With so Many Artistic Geniuses Among Us, Why Is Most of Their Work so Disposable?





Patrick J. Kiger, writing for the Los Angeles Times (March 7, 2004)

English writer W. Somerset Maugham published a 1949 essay in which he pondered whether Dostoevski or El Greco was the greater artistic genius. He reluctantly came down on the side of El Greco after deciding that 16th century Spain was a more fertile environment for the flowering of inspiration than czarist Russia. One can only speculate about the precise number of revolutions per minute that Maugham could achieve in his crypt were he somehow to gaze upon the cover of the July 24, 2003, issue of Rolling Stone magazine that proclaimed"The Genius of Eminem."...

...We ought to consider ourselves blessed. Forget about ancient Athens, China during the Tang dynasty, Florence during the Renaissance, Paris in the 1920s and Greenwich Village in the 1950s. We live in an age peopled by more artistic geniuses than in any other moment in history, though the bar is set considerably lower than in the past.

As recently as the mid-20th century, qualifying as an artistic genius meant belonging to a rarified elite--Picasso, Hemingway, Stravinsky, Pollock, Frank Lloyd Wright, Miles Davis, et al.--who created masterpieces that changed the way people thought about the world, and in the process lived existences infused with drama. But that sort of resume is no longer necessary, thanks to the evolution of pop culture and the explosive growth of media hype...

...AThough we have more supposed artistic geniuses than ever, their output, oddly, is increasingly middling. What's happened in the last couple of decades is that puffery seems to have surpassed prodigy. Here's a test: Try to think of a recently produced book, movie, poem, pop song or artwork that you could imagine being appreciated 50 or 100 years from now, the way we still gravitate to"The Starry Night,""Citizen Kane" or"Kind of Blue.".../p>

...The result is a world in which you don't have to dare to be great, in which a swath of humanity, wide enough to stretch from Frank Gehry to Britney Spears, shares the lofty mantle of genius. Gehry, the architect known for playfully unconventional designs, at least approximates the old-fashioned concept of genius-hood. But Spears? The barely clad, histrionic ex-teen diva whose voice is so thin that some speculate she even lip-syncs interviews? All the same, she's also a genius, according to a concert reviewer from the New York Times, who observed in 2001 that Spears was"an artist whose genius is not for singing--indeed, this performance did not suffer at all from the music's being its least important element--but for teasing out the cravings and fears that haunt the modern world." (If that makes her sound a bit like Edvard Munch with decolletage, remember that it probably was written on deadline.)...

...Humans have always argued about what constitutes artistic greatness, and the source of genius. The Romans believed artistic ability came from a supernatural being, the"genius," that guarded each man. The 18th century essayist Joseph Addison decided that there were two sorts of geniuses--those who'd diligently worked to learn their art, such as English poet John Milton, and the natural, untutored, compulsive virtuosity of a William Shakespeare, the sort of savant who created great art as easily as other men breathed.

More recently, developmental psychologist William Therivel, author of the three-volume treatise"The GAM/DP Theory of Personality and Creativity," has argued that genius is a combination of genetics and assistance (i.e., educational opportunities, supportive families and intellectual mentors). There's also the unexpected dash of misfortune or trauma that forces the budding wunderkind to forsake conventional beliefs, taboos and methods of problem-solving that inhibit most of us but allows him or her to see the world in a startlingly different way. The final ingredient is a social milieu in which power is divided rather than absolute, so the artist can play the iconoclast without being crushed like a bug. It results in what is called a" challenged personality," an artistically gifted person who pursues that vision with a single-minded aggressiveness that borders on antagonism.

Therivel cites Mozart, whose talented but unsuccessful musician father made sure that his son had opportunities to study in Venice and Vienna, as an example of a genius who scored high in all GAM/DP categories. In contrast, rival 18th century composer Antonio Salieri came from an apparently less talented gene pool and had fewer educational opportunities, which may be why he's remembered mostly as the jealous, vengeful schmo in the film"Amadeus."

Nevertheless, the concept of the innate, unfettered artistic genius persists, perhaps because it has given generations of writers, painters and musicians an excuse to frequent brothels, smoke opium and wreck hotel rooms in pursuit of their muse. ...


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