The Zeitgeist Ratio

What the hell does that mean? A. A. Gill presents his theory of cultural relativity to determine how much of what’s being created today is actually good.

Sometime in the last century, when culture had a comforting, fin de siècle slovenliness about it, I was having a post-theater dinner at the Ivy in London with Sam Mendes, the film and theater director. He was running London’s Donmar Warehouse, the most compelling stage of the moment, and I was a judge of the Olivier theater awards.

“How can you bear it,” he asked, “having to sit through every theater production in London for an entire year?” Even for a man who had devoted his life to drama, that was a plot too far.

“Well,” I replied guardedly, “it was like a long, immersive performance. A theatrical panorama. An event.” But even I was surprised at how often I slipped out at the intermission—and how much really bad stuff was on in the greatest theater city in the world. We talked about the truth that there were thousands of actors, hundreds and hundreds of plays, dozens of directors and designers and more than enough producers, but that still, altogether, the hit rate was abysmally small. And we came up with an ad hoc algorithm: the “1-in-15” rule—1 production in 15 was memorable; 14 out of 15 ranged from the forgettable to the lamentable. It was rough math, but it could also be applied to any creative field: paintings, books, pop songs, fashion.… We had discovered the theory of cultural relativity. The mathematical key to civilizations. A little eureka moment.

It is plain that most art must fail so that better art can succeed. Great art is rare and venerable. The truth of the 1-in-15 rule is that it’s not a fair calculus. If you produce 30 tunes, the likelihood is not that if 28 of them are duds, two will be hits. Or that when Mozart produced 30 tunes, any of them were duds. Art is not an equal-opportunity employer; nor is it spread evenly around the world. It occurs in clusters and evaporates into aesthetic droughts. So in Paris, at the turn of the 20th century, it was difficult to doodle on a napkin and not produce a masterpiece, whereas Luxembourg is still waiting for its cultural number to come. Art is not fair. It offers inspiration and genius capriciously. You can’t close your eyes tight and wish it to come. It won’t reward mere dedication or the blamelessly deserving. It doesn’t answer prayers or serve niceness. Sometimes it cascades on the most vilely unpleasant, lazy, deceitful, vain and ungrateful. The awful conundrum of culture is that bad people are as likely to be touched with genius as charitable people.

Just before the Oscars this March, I repeated the original conversation with David Heyman, the producer of the Harry Potter movies and Gravity, over lunch. And he found a flaw in it, or perhaps, an exception.

“It depends,” Heyman said, “on what you mean by ‘good.’ In the movie business, ‘good’ is defined as successful. A good film is one that makes money. A great film makes a whole lot of money. So the cultural critical value is always secondary to the box office. We assume that the driving desire of the artist is to make sublime art, but with film it is to make valuable art. And that is different. Commercially, we’re not searching for genius. We’re looking for bankability.”

I replied in defense of my original theory that you actually need to wait and see: The films that sustain over time are not necessarily the ones that made the most money, or indeed any money. But they are touched with something that compels an audience to return to them year after year, and that something is magic. For want of a better word, “genius.” And I bet it’s about 1 in 15.