The Big Picture, IV – How about a 21st Century Florence? Or for that matter, a new Hangzhou?

June 10, 2016 § 1 Comment

Athenian bowl, Chinese Song Dynasty compass, Michelangelo drawing, image of brain as circuit

“Silicon Valley’s continued success depends, ironically, not on some shiny new gizmo but on learning the lessons of history.”

“What jumpstarts a golden age is not necessarily what keeps it going. The good ones manage to change fuel sources midstream. The Renaissance was initially powered by the recovered ancient texts, but the Humanists who discovered them soon generated their own ideas, their own intellectual momentum. Silicon Valley, if it is to survive, needs to find alternative energy sources, new ways of being creative and not simply new creative products.”

– Eric Weiner, Geography of Genius

“History is a mirror for the future!”

– My parents. Or maybe Chinese axiom?

So it appears that the Bay Area has an art scene undergoing transformation, with exodus and influx both at play. My roundup in the last installment of the Series didn’t even include the Stanford Arts District — the one-stop, four-institution arts compound at Stanford University that is quickly ascending in national significance, with three new buildings in three years (at a cost of $235 million), adding to the existing Cantor Arts Center.

On Saturday I visited the Anderson Collection, the 15,000 square feet showroom of Hunk and Moo Anderson, who have been collecting postwar American art since the 1960s. It was almost overwhelming to try to soak in half a century’s worth of American masterpieces, Jackson Pollock’s Lucifer and Mark Rothko’s Pink and White Over Red among the 121 pieces in collection; and the Anderson couple’s shared passion for the art was genuinely inspiring. I can hardly imagine what an uplifting (and possibly also exhausting) experience the new, 10-story SFMOMA will be, which I have yet to visit.

However, as wonderful as it is to have these fine museums and the mega galleries, elevating the Bay Area’s stature as an international art destination, art, for many of us, is something away from everyday life. Art is either something to be advised against in career choices, something to be possessed by the affluent, or something we make a special effort to see. Very few of us become “collectors” of art; the “art world” is inaccessible and mysterious.

It wasn’t always this way. Art used to be part of the everyday, and was even democratic.

As promised at the end of my last installment, let’s take a time travel back in history, to several Golden Ages of human accomplishments.

Geography-of-GeniusMy vessel for you is a sharp, witty, provocative and often hilarious book by New York Times bestselling author Eric Weiner: The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.

As Weiner reminded us in the book, “The Greeks created much of what we now consider art, but as we saw with the vases, they didn’t put it on a pedestal. So large did the arts loom in daily life that they were a given. Art was functional. Beauty was a bonus.”

The book is not only about art, of course; nor is my Big Picture series. Geography of Genius examines the connection between our surroundings and our most innovative ideas, which, in the previous creative epochs, sparked in multiple directions – art, science, architecture, literature, technology, philosophy and spirituality. This historical insight makes one rethink the narrow-minded notion of innovation being a new tool disrupting something “old” every five minutes, looking only towards the future with the past to run away from. It makes one question our modern educational system and career wisdom by showing how Michelangelo would not have been chosen for the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, and the Creation of Adam would not have come to existence, had Pope Julius II followed today’s hiring practice; and that the beloved poet-painter-writer-calligrapher-pharmacologist-engineer-governor Su Dongpo (also known as Su Shi, 苏轼) would have been sent for mental health services on a college campus today.

Most importantly, it makes one see tremendous opportunities Silicon Valley has in front of it to truly “reinvent” itself in a richer, more well-rounded sense than a technological paradigm; as well as the necessity to absorb other sources of creative energy, in order to sustain its success. These opportunities exist for the Valley as a whole, as well as for individual products and businesses.

“An intellectual odyssey, a traveler’s diary, and a comic novel all rolled into one” according to Daniel Gilbert, Geography of Genius would make a terrific addition to your summer reading list. Especially if your summer travels will take you to one of the seven genius loci featured within, the essence of what makes the place special would come alive like augmented reality.

Below I bring you passages from a few of the chapters. The excerpts about Hangzhou, capital city of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) are relatively more extensive, not because the Dynasty bears my family name, but because of its significance in world history: basically, the Song Dynasty was China’s Renaissance 300 years before Europe’s, and Hangzhou was its Florence. This history is little known in the West, calling for more background information. Even I, as a Chinese person, had mostly forgotten about that era of my civilization, or in fact have never thought of it this way.

Weiner has made me wonder: could we have a 21st-Century Florence? Might we be seeing new Medicis emerge among the Fishers, the Andersons, the Rappaports and the Andreessens of Silicon Valley? What other creative forces are there to bloom, if only they are valued and cultivated? What is missing?

And in China, it has made me scan the landscape to see: is a “New Hangzhou” on the horizon?

(Next issue: Crowd-funded Financiers’ Coffee, private museums, Creative Industry Parks, and a robot monk – a quick sampling of China’s creative spaces)

*      *     *

Text Excerpts from The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

(images added by BeiBei Song)

Genius is Simple: Athens

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The Acropolis of Athens, by Leo von Klenze


“The Greeks brought us democracy, science, and philosophy, but we can also thank (or curse) them for written contracts, silver and bronze coins, taxes, writing, schools, commercial loans, technical handbooks, large sailing ships, shared-risk investment, absentee landlordism. Nearly every part of our lives is inspired by the Greeks, including the very notion of inspiration.”

“Why Athens? How did a small, dirty, crowded city, surrounded by enemies and swathed in olive oil, manage to change the world?

“The answer … lies in expertise, or rather the lack of it. Ancient Athens had no professional politicians, or judges or even priests. Everyone did everything. Soldiers wrote poetry. Poets went to battle. It was strictly amateur hour, and that, as far as the Greeks were concerned, was a good thing. They viewed expertise with suspicion, for theirs was the genius of simplicity.”

“It isn’t the ideas themselves, though, that drive innovation. It’s that they shine a bright light on that normally invisible sea called culture. People realize the arbitrary nature of their own culture and open their minds to, in effect, the possibility of possibility. Once you realize that there is another way of doing X, or thinking about Y, then all sorts of new channels open up to you. ‘The awareness of cultural variety helps set the mind free,’ says Simonton.”

“I move on to a collection of Athenian coins. They are impressive, with detailed, intricate designs that put our quarters and nickels to shame. Once again, I marvel at how the ancients infused beauty into everyday objects. Not us. We segregate form and function. Occasionally, someone comes along and unites the two, and we call him a genius.

Genius is Nothing New: Hangzhou


The West Lake


The West Lake and Lingyin Temple, Hangzhou



Accomplishments of the Song Dynasty, courtesy

“ ‘Coffee made me think more quickly, but tea made me think more deeply’, he [a reformed coffee addict] said with the conviction of the converted. Now, sitting here holding this perfect cup of tea in this perfect little café in Hangzhou, I realize he may be right and wonder, does that explain the difference between Chinese and Western genius? We in the West go for the quick jolt of caffeine and its rapid-fire flashes of insight, while in the East they imbibe their caffeine more slowly and therefore take the long view. This is, I’d soon learn, one of the many ways in which East and West approach creativity differently.”

“In particular, I’ve honed in on the Song Dynasty, which spanned from 969 to 1276 AD, a time of great flourishing. The dynastic capital, Hangzhou, was the richest, most populous city in the world. It was also the most innovative. When Europeans were busy picking lice out of their hair and wondering when the Middle Ages would ever end, the Chinese were busy inventing, discovering, writing, painting, and, in general, improving the human condition.

This golden age had distinctly Asian characteristics: a group genius marked not by sudden breakthroughs but by gradual developments. An innovative epoch that, in typical Chinese fashion, rested firmly on a bedrock of tradition. A less caffeinated flourishing than found in the West but one no less remarkable. Whatever Hangzhou lacked in terms of Athens’ philosophical gravitas, it more than made up for it in art and poetry and, especially, technology. Old Hangzhou changed the way we navigate the world, both literally and figuratively.

“If you are like me, you probably know that the Chinese invented gunpowder and fireworks. You’re probably not aware, though, of the breadth and depth of Chinese accomplishments. The Chinese invented everything from the compass and block printing to mechanical clocks and toilet paper (a genius invention, if ever there was one). Medical advances were made during the golden age as well, and as political scientist Charles Murray points out, ‘if you were going to be ill in [the twelfth century] and were given the choice of living in Europe or China, there is no question about the right decision.”

“By almost every measure – wealth, sanitation, education, literacy – China surpassed the West. The Chinese produced the world’s finest textiles and porcelain, and introduced the world’s first paper money. They pioneered advances in nautical technology, too. While Europeans were still deploying tiny galleys powered by muscle, the Chinese were sailing huge, sectioned ships, with as many as four decks, a dozen sails, and up to five hundred men. They also published some of the world’s first nautical and astronomical charts, and pioneered the field of archaeology. Meanwhile, using advances in coal and hydraulic machines, they churned out an impressive amount of goods, from plows to Buddhist statues.

“The Song Dynasty was also a time of great philosophical and spiritual genius. The blending of Buddhist and Confucianist thought yielded a remarkably tolerant atmosphere. In fact, the technology that fueled China’s golden age – woodblock printing – was first perfected in Buddhist monasteries, where some of the world’s first books were published. The era also produced a bumper crop of great thinkers, unburdened by the sort of broaden that typically accompanies European philosophy. ‘Nothing is more foreign to the Chinese genius than metaphysical anguish and anxiety,’ says historian Jacques Gernet, who has written extensively on the Song Dynasty.

“Finally, the period saw an explosion in artistic output, yielding enough poetry and paintings to fill many museums. People were accomplished not only in the fine arts but also in the art of conversation, leading Gernet to conclude that these were ‘one of the most highly cultured types of human beings that Chinese civilization has ever produced. That any civilization has ever produced. The Song Dynasty was China’s Renaissance, Hangzhou its Florence.’ ”

“… Shen Kuo [沈括], an eleventh-century genius who made important contributions to many fields but is perhaps best known for his work on the magnetic compass. Shen was a Chinese Leonardo da Vinci and, like Leonardo, jotted his sundry and brilliant thoughts in notebooks.”

Shen-Kuo“He was a mathematician, astronomer, meteorologist, geologist, zoologist, botanist, pharmacologist, agronomist, archaeologist, ethnographer, cartographer, encyclopedist, diplomat, hydraulic engineer, inventor, university chancellor, and finance minister. And those were only his day jobs! In his spare time, he wrote poetry and composed music. He was the first to identify the marine origins of certain rocks and fossils. He produced the world’s first topographical map. He was the first to observe the process of sedimentation. He theorized (correctly) that climates shifted gradually over time. Perhaps his greatest contribution was his observation that a magnetic needle will point toward the poles, though not directly. It’s always off by a few degrees, with the deviation increasing as you get closer to the north or south pole. Called magnetic declination, it’s a discovery that Christopher Columbus wouldn’t make for another four hundred years, and one that to this day is crucial for successful navigation. No wonder Joseph Needham called Shen Kuo ‘perhaps the most interesting character in all of Chinese scientific history’.”

“We don’t often question that rationale for specialization. ‘Of course there was less specialization back then, a friend said at a dinner party. ‘The world was less complicated.’ Yes, it was. But I would argue that the world was less complicated because there was less specialization. The specialist is encouraged, rewarded, for parsing his chosen field into smaller and smaller morsels, then building high walls around those tiny bits. A narrow outlook naturally follows.

We mourn the death of the Renaissance man, oblivious to the blindingly obvious fact that we killed him and continue to do so every day on college campuses and in corporate offices across the land.

Genius is Expensive: Florence


Florence Duomo from Michelangelo Hill. photography by Peter Milošević


The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo

“The Medicis were great patrons of the arts. But what does that mean? Before arriving in Florence, I had only the vaguest idea. I pictured wealthy socialites, with more money than taste, ordering expensive art the way the rest of us order a pizza. And who can blame me? The very word patronage smacks of overweening elitism. Patrons, let’s face it, tend to be patronizing.

“Not the Medicis, Eugene explains. Theirs was the good kind of patronage, one that aimed not only at satisfying their own private desires for beauty but also the public’s. They cared what the average Florentine thought about the artwork they commissioned. Perhaps this was their way of currying favor and thus securing their position as top dog. Who cares? Everyone benefited. In that sense, the art world was more democratic in Renaissance Florence than it is today, where judgment on the quality of art rests in the hands of a few critics and gallery owners. We have cleaved the art world from the world.

“Patrons, the good kind, do more than write checks. They inspire. They challenge. The Medicis actively encouraged the city’s artists to take risks and placed huge bets that, though they seem wise today, were at the time wildly reckless.”

“The Italian Renaissance brought the world not only masterpieces of art and literature, but also double-entry bookkeeping and maritime insurance. These innovations were not historical oddities, divorced from the world of art. They were as intertwined as the threads on a fine silk scarf.

The Florentines did not segregate the worlds of art and commerce. Skills acquired in one field spilled over into the other. Even something as pedestrian as a tax document was expressed in florid prose, with the auditor describing the rolling hills of a farm or the disagreeable temperament of a surly peasant. Shipping containers were not standardized, so the Florentine merchant, out of necessity, mastered the art of gauging – at first, gauging the capacity of a container; later, gauging the realism of a painting or the proportions of a statue. The bookkeeper’s penchant for accuracy morphed into the artist’s precise renderings.”

“Michelangelo was best known as a sculptor, not a painter. Yes, he had done some painting, but primarily small pieces – little in the way of frescoes and nothing on this scale [painting for the Sistine Chapel]. Yet Pope Julius II chose Michelangelo for the job. The Pope was adhering to the Medici philosophy of patronage: choose someone who is clearly talented, then assign him an impossible task – do so even if he seems like a bad fit, especially if he seems like a bad fit.

“Think of how different that approach is from ours today. We only hire applicants for jobs once we’ve determined they are a perfect fit. We only assign tasks to those who have already demonstrated they can perform that same exact task. We treat risk not as a noble venture, a dance with the universe, but as something to be avoided at all costs, or at least reduced to a decimal point. And we wonder why we’re not living in another Renaissance?”

Genius is Weak [as in “weak ties”]: Silicon Valley

“Does Silicon Valley deserve pride of place alongside classical Athens, Renaissance Florence, Song Dynasty China? Again, some of you will shout a loud ‘Nay!’ You’d point out that while past greats such as Thucydides proudly proclaimed that they aimed to create ‘a possession for all time’, the same cannot be said of the coders and other technokinds residing in the Valley. Your new iPhone, gleaming and magical, will be obsolete before you can even say Thucydides. You might also point out that these past golden ages sparked in many different directions – art, science, literature – while Silicon Valley plays basically one note, albeit in different keys. Complicating matters is that, unlike the stories of Athens and Florence, Silicon Valley’s story isn’t told in the past tense. It’s still unfolding.

“Clearly, though, the Valley meets at least one important criterion for genius: impact. We live differently today from how we did twenty-five years ago, thanks largely to the products and ideas that have been perfected, if not invented, in Silicon Valley. These innovations have changed not only how we talk to one another but what we say, for, as Stanford University historian Leslie Berlin points out, ‘by changing the means, you change the content’.”

“Silicon Valley is the ultimate manifestation of the American flavor of genius, ‘not just thinking new thoughts and creating new things, but finding a use for them, and then using them to make a buck,’ writes historian Darrin McMahon.”

“A golden age doesn’t last long. A few decades, perhaps a half century or so, then it disappears as suddenly as it arrived. Places of genius are fragile. They are far easier to destroy than to build. Silicon Valley, by my estimation, is pushing a century, ancient in genius terms. It’s been a good run, longer than that of any other place in the US, with the possible exception of Hollywood. Is its time up? Might it go the way of Athens or Detroit?

“That may seem far-fetched, given the heady ambience and robust share prices in the Valley, but in 1940 nobody in Detroit saw the end coming any more than Athenians did in 430 BC. Only the Viennese of 1900 sensed that the end was nigh (‘a laboratory of world endings’), and this, ironically, inspired one last, dramatic surge of creative output. We can’t sprint toward the finish line if we don’t know where the finish line is or, worse, delude ourselves into believing that the race will go on forever.

“I meet plenty of people in the Valley who pooh-pooh any talk of decline. They remind me that people have been predicting the demise of Silicon Valley since the 1970s, yet the region continues to – I hate to use this awful term but no other will suffice – reinvent itself. From ham radio to transistors to integrated circuits to the cloud, revolution begets revolution.

“Yes, the Valley has proved nimble (in a fairly narrow way; pivoting from hardware to software isn’t quite the same as pivoting from abstract art to theoretical physics), but it is not immune to the laws of nature. The sun doesn’t rise in the west, and trees don’t grow to the moon. Not even California redwoods.

“Silicon Valley’s continued success depends, ironically, not on some shiny new gizmo but on learning the lessons of history. Alas, there is no app for that, but there are some steps the Valley can take, and pitfalls it can avoid, if it is to beat the odds and live to an even riper old age.

Great civilizations rise to greatness for different reasons but collapse for essentially the same reason: arrogance.


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