Output/Yield Ratios

Crooked timber and all that jazz

Kingsley Amis, from his review of Don DeLillo‘s latest book in the New Yorker:

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less…I stubbornly suspect that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are. One helplessly reaches for Kant’s dictum about the crooked timber of humanity, or for John Updike’s suggestion to the effect that we are all of us “mixed blessings.”

This correlates to a statistic gleaned from the book by Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art: According to Jerry Saltz, 85% of contemporary art is just plain bad. In 50 years no one will care about most of it.

Whether looking at the body of work from one writer, the output of an entire generation of visual artists or just nature doing its thing, not everything hits the mark. And the thing is, that’s OK. In the long run it’s a win. In a conversation with Kevin Kelly (which is referenced in an earlier post on this site), Steve Johnson views the output/yield ratio from another perspective:

Technology wants increasing diversity—which is what I think also happens in biological systems, as the adjacent possible becomes larger with each innovation…when you expand the diversity of a system, that leads to an increase in great things and an increase in crap.

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