October 27, 2013, by Stephen Mumford


The careers service at my university has this week been encouraging us to think about the theme of ambition. I take it the hope is for our students to think about their careers after graduation but it prompted me instead to consider ambition more in the abstract and concerning artistic endeavours.

In a series of tweets I talked about how brave an artist must be to have the highest ambitions. There seems always the risk of making a fool of oneself. It is easier to succeed if one aims to be mediocre. And the most risk-free strategy is not to try at all. Sometimes when I write (including this blog) I try to add something special knowing that a reader could think me conceited and pretentious for doing so. I’ve always admired high ambition in others, though, even when it leads to failure.

Here are some examples. One simply has to admire Antoni Gaudí’s design of the Sagrada Família, which he began working on in 1883. Critics might say Gaudí was over-ambitious. Not only did the church in Barcelona remain unfinished at the time of Gaudí’s death in 1926, the current projected date for completion is a hundred years after that. I suspect, though, that it will always be thought of as one of the greatest human creations for its intricacy, symbolism and scale. How can anyone think Gaudí’s vision foolish? And what kind of criticism is it to call something over-ambitious? Although the project exceeded the architect’s mortality, no one now doubts that it is a project worth completing.

Another example of ambition is Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s three-volume Principia Mathematica: a work that took them ten years to write. The aim of the book was to demonstrate how mathematics was derivable from the basic principles of logic. Few people have read it and not many were ever likely to understand it. When completing it, Russell had a nightmare that at some future point a librarian might throw away the last remaining copy. Something almost as bad happened. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem showed that it couldn’t work. The logical system on which Russell and Whitehead tried to base mathematics could either be complete or consistent but not both. The work had certainly been ambitious but was it a mere folly? If so, they wouldn’t be the first thinkers to try out an idea that eventually came to be thought misconceived. And I still believe the work is of major significance in the history of thought.

Having discussed two cases of ambition gone slightly awry, perhaps I had better end on a more optimistic note with ambition that was an unqualified success. One has to admire the bravery of Alan Moore, author of Watchmen. Moore was a comic book writer, working in a medium that had possibly the lowest status of any of the arts. Watchmen changed that, however. Moore, with artist Dave Gibbons, created something very special indeed. I am sure that was his ambition. It’s hard to say he was trying the write the best comic book ever but that certainly seemed to be the result. He could easily have delivered something good – even above average – and the publishers and readers would have been happy. Instead, he wove an intricate and profound plot of political intrigue that deconstructed the whole superhero genre. He took a risk but it worked. Comics would never be the same again.

Often when I get papers rejected by journals, a criticism is that the work is over-ambitious. There might also be occasions where there are mistakes. But I would certainly prefer to try to create something outstanding and fail than be content with the run-of-the mill. Without ambition in the arts and sciences, and a fair share of failures, we would never make any significant advances.

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