Talent and creative work. Ability distribution and reward inequalities

Wednesday, November 28, 2012
AULA MAGNA - Facultat d'Economia i Empresa, Universitat de Barcelona
Pierre-Michel Menger (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique / Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)
Research line: 
Art, culture and creativity

Secod Session of the “International Sociological Debates Seminar at the University  of Barcelona (ISDUB)”. 
Wednesday, November 28 / From 17 to 19 hours.
Prof. Pierre-Michel Menger ‘Talent and creative work. Ability distribution and reward inequalities’, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique / Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (París). The session will be chaired by Professor Arturo Rodríguez Morató and it was coordinated by the Center for the Study of Culture, Politics and Society (CECUPS).


How is talent understood in the realms where it is obsessively sought after, those of the arts and sciences? To what extent can the talent factor help explain differences in reputation and earnings that attain extreme levels? I’ll show that in creative undertakings initial education does explain far less of occupational achievement than elsewhere in the economy. When it comes to define talent, the standard answer is cast in terms of gift and calling: talent is the expression of abilities that seem to originate in the genetic lottery, especially if they manifest themselves early in the artist’s life; this genetic capital enters into a nurturing family and social environment that fosters its development. With this posited, all that has to be done is inventory the unique traits of exceptional talent and see what reactions its products elicit, thereby determining whether the creative activity of the genius in question is supported, ignored or thwarted in the world of his or her contemporaries or the most influential of them. A biographical account of this sort amounts to a narrative of the adventures and misadventures of expressions of pure talent in favorable or less-than-favorable environments. But if “talent” is just another name for ability, as contrasted with skill, and as such represents the point of origin to which all other factors implicated in success should be tied, in accordance with a determinist schema of propulsive causality, then what remains to be explained? And on the demand side, how are talent and its products discovered and assessed by audiences? An essentialist understanding of talent or genius would postulate that gaps in degree of material and symbolic “consecration” (fame, recognition) in the arts and sciences are due to
proportionate differences in aptitude and that the peer community (in sciences) and the varied sets of audiences (for the arts), even if imperfectly informed or unequally cultured, will necessarily recognize, sooner or later, the value of this or that work of art by producing an aggregate value judgment, thereby providing a universal foundation for that judgment and perception of difference. But if things did in fact happen this way, the factorial breakdown of causes of inequality in artist earnings should be able to capture the influence of determinants as strong as abilities, with which individuals may be unequally endowed. As I will show, this is precisely what wage equations fail to do. So we have to find another explanation for those inequalities. If abilities were readily definable or observable there would be no uncertainty about success. It is precisely such uncertainty that fuels creative work, and the competition and innovation within the various art worlds. The reason those worlds proceed by ceaseless comparisons is that the wellsprings of inventiveness and originality cannot possibly be fully determined. Comparisons and tournaments, as I shall show, not only rank ordinally producers and products, but come to magnify interindividual differences that may have been tiny or large, but essentially impossible to calibrate from the outset.