We often hear pundits, scholars, and friends arguing about the merits of competition in the context of economics. Introducing competition to a moribund industry characterized by monopoly, as occurred when UPS and FedEx were finally able to challenge the US Postal Service (a truly damaging monopoly) for the delivery of packages, induces all competitors to improve their offerings because, in general, they have to battle on quality and price to find patrons. All else equal, this is what we would expect in any activity, leading to more choice, better service, and greater happiness. And this is what we tend to find.
But, arguably, the blessings of competition are even more pronounced in the arts. In 2008, I described the effects of competition on two great bands of the 1960s in “The Fortune of Coldplay“:
The Beatles and Beach Boys engaged in an “arms race” of sorts that propelled both bands to dizzying unforeseen heights of artistic expression. The story is worth recounting, briefly: Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, two of the virtuosos behind their respective bands, forced each other to get better with each album. They influenced each other, beginning with The Beatles’ Rubber Soul driving the Beach Boys (read: Brian Wilson, the only one of them worth a creative damn) to produce Pet Sounds, which Paul McCartney to this day calls the best album ever and moves him to tears with its melodies. In turn, McCartney went to the drawing board with John Lennon and they came out with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is often called their best album. According to some, this album broke Brian Wilson, whose prodigy was unleashed by the album but also broken by it. Wilson had, like perhaps Fermat grasping his Last Theorem or Nash contemplating Game Theory, become possessed by the art of the possible in his field. [Yet] the fulminations of other Beach Boy members condemned Wilson’s potential magnum opus, SMiLE, to death. When Wilson recovered [from his breakdown], he produced SMiLE as he thought it would have been. The result is unlike anything else that came from the 60s, or perhaps unlike anything that has ever been made.
I had argued in the post that it may not be possible to not have an “arms race” like that again, pitting extraordinary talent against extraordinary talent, producing ever more outstanding works, and satisfying consumers (in this case, of music) better than they could have dreamed. I was strictly mistaken. This could only occur in a market with a set of tastes that are perfectly and permanently satisfied. Rather, the example of The Beatles and the Beach Boys shows the benefits of competition for us. Similarly, in my recent post on Coorte, I showed that he received a fine for selling art work in a market without being a member of the artist guild. Yet consumers all benefited from his doing so, for they received excellent art works. Allowing artists like Coorte into the market without prior approval ensures that other artists must create works that compete with Coorte’s genius. This is why artists (and workers) form guilds (and unions) that insulate themselves from becoming better.
There is no other reason.
But when they become better, and improve themselves through the crucible of competition, we can build on those achievements. There’s another example of this in an “art” of sorts: chess. The 20th century saw many advances in the art of chess, including those made by Tal, Capablanca, Alekhine, Lasker, Botvinnik, Fischer, Karpov, and Kasparov. The 1970s through the 1990s was the era of Fischer, Karpov, and Kasparov. Fischer is best known as the American who broke Soviet dominance of world chess. But in the chess world itself, his nationality isn’t very important. His contributions to opening theory and endgames are. Chess masters continuously study and study and study previous games. It gives them a sense of the probabilities of how games will play out, but it also means they are storehouses of information regarding the games and artists who came before them. According to Fischer’s wikipedia:
Some leading players and some of his biographers rank him as the greatest player who ever lived. Many other writers say that he is arguably the greatest player ever, without reaching a definitive conclusion. Leonard Barden wrote, “Most experts place him the second or third best ever, behind Kasparov but probably ahead of Karpov.” […] According to the Chessmetrics calculation, Fischer’s peak rating was 2895 in October 1971. His one-year peak average was 2881, in 1971, and this is the highest of all time. His three-year peak average was 2867, from January 1971 to December 1973—the second highest ever, just behind Garry Kasparov. […] Fischer’s great rival Mikhail Tal praised him as “the greatest genius to have descended from the chess heavens.” […] Kasparov wrote that Fischer “became the detonator of an avalanche of new chess ideas, a revolutionary whose revolution is still in progress.” In January 2009, reigning world champion Viswanathan Anand described Fischer as “the greatest chess player who ever lived…”
Yes, it is possible that his capabilities have been exaggerated by his iconic status in the media, but when so many legends and peers believe he was the best, one must concede the possibility. The media would be less likely to distort their evaluations. It is now worth considering Anatoly Karpov, still ranked the 98th best player in the world, who was a dominating world champion for many years before the era of Kasparov. Unlike most masters, he did not have just one peak of greatness. He was world champion from 1975-85, when Kasparov began his stifling dominance of chess. Yet, Karpov retained much of his ability for the following decade, despite not surpassing Kasparov or Nigel Short. Still, Karpov’s greatest performance was in a 1994 chess tournament:
The field, in eventual finishing order, was Karpov, Kasparov, Shirov, Bareev, Kramnik, Lautier, Anand, Kamsky, Topalov, Ivanchuk, Gelfand, Illescas, Judit Polgar, and Beliavsky; with an average Elo rating of 2685, the highest ever at that time, making it the first Category XVIII tournament ever held. Impressed by the strength of the tournament, Kasparov had said several days before the tournament that the winner could rightly be called the world champion of tournaments. Perhaps spurred on by this comment, Karpov played the best tournament of his life. He was undefeated and earned 11 points out of 13 possible (the best world-class tournament winning percentage since Alekhine won San Remo in 1930), finishing 2.5 points ahead of second-place Kasparov and Shirov. Many of his wins were spectacular (in particular, his win over Topalov is considered possibly the finest of his career). This performance against the best players in the world put his Elo rating tournament performance at 2985, the highest performance rating of any player in history.
In this era of Fischer, Kasparov, and Karpov, it is worth considering what a tournament between all of them at their peaks might have been like. It is something Karpov has considered, since he would have played Fischer for the World Championship had Fischer not declined to defend his title. And although considered one of the all-time greats with his positional brilliance, always ready to take advantage of the most minor mistakes, he is not considered greater than Kasparov or Fischer. According to Karpov’s wikipedia:
Karpov is on record saying that had he had the opportunity to fight Fischer for the crown in his twenties, he (Karpov) could have been a much better player as a result (in a similar way as Kasparov’s constant rivalry with him helped Kasparov to achieve his full potential).
This is probably true. On the other hand, Karpov’s place in history may be unchanged, for his own improvement may have spurred even greater improvement in Kasparov as well. Whatever the case, it cannot be said that less competition is better for fostering the brilliance of artists anywhere in any situation.