What does it take to make great art or culture? It almost always seems to be a phenomenon of a city at a certain moment, with a certain mix of people and economic circumstances: 15th century Florence, late 16th century London, late 18th century Vienna, early 20th century New Orleans, and so on. You might argue about whether Mozart was better than Haydn, but you can’t get over that they were both composing in the same town at the same time, and that there were a bunch of wannabe-Mozarts and not quite-Haydns shopping their somewhat similar wares to the same buyers. Shakespeare might be better than Ben Jonson, but they definitely knew each other (on the one hand, Jonson made fun of Shakespeare for writing about a shipwreck in landlocked Bohemia, on the other hand Jonson, at Shakespeare’s death, said “I loved the man and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any.”)
You could imagine a “cultural production function” that produces something like early 60s Motown records or Dostoevsky novels, and it would obviously involve the genetic mix of the people involved (that produce geniuses of different kinds in different amounts in some kind of zero-inflated Poisson process) as well as all the cultural materials that those people would find lying about the place in childhood and adulthood and work gradually into their art, as well as the competition and cooperation among artists that pushed them to do their best work. Pageants where foolish characters had heads changed into pigs or donkeys were common in Shakespeare’s youth, but it doesn’t mean that all the other kids who watched a Hocktide performance in Stratford in 1575 could come up with Bottom the Weaver twenty years later.
Money matters too, of course; not just the wool trade or ruthless exploitation of the peasants that brought money into the town to begin with, but the willingness to spend money on art in particular, and at least a rough correlation between enduring quality and buyers’ tastes. Lorenzo de’ Medici was worried enough about other Florentines deciding to knife him during Mass that he funneled a continuous flow of his own money from the Medici bank, along with siphoned-off public funds, into the churches and squares and frescoes that make Florence still worth visiting, to convince his countrymen he was more use alive. My biggest disappointment about all the high-end inequality we have today is the frequent unwillingness of all these ultra-rich people to spend money on anything anyone could see or touch or enjoy.
Recently, the top selling classical music album in the country was one that sold…341 copies in a week. Somehow, I don’t think our cultural production function is optimized for enduring quality right now.