And All That Jazz

A creativity researcher's take on the highs and lows of pop culture and the arts.

The List: Who will be remembered 100 years from now?

Who will still be remembered in 100 years?

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains.

-- Ozymandias, by Percy Shelley

 

Who will be remembered 100 years hence? I introduced this question in my previous post, and intend to actually deliver the goods now. As mentioned, inspired by Dean Keith Simonton's Genius 101, I posed this question to my Critical Thinking class, my Facebook friends, and assorted friends and colleagues (including the brilliant Simonton himself).

My one rule is that all contenders must be alive (a recent poll for the greatest living New Zealander elected Edmund Hillary, even though he had been dead for almost two years at the time). In addition, I want to clarify that by "remembered," I don't mean "remembered by everyone" or "on everyone's mind." I mean remembered by some, perhaps scholars or people particularly interested in a specific field. One friend, upon reading a draft, pointed out most teenagers wouldn't know most of this list right now.

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Using Simonton's three categories of lasting genius, I am dividing my list into exceptional leadership, outstanding creativity, and prodigious performance.

Exceptional Leadership

Political: Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama (history tells us that living presidents are remembered). Similarly, most heads of states around the world, such as Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher, Vladimir Putin, Fidel Castro, Tony Blair, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and, especially, Mikhail Gorbachev for his history-changing role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Other political leaders, who will likely be remembered in a negative way, include Osama Bin Laden and Kim Il Jung. Nelson Mandela (along with Carter and others) will be remembered as both a leader and a human rights activist. Other U.S. political leaders nominated include Hillary Clinton and Al Gore; others suggested human rights activists such as Elie Wiesel. Judicial leaders such as Sandra Day O'Connor (and, perhaps, all living Supreme Court justices) are sure bets. Although an equal claimant in other categories, Arnold Schwarzenegger was repeatedly suggested as a leader that will be remembered. As I briefly mentioned in the first piece, I am missing many leaders from other nations. One person proposed German chancellor Angela Merkel. I'm embarrassed to admit I hadn't heard of her; after Wiki'ing her, I agree.

Religious: A small sampling of possible answers includes Pope Benedict XVI, Billy Graham, The Dalai Lama, and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Business: I am much less confident of these entries, but the suggestions of Donald Trump, Richard Branson, Hugh Hefner, Rupert Murdoch, and Ted Turner do have some merit. I think for many of the moguls (like Trump, like Warren Buffet), much of their lasting impact may be linked to how they end up distributing their wealth.

Outstanding Creativity

Science: Bill Gates dominated the suggestions (across all categories). Indeed, I wonder if most innovations involving computers, the internet, and technology will someday be misattributed to him. Gates also, of course, qualifies in the business category. Steve Jobs is another likely bet (although, as one person pointed out, he would be better remembered if his name were Steve Apple; Jobs himself may end up a footnote). Stephen Hawking, Noam Chomsky, James Watson (of "and Crick" fame), Richard Dawkins, J. Craig Venter (assuming he is correctly remembered as the main person behind the Human Genome Project), Albert Hoffman (think LSD), and Jane Goodall were also named, along with several psychologists. I'm not going to try to suggest which psychologists would qualify, as I'm too close to the subject. I stumbled across the U. K. Telegraph's list of top living geniuses. There were many scientists and mathematicians who are clearly genius (Frederick Sanger, Andrew "I solved Fermat's Lost Theorem and inspired a musical" Wiles, and Hiroshi Ishiguro). Their works will absolutely live on; I am unsure of what to conclude beyond that. Incidentally, I also learned from the list that most geniuses are British.

Many of the discussions focused on how much of science these days is created in groups (see Simonton's 2004 book Creativity in Science for more). Such concepts as Google or Twitter or Facebook will be remembered in some way; the names behind them will not. Many different individuals are promoted as the true "parent of the internet," such as Tim Berners-Lee or Vint Cerf, but no one person is held in enough agreement to be likely remembered this way. I mean, Martin Cooper is credited as being the inventor of the cell phone, but could you have picked his name out of a list?

Writers: Unlike many of these areas, there is a solid history of writers being remembered. Popular writers who will likely be remembered include Stephen King, Neil Simon, Ray Bradbury, and J. K. Rowling, whereas more literary possibilities include Maya Angelou, Philip Roth, Derek Walcott, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Edward Albee. Although Harper Lee and J. D. Salinger have not published for decades, they would certainly qualify as well. Awards (such as the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize) are an indicator but not a guarantee. Early Pulitzers went to Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Thornton Wilder (all remembered to some extent) - and also Ernest Poole, Louis Bromfield, and Julia Peterkin.

Music (as composers): I think that the Beatles (and, therefore, Paul McCartney and to a lesser extent Ringo Starr) will be remembered as songwriters (as well as performers); indeed, I think they are among the surest non-world leader bets on this list. Other composers include Philip Glass, Stephen Sondheim, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, as well as Bob Dylan (other singer-songwriters will be discussed as performers). I know that with the exception of Glass, the nominees are pretty mainstream - but try Googling "most influential living composer" and see how many names are familiar! Perhaps Henryk Gorecki? I'm also not quite sure what to do about Quincy Jones and John Williams.


Movies: Live performances fade away, but film lasts forever (unless it's on VHS....or Beta....or laserdisc...). Steven Spielberg was a top choice of many people. Other directors mentioned include Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and George Lucas. The bulk of this discussion will fall under performance.


Miscellaneous: Astronauts Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and Sally Ride (and, perhaps, all astronauts) would qualify. Visual art is a tricky topic; like much classical music, many traditional paintings are more geared at the elite. I'm not sure how this shift will determine who is remembered. Much world-class visual art is now in comic or graphic form; I think Matt Groening, Robert Crumb, and Stan Lee are solid contenders. I also would select architects I. M. Pei and Frank Gehry, and perhaps chess wizard Garry Kasparov. Where do video games fit in? Certainly, a mighty high percentage of people devote countless hours to the products of Will "The Sims" Wright, Shigeru "Everything Else" Miyamoto, and others. On a darker note, Charles Manson and O. J. Simpson may well be remembered as the Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden of their day, respectively.

Prodigious Performance

Singers/Musicians: Singers/musicians mentioned included Bob Dylan, Madonna, Stevie Wonder, Bono, Leontyne Price, Brian Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Placido Domingo, Aretha Franklin, Harry Belafonte (also for his activism), Barbara Streisand, and Yo Yo Ma. Others suggested folks like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Elton John, and Mick Jagger; I'm personally less convinced by Jagger and think the others will need to continue being legendary. Some early rock and roll pioneers, like Chuck Berry, were also discussed.

There is ample evidence that the songwriters are likely in good shape, or at least their products. Songs popular in 1909 include "I'm Alabama Bound" (which you learn if you are a fifth grade student in Tuscaloosa, Alabama), "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now," and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon." The performers of these songs are mostly long-forgotten.

Actors: If films are still remembered, so too will their lead actors. It's difficult to evaluate younger actors (if I had a dollar for everyone who said Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, I'd have a solid $15). Veterans like Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Julie Andrews, Lauren Bacall, Robert DeNiro, and Robert Redford (equally for his support of independent film) have a good shot. Shirley Temple (Black) has seemingly already been remembered for a hundred years. I'm also shoehorning dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and choreographer Twyla Tharp in this category for no apparent reason.

Television: Generally speaking, I doubt television stars will remain the public consciousness. One huge exception is a humanitarian, activist, and one of the most influential Americans alive. I refer not to Charlie Sheen, but rather Oprah Winfrey. She will be remembered.

Sports: What to do about sports figures? Baseball has last much more than 100 years, and most fans have heard of Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Cy Young. Will current living legends Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and (sigh) Pete Rose and Barry Bonds experience such lasting fame? Boxing and golf also have long histories, so Mohammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus seem like good contenders. What to do with the stars of basketball (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Bill Russell), soccer (Pele), cycling (Lance Armstrong), hockey (Wayne Gretzky), and football (Jim Brown and, for mostly negative reasons, O. J. Simpson)?

Looking Forward

One nice thing about compiling this list is that when it comes time to see if I was right or wrong, I'll be long gone. It's not like predicting this year's World Series winner. More broadly, however, I am curious to see how the standards for posthumous eminence have changed. We have new artistic mediums and scientific avenues for exploration. Domains that were once popular are now rare. The internet and other technological advances are changing the way we live. If the next 30 years bring about as much change as the last 30 years have brought, who knows what may lie ahead?

 

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My last blog can be found here.

James C. Kaufman is a creativity researcher and Associate Professor of Psychology at California State University of San Bernardino.

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