Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Normal Distribution of Artistic Taste

I spend a lot of time thinking about the television series Alias, which ran on ABC from 2001 to 2006. Over the course of its five-season run, the show had about a dozen reboots. The original show was presented as "Sydney is going to be fighting to bring down SD6 for the rest of the show" (in fact, Vaughn says in the pilot that it would take "years" to accomplish), and then just over a year later, in the Super-Bowl lead-out episode, they were, like, "Screw it, Sydney beat SD6." Why? I imagine they weren't selling enough advertising.

Over and over again, this happened. In fact, at the end of one season, they were, like, "We've discovered that the real villain is some organization called 'The Shed,'" and then when they started the next season, they were, like, "Nah, The Shed wasn't a good idea. Never mind."

Anyway, I often wonder what the storyline would have been if advertising hadn't been an issue. If J.J.Abrams had been able to create an entire show, start to finish, and sell it as one block, so the decision to air the show was the decision to see the storyline through to the end. Does the Rambaldi stuff make more sense? Does Sloan stay bad? Does Irina Derevko come in? Sark? Evil Francie? Or even Evil Vaughn?

I'm pretty certain we wouldn't have the bit where Jack and Sydney talk about why buying a Prius made economic sense, and when Sydney and Vaughn need a strong truck and she yells out, "Vaughn, the F-150!" (I told you, I think about this a lot.)

I have been thinking about this again, in the context of another J.J. Abrams project, the three most-recent Star Wars movies. What's the storyline if Disney actually storyboards a three-movie arc? Is there a Snoke who just up and dies? Does Rose Tico say it was worth it to fail at a mission necessary for the survival of the Resistance because she got to ride some space horses through a fancy building? Does the kid at the end of 8 who uses the Force to be too lazy to pick up a broom do, like, ANYTHING else?

If we assume that artistic taste is normally distributed, with extreme tails of people who enjoy the Jackass movies and people who like Kurosawa films, and all the rest of us in between. The best art would be that which constantly pushed us towards the highbrow end of the distribution, improving humanity. Let's say that every bit of art can be rated between 0 and 100, and that the market it attracts are the people who would themselves rate within five points of the art. So anything more highbrow than the mean experiences less-than-maximum commercial success, because the small group of highbrow customers you pick up doesn't offset the lost lowbrow customers. So commercialized art will be middling, because that maximizes profit.

I'm sure this isn't a great insight that no one has ever had before. It just helped me understand why we should never expect great art to become a trend. Even when something new comes along and advances the state of humanity, the follow-ups will be dumbed-down versions of it, regressing to the mean.

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