menu bar

GENERATIONS:A Theory of Relativity

In the introduction to his book on the vagaries of temperature, A Matter of Degrees (2002), Gino Segré almost matter-of-factly points out; “I’m a physicist. When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them I’m in the family business. My brother is a physicist, my nephew is one, lots of cousins are, my uncle received the Nobel Prize in physics, my wife’s father was a well-known German physicist and her sister is married to an even more famous Viennese physicist. Physics, my professional life, also has a familial side for me.”

As some of the contributors to this collection can atest, this occupational phenomena is also represented in the arts and you will notice, if you’re not just here to look at the pictures (which is okay, too), that we have singled out a few examples for mention. By no means is this survey designed to be exhaustive even within the grouping of fine artists represented between the covers of this edition and, beyond doubt, there are other examples herein of artistic vocation passed between generations which are not highlighted. We have merely flirted with the idea, here and there, of how these visual traits manifest, or not, within familial lineage. We do so despite cautions that flirtation, itself, has been identified as a leading cause in the increase of relatives.

Surely, we are all familiar with the age-old pattern of passing the “tricks of the trade” to offspring in many professions, perhaps most visibly today in Hollywood– where legitimacy of genetic heritage is often an issue for male descendants in the infrastructure, who are also frequently described as possessing a canine element in their parentage.

Harken! The socioeconomic status of parents is prominently cited as a primary factor in the success of a progeny, as in a recent essay by Alan B. Krueger which notes; “It seems increasingly apparent that the secret to success is to have a successful parent. Consider some prominent examples: George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush; Bobby Bonds and Barry Bonds; Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda, Estee Lauder and Ronald Lauder; Julio Iglesias and Enrique Iglesias; Sam Walton and Jim, John, S. Robson and Alice Watson.”

However, socioeconomic status fails to directly address the passage of occupational infections between generations. There’s no commandment in any of the Good Books, for example, which suggests that the child of a politician can’t open a haberdashery. Cokie Roberts, the daughter of Louisiana representative Hal Boggs, for instance, became an analytical pundit (if you will excuse the expression). But, here, we are speaking of– or, less properly, flirting with–an inheritance of artistic instinct and aptitude. Are such phenotypes...“traits,” if you will, included in genetic legacy? Sigmund Freud conceded in his time that artistic talent was still a “psychological riddle.” Is it one which can be solved through the Human Genome Project which seeks to decipher homo sapian genetic code?

In an attempt to explain curious arrangements of words and ideas in the statements of the father-son politicians mentioned above, Jacob Weisberg, who has collected some of the more amusing and perplexing remarks in book form, ponders a genetic inheritance of apraxia as an explanation for the oddness of utterances from both presidents Bush, and offers as illustration the elder’s memorable “reelection riff” at the New Hampshire primary in 1992: “Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff. You can’t be. And we are blessed. So don’t feel sorry for–don’t cry for me, Argentina. We’ve got problems out there and I am blessed by good health, strong health. Jeez, you get the flu, and they make it into a federal case. Anyway, that goes with the territory.”
Contrast that monologue with the younger Bush’s declaration of metaphysical comprehension on the Hardball television program in May of 2000; “I’m gonna talk about the ideal world, Chris. I’ve read–I understand reality. If you’re asking me as the president, would I understand reality, I do.” Or, in relation to (we think) the intergenerational socioeconomic factors mentioned above; “I’m not sure 80% of the people get the death tax. I know this: 100% will get it if I’m the president.” Or, even more puzzling; “It is not Reagansque to support a tax plan that is Clinton in nature.”

Without exaggeration, there’s an abundance of similiar statements from both Bushes to lend credence to the saying that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” (unless you’d like to consider, as Alan Krueger does, cases like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker). It could, of course, be as Simonides had it that “painting is silent poetry and poetry is painting with the gift of words” and the Bushes are simply abstract painters. But the familiar, yet unattributed, saying that “all works of art are the autobiographies of liars” is a kinder, gentler comment in the realm of art than in political posture.

Proximity is another leading suspect in the passage of traits and vocations amongst family members and that factor, standing apart from genetic inheritance, we classify as “environment” in our wee, informal flirtation (see “Generations: A Postscript” on page 168). But Segré, the physicist, seems to describe his “conversion” more as an inherited infection of enthusiam than a personal inclination; “My uncle’s involvement and my father’s guidance surely pushed me to participate in physics, the new family business. My father went a step further– he announced I should become a theoretical physicist. When I pressed him on how he reached this decision, he replied that theoretical physics seemed to be a profession with two cardinal virtues: you can tell right from wrong and you don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to talk to. Although both assertions are arguable, I became one anyway and certainly proved I was an obedient son.”

Of course, there are certain intellectual ingredients necessary, particularly in areas of temperment, to provide success in an obedient devotion to theoretical physics and, no less so, in the divinely wicked worlds of art and aesthetic appreciation. Chances are, since you hold in hand a book devoted to a cherishing respect for such endeavor, you possess some first-hand knowledge of the rewards of artistic experience. Did you find it in a cabbage patch?

—J. Sedley
2007 Book Art Press