Genius Ignored , Chapter 1: Introduction
Generally great artists are recognized as such in their own time. Occasionally they are not. This book is about painters, composers, novelists, poets, actors, and directors who were severely underestimated by their contemporaries. Artists like Rembrandt and Bach were certainly well known, respected, and successful, but the distance between this qualified admiration and their true greatness is substantial.
The interest such artists hold for us is twofold: their pursuit of perfection despite doubt that their work would ever be read/seen/heard by any but the smallest audience teaches us to be courageous in our own art, and the reasons they were overlooked teach us how to view the art of our own time.
I have included only artists whose work I love. Not very objective, but to really understand and sympathize with the artist, I have to be in love. . . .
Some artists had their outstanding early work ignored, remaining unrecognized until quite late in their careers (Nabokov). Others succeeded in youth, appreciated for a talent tangential to their true greatness (Rembrandt as a society portrait painter, Bach as an organist and clavier player, Melville as the author of light-hearted sea stories) only to have their real talents ignored later. Still others had little (Vermeer, Thoreau) or no (Van Gogh) success, early or late, but continued anyway, driven by their own demons, their own creative needs.
How is it that some generations can fail to appreciate artists which others find so transparently superior? What most distinguishes the great artist is that he is not hemmed in by contemporary taste/conventions, but draws upon earlier, "old-fashioned" traditions; synthesizes; forges his own. The Establishment resents this. They want people who play by the rules.
For some people the word "genius" may have connotations of "uniqueness" or "complete originality". Most of the artists in this book worked within existing traditions; what is unique about their work is its greatness and quality.
Some readers may ask why I limit this study to great artists -- why not scientists like Einstein or political leaders like Ghandi? Surely they were guided by just as great a genius, and were slighted just as much. I humbly submit that science and politics are inferior to art. The "progress" which humanity seems to be making is an illusion. Take the search for elemental particles: does anyone really believe that muons and quarks aren't comprised of other subcomponents -- in turn, comprised of their own subcomponents? Aren't there universes beyond our own? Advances in medicine and agriculture have increased our lifespan but have not really improved the human condition. People today are no more happy or content than they were 2,000 years ago. Won't beings a 1,000 years from now look back on the present time as one in which humans suffered horribly from the ravages of curable diseases with pitifully short lifespans? Whereas what we are really suffering from is discontent with what life we do have. . . . Ditto for the past.
Faced with the essential futility of trying to understand life's mysteries, the artist works with what we have: a girl pouring milk from a pitcher; an old man raging against Fate; first love; a room with a bed, two chairs, and a mirror; an old Magyar tune. The artist captures and transforms them, takes unspeakable joy and pain and gives them words; a sound; a face.
Other readers may wonder why all of the artists are Western artists and why they're all men. The answer to the former is that I've never really studied non-Western art. I have grown up in the Western tradition and do not feel equipped to really appreciate other art. Also, the concept of "genius" seems particularly Western. . . . As to why they're all men. . . . As noted below, I seriously considered Edna St. Vincent Millay. Emily Dickinson? I like her poems, but can't say that I love them. . . . Women have only recently been given the opportunity to be artists. A work such as this several centuries from now will include any number of women.
There are, of course, many great artists whose work I love but who have not been included because they were only slightly, if at all, underestimated by their contemporaries.
Some borderline cases are worth noting:
To quote John Rewald quoting Mark Twain: "in writing, it is usually stronger and more dramatic to have a man speak for himself than to have someone else relate a thing about him." [Rewald, p. 9] I've been very liberal in this regard. I love the actual words of these great artists and the words of those who knew them personally. And, aside from their inherent fascination, the writings of Thoreau, Melville, Van Gogh, and Nabokov have an eloquence which a run-of-the-mill author is foolhardy to try to compete with. . . . Finding the most beautiful and revealing is quite enough. . . .
Do you know of art --especially contemporary art available through the Web-- which expresses genuine feeling? Please email me: Lucius @ jspecht.org .
Copyright © Lucius Furius 1997; last updated, 2017.
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