The Unsung Heroes of Innovation: A 1964 Manifesto for the Role of the Critic-Curator in How Ideas Spread
“It would be a mistake to distinguish too sharply between those who contribute a new way of doing and those who contribute a new way of thinking.”
By Maria Popova
“Art doesn’t explain itself,” music critic Greil Marcus observed in considering what the history of rock ‘n’ roll reveals about innovation. The role of context — that mesh of explanations enveloping an idea in a sheath of meaning to reveal why it matters and why we should pay attention — is essential in the cultural uptake of any new concept. I have long believed the role of the cultural critic or curator — the celebrator of ideas — to be one of helping people discern what matters in the world and understand why it matters, of elevating the meaningful from the fleeting and, in the process, elevating the human spirit toward progress. The great social science writer John W. Gardner explores this notion with unparalleled elegance and economy of words in a section of Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society (public library) — his excellent, forgotten field guide to keeping your company and your soul vibrantly alive, written in 1964 but enormously relevant to modern entrepreneurship, politics, and personal growth.
The most meaningful, impactful, and enduring innovations, Gardner argues, often come quietly, even surreptitiously:
The new thing rarely comes on with a flourish or trumpets. The historic innovation looks exciting in the history books, but if one could question those who lived at the time, the typical response would be neither “I opposed it” nor “I welcomed it,” but “I didn’t know it was happening.”
The unsung heroes of innovation, Gardner suggests, are those who shed light on the new and noteworthy, who extend an invitation to people to pay attention and care — a function all the more vital today, half a century later, when there is so much more vying for our attention and it is so much more straining to distinguish between the noteworthy and the merely noisy.
Those who bring attention to valuable ideas, then, are themselves vital agents of change, without whom the inventors and their creations would slide under the cultural radar and into obscurity. Editor Ursula Nordstrom did this for a young and insecure Maurice Sendak. Publisher John Martin did it for Charles Bukowski. Ralph Waldo Emerson did it for young Walt Whitman.
To give a great idea wings, Gardner suggests, is at least as valuable as to hatch it:
The capacity of public somnolence to retard change illuminates the role of the critic… Critics who call attention to an area that requires renewal are very much a part of the innovative process…
One of the most serious obstacles to clear thinking about renewal is the excessively narrow conception of the innovator that is commonly held. It focuses on technology and on the men who intent specific new devices: Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone; Marconi and wireless; Edison and the phonograph; the Wright Brothers and the airplane.
Gardner returns to the underappreciated, vital role of the critic-celebrator in amplifying the ideas that improve society and precipitate progress:
We tend to think of innovators as those who contribute to a new way of doing things. But many far-reaching changes have been touched off by those who contributed to a new way of thinking about things…
It would be a mistake to distinguish too sharply between those who contribute a new way of doing and those who contribute a new way of thinking.
Today, Gardner himself is an underappreciated celebrator of the human spirit and his Self-Renewal endures as a timeless manifesto for what true progress requires. Sample it further with Gardner on what children can teach us about risk, failure, and personal growth, then see some related thoughts on how to cultivate wisdom in the age of information.
Published October 1, 2014