The Aesthetic of Genius

Writing in the 18th century, Immanuel Kant declared that art was the product of genius and that the primary characteristic of genius is originality, the exemplary. He defined genius beautifully: “genius is that talent or gift by which nature gives the rule to art”.

I believe that art appreciation, at its most fundamental level, is admiration for the artist and that the most admirable of all is genius. The older I get, the more I want to be mind boggled and blown away, awed and astonished. I want to be there at the birth of greatness. I want to share in that mysterious power which gives us to ourselves by taking us out of ourselves, beyond the ego, to a life larger, freer, more open, boundless. Artists speak of being possessed by or compelled by, or becoming a mere channel for, a larger power. Plato called it “divine madness”. Matisse described it this way:

“Do I believe in God”. “Yes, I do, when I am working. When I am submissive and modest, I feel surrounded by someone who makes me do things of which I am not capable”.

“All art worthy of name is religious – if a creation is not religious, it is not art. It is nothing more than a document, an anecdote.”

Both artist and viewer surrender to a larger force. Here is art’s mystical meaning, its higher humanism. This is the aesthetic behind Greco Roman Classicism and the Italian Renaissance, as well as Romanticism in its many forms: Post Impressionism, Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, as well as philosophies like Existentialism. The same aesthetic has its American beginnings in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. The most distinguished and articulate representative of this view in America today is the literary critic Harold Bloom.

Starting with Giotto and Dante, the first great modern artist-genius, and the first modern art critic, the Renaissance restored humanism to a place it had held in Antiquity. Indeed, the Renaissance put creative genius even higher. The greatest Renaissance geniuses were, of course, the “divine” Michelangelo and the archetypal, universal genius, Leonardo da Vinci. Going back nearly two thousand years, the Chinese tradition, which is also humanistic, also calls its highest category of artistic achievement “divine” and “endowed by heaven”.

While it may be impossible to define genius to everyone’s satisfaction, we can all agree on specifics by citing great examples like Mozart, Shakespeare or Rembrandt. Geniuses are born not made, they are “naturals”. The distinguishing characteristic of artistic genius is creative power and an instinctive, imperious drive to reveal the self. The greater the genius, the greater the energy, force, and freedom in the work. The value of the art work rests wholly on the degree of energy with which it manifests the mind and action of its maker. There are, of course, degrees of genius with the largest figures, like Shakespeare, as the fullest measure. The latter sometimes create a whole new paradigm like Giotto, Caravaggio, Picasso and Pollock. Sometimes a single genius can dominate painting for decades; the most extreme case of this being Michelangelo’s preeminence in the later 16th century. On the other hand, the works of some great geniuses have quickly gone out of fashion only to be discovered centuries later, like Vermeer and El Greco.

The more we love the art, the more we are inspired to learn about the artist. We read biographies, we study art history, and, if the artist is alive, we want to meet him or her or see them interviewed on T.V. This is exciting and enriching to be sure, but, finally, it doesn’t add that much when we are standing physically before an original work giving fully of ourselves. Here, all we need to know is that it has been done by another human being. At this most basic level, art is universal. The great animal paintings at Lascaux cave in south western France were probably done 17,000 years ago. They show a vivid, sketchy style which, without exaggeration, can be called “abstract expressionist”. The dominant images are large bulls which range between 10 and 18 feet long, much larger than life, and they are rendered with broad, fluid, full length, arm strokes. These paintings are thrilling in their power and utter confidence, their monumental authority and freedom. Yet we can only guess about their purpose and context.

When thinking about artistic genius, it is useful to keep at hand the distinctions between expression and beauty, as well as between free creativity and craft. Like all distinctions, these have their problems, distortions and limitations. But more often, they clarify. Most important of all is the distinction between the sublimated self, the artistic personality, and the artist’s every day self, or real personality. This is not a theoretical distinction but a concrete and empirical one. Often the contrast between the art and the artist is stunning. An individual may be extraordinarily large minded and creative in art or music and yet be petty and mean spirited in human relations. The idiot savant is only an extreme case of a much more common phenomenon.

Great genius is rare and rarest of all is the universal genius, like Leonardo da Vinci. Georgio Vasari wrote of him,

“Occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind.”

Charles Lamb wrote that Shakespeare had “the sanity of true genius”. Another example is Peter Paul Rubens. He was a great artist, excelling in every genre of painting; portraits, landscapes, as well as the most impressive of all: monumental, narrative, figure painting. He was also a respected international diplomat and ran a large, very successful international business. Then there is the poète maudit, the expressionistic artist, whose abnormalities and suffering seem necessary to their art, like Michelangelo, Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock. They seem like heroic and tragic martyrs to their art. Other artists are so magnificently self absorbed that their life seems pale and unlived like Beethoven, Morris Louis, Emily Dickinson and many more. There are those who are crude, cruel, or ill tempered in life, but can be profoundly loving, tender, and refined in their art, like Degas or Caravaggio.

The genius superstar, larger than life, has never been more popular than in America today. We celebrate our freedom of expression by worshipping the most creative individuals in almost every field of endeavor, and especially in the arts and entertainment. At the same time though, with our traditions of democracy and equality, our society will never be completely comfortable with the idea of genius. Great geniuses often seem subversive, threatening and elitist. Genius evokes jealously and resentment from those who want it but do not have it, or think they do not have it. And it is true that genius can lead to grandiosity in those artists who forget its “god given” nature.

Some find embarrassing and distasteful, “the cult of genius”, as they put it. But, aesthetically speaking, there is no “cult of genius” but only a cult of masterworks, what Baudelaire called the “cult of images”. (He wrote that he had a “passion to glorify the cult of images”.) Enthusiasm for great art renews and expands the mind, why give it up? Why not let art be all it can be?

Biographers often seek to deflate genius by stressing the human foibles and the disappointing sides of the artist’s character. According to Sigmund Freud even the most laudatory biographies entail oedipal rivalry and tend to bring genius down to human proportions. In a speech accepting the Goethe Prize in 1930, Freud worried that “even the best and fullest biographies could not throw any light upon the riddle of the miraculous gift that makes an artist.” Nevertheless, Freud concluded that educated people must “put up” with biography, because ambivalence about the great is inescapably human.

In recent years, there have been many, especially in the academy, who tell us that the notion of genius is bogus and outdated. Some prefer reductive doctrines like Historicism, Critical Theory, Structuralism, and Deconstruction, all of which explain away art’s deepest meaning. By reducing art to its causes, conditions and contexts, they lose sight of its uniqueness, autonomy and universality, that is, everything that counts most.

Academic researchers like K. Anders Ericsson, the late Benjamin Bloom and others have even sought to quantify genius. Three recent books have summarized their findings, “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle; and “Talented is Overrated” by Geoff Colving; “The Genius in All of Us” by David Shenk. Still another is “Outliers” by the well known popularizer Malcolm Gladwell (“The Tipping Point”, “Blink”). Their ideas are basically that hard work equals talent, that talent is a desire to practice, and finally, that success is embedded in culture.

Let’s take the last point first. Of course, any great artist is, in part, a product of a specific time and place. He or she needs the right opportunity and fortuitous circumstance. Also, great genius almost always emerges from a rich cultural context of distinguished predecessors and contemporaries. But on the other hand, even in a Golden Age, some stars shine far more brightly than others.

As for the other two points, the researchers are setting out here to debunk genius as an outdated romantic idea. For them, genius possesses, not a mysterious gift, but rather only the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous, and even boring practice routine. For example, Ericsson has concluded that this practice must amount to 10,000 hours or more and “takes decades”. I am simplifying his argument but his basic point and that of the others, is that genius is far more nurture than nature. Now, no one would deny that a genius has exceptional passion and energy. But why dismiss the genetics argument? Some research points toward it. For example brain-scanning studies at U.C.L.A. suggest a strong link between the thickness of the myelin sheath, which is genetic, and superior math processing. Another example: a minority of humans possess three times as much brain cortex assigned to processing visual information. (Perhaps this explains why only a small number of people, even in the artworld, can truly see.) Also, one might well ask, where are the extreme need, confidence, and discipline, which greatness requires, supposed to come from? Passion springs from natural talent. We love to do what we do well. And there are cases like Arthur Rimbaud, who virtually invented modern poetry when he was between 14 and 21 years old, (and then gave up writing altogether). And what about the singing phenom the ten year old Jackie Evancho, or Mozart composing at five. The nurture argument will never explain singularities like Shakespeare or Beethoven or Van Gogh. They are miraculous mutants whose works are spontaneously perfect and immortal; their newness never fades.

In modern times, even some artists have rejected art’s higher meaning. Marcel Duchamp famously said that “art is not even as good as religion or the idea of God”. He declared that anything can be art, even a man’s urinal or a snow shovel. The Pop abstractionist, Frank Stella, once said of his own work that it is no more than its literal self, “what you see is what you see”. Like the researchers, these artists feel the need to debunk, demystify, and desacralize art.

To me, this outlook, especially coming from artists, sounds cynical and evasive. It sounds like sour grapes or a fear of commitment, or a hiding behind one’s art. In my view, art is better than religion, or is itself a religion, or it confirms religion. The whole history of art is testimony to the creative synergy between art and religion. Only in modern times have they been separated and art’s own uniquely spiritual dimension been revealed. For every Doubting Thomas, art makes spirit miraculously visible and palpable; an incarnation. The earliest nonobjective painters, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich, all believed exactly this.