Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The One Per Cent Solution & the Shape of Destiny

I had a passing discussion the other day with a writer to the effect that The Tijuana Brass and The Beatles were a vivid illustration that great art, of any sort, has a shape and form that people actively and passionately respond to.

Beneath the surface, the essential 'shape' of a Paul McCartney Beatles tune and a Herb Alpert TJB arrangement (both men personified the groups they pretended to be a mere part of) are the same. Otherwsise both would not have coexisted and thrived with such outwardly different music during the same cultural era. During the Beatles' rise, most musicians who did not swim in the same cultural stream - Sinatra comes to mind - got stranded on shore. Frustrated, many (such as Pat Boone and Bobby Darin) abandoned the material that had won them fame and adopted (unconvincingly) the outer trappings of their times. But men such as Herb Alpert, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon wrote and performed the music that conformed to the right 'shape' (as they saw it), rather than to the fickle cultural zeitgeist.

Does this ideal 'shape', if it exists, require a genius to identify it, or can it be found by anyone who cares to look? Below, Kurt Vonnegut performs an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek schtick describing the successful, 'beautiful shape' of a story.

But in a more serious vein, author Jan Tschichold in The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design (excerpted here) assures us that we - all of us - can and should learn to identify the 'right' shape of things:

"Personal typography is defective typography. Only beginners and fools will insist on using it. Perfect typography depends on perfect harmony between all of its elements. We must learn, and teach, what this means. Harmony is determined by relationships or proportions. Proportions are hidden everywhere: in the capaciousness of the margins, in the reciprocal relationships to each other of all four margins on the page of a book, in the relationship between the leading of the type area and dimensions of the margins, in the placement of the page number relative to the type area, in the extent to which capital letters are spaced differently from the text, and not least, in the spacing of the words themselves. In short, affinities are hidden in any and all parts."

Tschichold's excellent book (the comments at the Amazon link are also worth a look) goes on to describe how these hidden truths can be found. Notice that he clearly labels this process as a search for morality - not a search for beauty, as is commonly supposed. In this search, the selfish (personal) preferences must be set aside, even exorcized, in order for the hidden things to be identified.

The Geometry of God: The Striking Kaleidoscopic 
Patterns of European Cathedral Ceilings
Many of these structures were constructed in an era actively
occupied with ordering the heavens, and expressed in their
mathematical nature was a microcosm model of the universe
– perhaps in the belief that logic could explain or convey
the God to which these places of worship aimed to attest.
"Only through constant practice and strictest self-criticism may we develop a sense for a perfect piece of work. Unfortunately, most seem content with a middling performance."

So the great obstacle for most of us, in Tschichold's view, is not some lack of innate talent but simply a willingness to settle for less.

This idea is not at all limited to the visual. Tom Wolfe alluded to it in The Right Stuff, which professed that the job of being an astronaut, by its nature, was something more than a job. It was even more than a glamorous, high-profile job. It demanded almost-indefinable qualities that went beyond a set of skills, experience, and qualifications.

Beyond the individual's 'right stuff', proponents of Elliott Wave theory and Kondratieff Waves contend that our collective behavior, from wars to famines to market crashes, also conforms to 'proper' and elegant - and inevitable - patterns. It is said that these patterns are an integral part of our makeup as human beings. Elliott Wave is particularly interesting in that it extends beyond mankind to all of nature, linking the patterns and behavior of the smallest particle to the largest possible formation. It posits that both our follies and triumphs are, in a real sense, forces of nature as real and pervasive as gravity. It suggests how a great artist creates and shapes his works with interconnecting, dependent themes.

Beyond that, it has been said that there is a pattern that describes God. Mozart and Einstein alluded to and pursued this. This hugely famous book danced with the idea. Human history is filled with searches for the proper shape, the elegant description, or the mathematically-pleasing construct that conveys a sense of the I Am.

One theme of The Patriots of Mars is that human destiny conforms to such shapes, and that it is possible (and wise) to learn to intuit their form. With that in mind, consider the chart at right. The first column, 'range', shows all available resources, in ten percent increments, up to a theoretical 100% of wealth at bottom. The second column shows what percentage of the population owns or controls each increment of wealth. The final column, a color bar, offers a breakdown of the numbers. As you can see, the largest group by far is the middle class, and a very small percentage - the infamous One Percent, controls a disproportionate share of wealth.

No doubt you have heard this before. Perhaps you got it from the New York Times or the Daily Kos or Paul Krugman or Think Progress. These numbers are indisputable, except for one caveat:

They're not from any economist. They're from Pinterest.

The numbers measure the system-wide influence (info at link) of the images uploaded by various Pinterest users. In a new, closed system that is about as close to a meritocracy as one might hope for in this world, Pinterest displays the same heavily-skewed wealth distribution curve the Times has been bleating about for years now. It is the same 'unfairness' writers complain about when they see the great wealth accumulated by the likes of James Patterson or Stephen King and contrast it with their own meager holdings.

But what if - rather than painting this colossal disparity as indicative of a sick system that 'needs intervention' - we recognize this as the true shape of a healthy system and work from that premise to ease the burden of the disadvantaged among us?

Of course, this will never happen. As Jan Tschichold observes, most people will choose never to see it. But Tschichold also knew that a few will always see for themselves, and that those few were worth his reaching out, because they are the ones who change the world.

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