Friday, 11 November 2022

More about genius


In Romanticism - 19th century - there was a strong strand of interest in Medieval culture, including religion, which found some kind of revival, adapted to romantic needs, as in the idea of Kunstreligion. The artist as 'priest' revealing the mysteries of creation, is related to the disappointment that organised religion created in the minds of many intellectuals and artists in the wake of the 18C Enlightenment. But the early romantics around 1800 explored already a spirituality separated from organised religion (Novalis, H√∂lderlin), something we see (hear) also in Beethoven's works. 

In a former post, 20C avantgarde movements were related to populism, which seems to have created some confusion with at least one commenter. With the 'populism' of many 'avantgarde' phenomena was meant the nature of the products: anybody can do it, no special talents needed. It is quasi highbrow populism as distinct from the lowbrow variety as found in entertainment music. No political references.

The 19C concept of genius was strongly related to the idea of breaking with the past, of being no longer bound by traditions, conventions, achievements of dead people. But the reality of creation is never so simple. Of course 'the past', any past, is never monolithic. Rejecting the past because it is past, is a very naive idea and does not deserve serious opposition. In any cultural tradition, there are elements which are infinitely malleable and multi-interpretable, and elements which are time- and place-bound. The former can be called 'timeless', 'atemporal', as the latter are often specifically historic. But often artists take components from the past to develop them anew, with their personal interpretation, and amalgams of individual 'new' traits and conventions that are or were historic, can be found in the entire history of music, as they can be found in other cultural traditions like painting, sculpture and architecture. Such amalgams are traditional in the sense that a willful transcendence of boundaries or limitations are not ostentatiously pursued. (Groundbreaking artists like Michelangelo wanted to create very personal solutions, which happened to open-up new avenues for other artists, but there is no evidence that Michelangelo ever thought of himself of being 'avantgarde' or 'breaking boundaries' or 'breaking with the past' - in contrary, he wanted to emulate Antiquity.) 

The 19C genius idea was a rather abstract concept, with religious overtones, where individualism and mysticism combined to create the impression of miracle, to dazzle audiences. Hence the undervaluation of Beethoven (the genius par excellence) as a thorough classicist: even his most personal and transgressive works obey classicist formal principles, only in a different way, and often on a grander scale than his forerunners. In his late chamber music works he incorporated baroque elements like fugue and toccata, next to reworking of Haydnesque early classicist types of music. Also we know that Wagner consciously tried to create a persona of a miraculous genius, hiding his sources and the immense efforts it cost him to write his operas. We know that he and Liszt discussed the source of the Tristan chord and that Wagner said: 'This is something for us, professionals, to discuss, but players and the audience should never know this'. The sources of Wagner's music are manyfold, as research has shown. Almost no single striking musical idea by Wagner simply bubbled-up as such in his mind: every idea had its sources and concrete inspiration. Only, he changed it and gave it his very personal twist. Showing this to audiences would destroy the mysticism of genius.

There are actually only two useful interpretations of the term 'genius':

1) a mystical, spiritual entity inspiring the artist, connecting him with the creative forces of Nature and the Divine, as the term was used in Antiquity;

2) description of an artist with creative powers and technique far above the average of his profession and/or time. There is certainly a factor of mystery here, but we know that the so-called geniusses of the past were without exception very hard workers and diligent students of whatever came to hand.

It is clear that in modern times, 'genius' in both senses of the term cannot exist, given the conditions of the modern world. And if it emerged, it would not be recognized or understood: both the idea of spiritual inspiration and capacities far above average in the arts, are no longer a normal part of the culture, they can only be found in history when people were still so 'naive' to believe in such things. And look what they produced.


  1. "In a former post, 20C avantgarde movements were related to populism, which seems to have created some confusion with at least one commenter. With the 'populism' of many 'avantgarde' phenomena was meant the nature of the products: anybody can do it, no special talents needed. It is quasi highbrow populism as distinct from the lowbrow variety as found in entertainment music. No political references."

    A populism that is defined by "anybody can do it, no special talents needed" is too personal and idiosyncratic a re-definition of "populism" to generate much understanding beyond your blog. It also has the simple problem of the fact that no one who has slogged through the writings of Xenakis would agree that "anybody can do it" in terms of the mathematical procedures he introduced as he developed his stochastic composing methods. Your working definition of "populism" may be too idiosyncratic and pejorative to connect to any conventional usage of the term in the arts, since it turns out to not be a shorthand for politics. That's not a misunderstanding on my part, it's a prior failure on your part to clarify what your usage was but thanks for the clarification.

    1. Populist art: not Xenakis, which was high mdoernism, but conceptual art, Klangkunst where everything can be presented as 'music', what anybody can do with some pluck. Video art presented as modern music, John Cage with his nonsense which is revival dada. Collages of fragments taken from radio broadcast, or splinters as produced by algorhythms. This sort of thing. You take things too literally and thereby fail to get the point. The term 'populism' is really not difficult - it is: stuff meant for the simpletons. The idiotic 'artist' in the original article says it all, that what he did was populism, dressed-up as art, thanks to absurdist 'revolutionary ideas' mixed with avantgarde thinking as it was in the twenties. This was before the Soviet government decided that oldfashioned, propagandist traditional music for the masses was much better and had, at least, the aura of 'high art' that these thugs desired.

    2. Ah, well, the thing is Nicholas Wolterstorff's term "art-reflexive art" is obviously the superior term for all of that.

    3. your definition of "populist" doesn't really account for bids at art-reflexive art. I was discussing conceptual art as merely a subset of art-reflexive art at another blog and the distinction is significant because, at Wolterstorff put it, a bid at art-reflexive art (art that attempts to reframe, resituate or redefine what is received as art in the context of museum culture (he reviews the usual suspects of Duchamp and Warhol and nascent photography but could've easily included Cage)) may frequently fail. When it fails it simply doesn't get recognized as art and the art world moves on.

      The symphony in the article pretty obviously landed in that category and no amount of post hoc journalistic cheerleading is likely to bring it back from obscurity. I have more hope that Zaderatsky's cycle of preludes and fugues composed in the Gulag will get more attention.

      It's not that I take things too literally, it's that your usage of English (second language?) is still too idiosyncratic and pejorative to lend itself to a more sympathetic reading.

      I suspect we don't disagree that the sirens symphony was a failure as art-reflexive art but you keep wanting to use your own terms and only get around to defining them when people ask you what on earth you're really getting at. If "populism" is "stuff meant for simpletons" no English language reader is going to default to that working definition of the term until you explain that that is the definition you're using. In those cases the burden of responsibility is not on the reader to telepathically know what the writer meant by a term but on the writer to clarify what terms mean. Now that you've defined what you actually mean by "populist" it seems clear to me that conceptual art actually does not quite fit the category of activity in the examples and that Wolterstorff's category of "art-reflexive art" actually does.

  2. The two definitions invite some questions. Do you think category 1 geniuses have ever actually existed in terms of the mystical/spiritual entities that inspired people? Owing to the way you formulated the definition the real question is not whether or not people existed but whether the spiritual entities or forces that animate geniuses exist. Do those spiritual entities exist?

    If spiritual entities do exist there's no reason category 1 geniuses can't exist in the present. After all, your first definition is predicated on the existence of the spiritual entities first before there are any geniuses to be inspired by them. There are some Native Americans who have believed spirits gave them songs to sing, for instance, so if you grant that spirits exist then category 1 geniuses could be on any Native American reservation because if they have spirits that give them songs to sing then, so it goes. It's not something from "anitquity" as there are Native Americans right now who subscribe to this form of genius as currently available if spirits are successfully sought out. Spirit quests fail often enough, though, which is something various cultures that affirm category 1 genius warn about--you can look for a spirit but the spirit may not want you. So if you believe spirits exist that grant artists ideas you can't say this kind of genius doesn't exist so much as it is infrequent in post-industrial Western societies. Given your Category 1 definition of genius, geniuses have been commonplace based on anthropological work on Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest who believed and believe spirits give them songs to sing.

    Conversely, if spiritual entities that inspire people do not exist then no category 1 geniuses have ever existed. But the question of the existence of such spirits is the really germane issue to your first definition of genius.

    Category 2 genius functionally means "above average within a profession". The second definition is a matter of craft rather than inspiration. Someone could have creative powers and lack technique (Ives, as you assessed him, if I recall) and someone might have spectacular technique and want for creative powers (just because Hindemith could play every instrument in every score he composed after 1933 didn't mean he sounded inspired much of the time but no one who even knows who he is disputed his technique).

    But the problem this definition could run into is music history. Haydn and Mozart recognized each other as significantly better than average. Schumann had good things to say about Chopin and you've referenced Wagner and Liszt. Genius apparently recognizes genius even if non-geniuses don't. Leonard Meyer, of course, warned there would be no "genius" verdicts in the arts more than half a century ago. The question of why category 2 genius even needs to exist has yet to be answered, or perhaps recognized. Either this sort of genius always exists relative to a general field of artistic activity (geniuses in every age) or it is superfluous to creative practice and appreciated when it shows up but not strictly speaking necessary. As one of my music professors put it, the "floor" of technique for choral writing in the Renaissance was higher than the "ceiling" for choral music by Beethoven's time. Byrd and Tallis and Palestrina all wrote far better choral music than anything B composed for choir, Beethoven's genius was for other kinds of music than choral. Someone could be a genius in one domain and genuinely subcompetent in others (Haydn and Mozart both excelled Beethoven in choral music for fairly obvious reasons).