking people I know what they thought about the question "Where's today's Beethoven?", and I specified that I was looking for someone whose work was "awe-inspiring and brilliant," not just "fun to listen to." Luke Muehlhauser responded that he thinks Captain Beefheart meets these criteria, especially on his masterpiece album "Trout Mask Replica." (I think this is a common opinion among intense, innovation-focused rock critics.) Go on, give it a listen.

When your only goal is broad commercial success, ideas might not get harder to find.

In this case, you can count on your audience not being familiar with a lot of classic ideas, and/or not holding it against you too much when they are. For example, Under Pressure didn't stop Ice Ice Baby. (That said, I expect that too much copying is usually fatal, if only by bothering music labels, producers, critics, etc.)

And you benefit from a preference for recent art - people like what is "new and hot."

But for many "combination" or "middle-ground" goals, I think artistic ideas get harder to find.

I think the kind of acclaim that Beethoven, Shakespeare, etc. are known for falls in this general category.

  • Their work is known as innovative and original, not stale. Even the most knowledgeable critics don't (and can't) accuse them of ripping others off.
  • At the same time, their work is accessible enough that it can be taught to students, can be performed often, and appeals to a wide range of critics (not just the people who have just the right sort of listening history to love Beefheart). The work contains ideas that are simultaneously "classic" (pleasing many) and "new" (not copied from someone else); to get both of those at once, I think being earlier in time is an advantage.

So where's today's version of Beethoven's 5th?

A common response I've gotten to the above sort of reasoning is: "OK, but: I really like listening to Beethoven's 5th, and if people made more music like that, I wouldn't howl that it's unoriginal - I'd buy it! So: where's today's Beethoven's 5th?"

I sort of have two answers here.

Answer one:

  • You say you like Beethoven's 5th, but there's probably a bunch of other music you enjoy more. If not, you're probably unusual. That is: there are a lot of other kinds of music that are better investments for people who just want to provide enjoyment / make money. (Not least because Beethoven's 5th requires an orchestra!)
  • And as noted above, if someone wrote Beethoven-like music today, it's unlikely they'd impress critics and gain a following the way Beethoven did.
  • So, today's Beethoven would just be better off making some other sort of music. Sorry.

Answer two:

  • Actually, I can think of pieces from the last ~50 years that have pretty much all the properties you probably like about Beethoven's 5th. They're orchestral, they have a grand and "classic" sound, they are complex and took intellectual work to create, they are critically acclaimed (though much less so than Beethoven), and they are popular - even iconic! Here's an example.
  • As I was writing this piece, I tried listening to "similar artist radio" for that composer, and I have to say it was a very similar experience to listening to Beethoven. At first it was very exciting, and I really enjoyed the contrast with more modern-sounding music: this type of music tends to be more overtly ambitious and dramatic, with less of an "ironic" sound and more complex instrumentation. But, honestly after an hour or so it was getting pretty old and I switched back to my usual stuff.

So yeah, basically the two-word answer to your question is Star Wars.

Testing these speculations

This post has contained a lot of speculation. If one really cared about the answer to "Where's today's Beethoven?" - and its implications for whether there's a past "Golden Age" whose secret we should be trying to find again, or whether there's an "innovation as mining" dynamic that means we should expect more stagnation in the future - it seems possible in principle to investigate some of the hypotheses I give above.

For example, one could test the dynamics of “contextual interpretation of art” by trying for "blind comparisons" of acclaimed classic works with less-acclaimed modern ones - for example, well-regarded but not universally-known paintings from the past, vs. attempts by modern artists to do similar work.

One could also try to experiment with whether people rate film/song/book/painting A more highly than film/song/book/painting B when they believe that "A came first and B was influenced by it" vs. that "B came first and A was influenced by it."

I'll close on a personal example of the latter. Willow is widely seen as an unremarkable movie recycling themes from other stories such as Lord of the Rings. But I saw it early in childhood, before exposure to the things it recycles, and I’ve always instinctively thought of it as an amazing, classic movie that other fantasies are pale imitations of. (I even think of its music as classic.) By now I intellectually know that that isn't its reputation, but I have trouble remembering this. I'm also less enthusiastic about Lord of the Rings than most people, maybe because it didn't feel as fresh to me since I encountered it after Willow. Weird, huh?

Next in series: Why it matters if ideas get harder to find

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  1. For example, Newton's laws of physics are reasonably accurate in most cases; the Standard Model is extremely accurate in nearly all cases; any further physics is just going to be getting smaller and smaller improvements in accuracy in more and more exotic cases. Although some of these 'exotic cases' could turn out to be of high practical importance, as they have been for e.g. the transistor and nuclear power. 

  2. As noted below, it might also make your job easier, by giving you more "material to play with": perhaps you can make art that the audience appreciates for the way it extends or riffs on previous work. But whether this works depends a lot on the audience. 

  3. Citation needed ¯\_(ツ)_/¯