Monday, 28 December 2015

What are the social ill-effects of the genius famine in the arts? (What are 'the arts' for, anyway?)

The lack of genius in some of the arts such as fine art and classical music may be accepted as true, but what is its effect? What are we missing?

The questions is ultimately one about the proper function of art - what is art supposed to do? Why does art exist at all?

Only if we know the function of art could we understand why art's supreme practitioners might have value, and then understand what the lack of living representatives if such practitioners might do.


This question has not proved at all easy to answer over the past couple of hundred - even for the most dedicated and enthusiastic advocates of 'the arts'. Indeed, the most extreme advocates, 'aesthetes - who tried to build their lives around the appreciation and practise of art and to make life itself an art - were reduced to incoherent babble about 'art for art's sake'.

And the reason for this difficulty is simple enough: it is that secular culture, culture which denies the reality of religion, cannot answer any 'why' questions.

The only possible answer to 'why' questions is some kind of story, purpose or teleology of life. Only if we know where life-in-general is supposed to go and our own role in it, can we explain the role of any-thing in particular - such as art.

From the perspective of my Christianity, the function of art is seen in terms of a long, interrupted progression, potentially towards divinity; a vision of life in which love is the primary value, and other values including creativity rank very high indeed.

The transcendent Good, within which such progression occurs, has been traditionally and usefully separated into Truth, Beauty and Virtue. So, in a metaphysical sense, the Good - including Beauty - are part of the backdrop or frame within-which the prime drama of the human story happens - the value of Beauty is built-into the fabric of reality. Beauty is therefore extremely important!


Yet, we immediately notice that our recognition and appreciation of Beauty is 'also' subjective, and relative - there is a lot of disagreement about the specifics.

However, there is also the feeling that disagreement about the specifics of art - disputes over who are the greatest geniuses - or an inability to appreciate Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Beethoven - or disagreements over whether Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner was the greatest - and so on... such inconsistencies do not really matter, so long as the basic aims and purposes are correct.

The basic assumption that makes art valuable runs along the lines that:

Art is about Beauty, and Beauty is part of The Good. 

The artistic genius and art itself is therefore a kind of human-bridge between ourselves and the transcendental value of beauty. Art is, must be, about Beauty - and forms a kind of framework or explanation, an education and training, about Beauty.


Therefore art is not neutral, neither is it optional, and it is highly consequential. A specific culture's art and appreciation of art is indeed a fundamental aspect of its nature - and this is related via Beauty to the most fundamental distinction of Good and evil.

The lack of living geniuses is therefore rather like a lack of living prophets. A lack of living prophets means that there is nobody authoritative to interpret and explain uncertainties and ambiguities of religious scripture and doctrine - the prophet is a mediator.

A lack of living geniuses is similar although in a way that is more like showing than explaining - the work of an artistic genius is itself a kind of model of how to relate to reality in terms of beauty - it is an experience of how to identify and respond to beauty.

If we having no living genius to do this for our time and circumstances, and in face of new and specific problems and deliberate obfuscations, then we must make do with past geniuses - and we come a much less-direct, a 'silver', antiquarian or museum culture.


Of course, there are many types of art, seldom living geniuses in all of them all of the time, and there is another possibility of using the achievements of genius domain and applying it to others.. Thus some cultures (in an particular time and place) are dominated by painting, others by poetry, others by music.

In the modern West, it seems to me that the highest levels of achievement are probably in fiction, novels - especially 'genre' novels such as fantasy. By contrast, poetry and drama are in a bad way.

In that sense, we are living in a literary prose culture - and our primary genius is in that domain.

Since the best modern fiction is more 'niche' than the novel used to be, the scale of genius is probably less than in the past - but the possibility exists for benefiting from such living interpreters and intermediaries as the basis for a relationship to Life and an answer to fundamental problems; including an interpretation which spills over into other domains such as music and art.


This happens by reading books, novels of genius; imaginatively entering into the worlds made by genius, and actually experiencing the way that we as individuals may experience Beauty 'inside' the experience of those worlds.

The example is now historical, but the reason why reading The Lord of the Ring's by JRR Tolkien was so important in my life was that the experience educated me into an experience of fictive life (life inside the fiction) that solved (more or less) the problem of relating to beauty which I experienced in modern everyday life. Tolkien's genius was to create a proper relation to Beauty inside his world, and I was able to learn from this.

It is the lack of this possibility which causes deep problems when genius is absent, and when art is corrupted - especially when art claims to be nothing to do with Beauty, or advocates the destruction of Beauty as a deeper Beauty, or the shock value of ugliness as a kind of Beauty, or subordinates Beauty to politics.


In sum, we live in an era when the problem is not so much lack of genius, nor of low quality of art - but one where anti-Art (based on an ideal of anti-Beauty, which is therefore anti-Good) is officially propagated as mainstream.

This is... confusing. It is easy to know what the arts are for in a sane society; but in our society of deliberate insanity, where 'arts' may legitimately be themselves ugly, promote ugliness, subvert and destroy Beauty, and deconstruct the meaning of 'art'... well, the (officially approved) arts merely contribute to the state of delusion and despair.

But in a 'normal' (rather than an inverted) society, the role and function of art and the artist including The Genius is much easier to discern. Art in such a society is an extremely important part of The Good Life and an obvious source of understanding, motivation and enhancement.


deconstructingleftism said...

First, I think the problem with art like so many other things originates with German Romanticism. With this the artist went from a craftsman making beautiful and enjoyable things to a superman outside of normal human limits, not so much attacking as simply superseding bourgeois values.

So the typical person who wants to be an artist today wants to dynamite bourgeois values, as if there were any left, or just wants to be a rich celebrity. That's not going to lead to a whole lot of great art.

Second, I think art may be true as well as beautiful, although art that's mostly true doesn't have as much appeal. The paintings of Franz Hals are just 100% true, no beauty at all usually, and they are not relaxing to look at, but very powerful stuff. The paintings of Robert Williams are mostly truth, with a little beauty, and again not something you would want hanging in your living room but very powerful.

In the US, TV shows showing people behaving badly have been popular recently, "Breaking Bad" especially, "The Sopranos", and "The Shield" among others. These also show truth, rather than beauty, but tend to be exercises in nihilism.

Thursday said...

Yes, at the moment fiction is the art form that is healthiest, and it extends beyond fantasy.

Karl Ove Knausgaard's books live up to the hype. My Struggle is an autobiographical novel about his struggles to live in a modern society, particularly his discomfort with political correctness in Scandinavia. His earlier A Time for Everything is a novel about the study of angels. It might be up your alley.

Of course, there is also Michel Houellebecq, who is a very funny satirist of modern life. But who you probably wouldn't like at all. There's a fair amount of explicit sex in his books.

Robert Brockman II said...

Here's a good example of some new Art by someone who, if not a genius, is certainly very skilled:

What's amazing to me is that we can watch the artist "summon" the creature in the picture, she's literally being "warped in" from his Imagination. There are no elvish princesses on material Earth, but clearly such creatures are indeed "real" in an important sense -- just like the Eldar in Tolkein's works were.

You can see the artist place every detail precisely (with a bit of backtracking). The entire process took six hours of real time.

Bruce Charlton said...

@RBII - It certainly interesting to see how it's done - but I don't actuually like the finished product.

Robert Brockman II said...

So now we're at an interesting spot: the finished product Isn't Quite Good Enough. If we are interested in dealing with the Genius Famine, we should think good and hard about why.

It's not the lack of tools.
It's not attention to detail.
It's not a lack of practice.
Is it a lack of technical skill or training?


Is there a weakness in the artist's Imagination?

Can we See the flaws in the artist's Imagination by looking at the finished product? The artist was clearly trying to make something Beautiful, but in your eyes has not succeeded.

Do you have access to an analogous Genius painting of an Eldar princess or similar which we can compare?

Thursday said...

I agree with RBII that our culture is not lacking in technical skill. The problems in the arts are due to a spiritual deficit.

Seijio Arakawa said...

@Robert Brockman II

The virtues and flaws of the painting are already present in the line drawing used as its basis from frame one. Which to me seems more constructed according to a set of rules than drawn from any real vision, physical or imaginary.

The rest of it is a fairly technical and complex, but teachable process of making it look textured and three dimensional.

Anonymous said...

Bruce - maybe we already have enough public "arts", and those with potential to be artistic geniuses know it (I am sure you understand this point, whether you agree with it or not - I am just making random reflections here). While I deplore, to a point, the current and unmistakeable famine of geniuses you describe, I am, like you, very content to be living today. For one thing, there is the possibility that there is just as much expressed genius in the world today as there ever was (as a random example, whose truth I have no certain idea about, an observer a hundred years from now might specify Mormon short internet movies about Jesus - accurate with a degree of pictorial and pacing verisimilitude unrivaled in the previous two millennia, as the great art of our era; or maybe the great art of today might be the near-Shakespearean but almost unknown spoken art of some obscure Catholic talk show host on an obscure Northern Virginia radio channel). Even if there actually is no great art being produced today, publicly or privately, I think we can securely be happy for the contemporary memories created in situations where, for example, someone who could have been, if he wanted, the next Beethoven or Bach (or, much less grandiloquently, the next Gershwin or Sibelius), decided to spend his energies on making his family and employees and neighbors very very very happy. (Yes, maybe his wife may have liked to dance more than she should have. But but who among us would regret having made a loving and lovely woman - even if she had poor taste in clothes and hairstyles - the mother of our children, nonetheless - so obviously happy at having us expertly dance with her while she laughed in a way that will bless our dreams forever, even if in the time we spent on perfecting, for her sake, our waltz skills, we could have written a symphony almost as good as Stravinsky or Ravel - Schoenberg is not, good as he was, even in this equation?) After all, nobody can logically deny that a thousand years from now, the Book of Revelation will either be a historical work, and consequently there will be no artists born in that future time for any of us to be ancestors of, or, alternatively, many of our children - born in these seemingly lean years of the 70s and 80s and 90s and so on - will have become, in their turn, grandparents themselves over the course of time, and will have become just as much the ancient forefathers and foremothers of that far-off and unpredictable future generation as any of our own great-grandparents, geniuses or not, now are. - Stephen C

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Deconstructingleftism, I am absolutely astonished that you find more beauty in Robert Williams than in Frans Hals. To my eye, Williams's work is pure, distilled ugliness. I don't really see any truth in it, either.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

RBII, how about Briton Riviere's Una and the Lion, for comparison? I wouldn't call it a work of genius, exactly, but it is perhaps a similar concept to the "White Priestess" you linked to, executed with a great deal more soul.

Bruce Charlton said...

wrt Technical skill - this is an interesting aspect of genius. There is a supereme technical skill in, say, Mozort which is not found in the struggles of Beethoven - but what matters is the end result: what the genius can achieve.

I remember walking around an exhibition with my Father (who has an excellent eye for technical skill in arts and crafts) who pointed out a brooch painted by someboy like a Pre-Raphaelite - every twist and turn of the design had been meticulously, skillfully done with a tiny brush, highlights dotten in etc. But then he showed me a brooch in a portrait by Rembrandt which was done by a few strokes of a large brush - as could be seen from a few inches away, but which looked perfect from the distance at which the portrait was viewed.

The greater skill was with Rembrandt.

WHat is striking about writers of the past is that so much of their work is first draft. Samuel Johnson's essays (The Rambler, Idler, Adventurer) were dictated and unrevised. Rossini's Thieving Magpie Overture (perhaps the most popular Overture ever written?) was apparently an unrevised first draft sent to the copyists as he wrote it (and he wrote faster than the copyists). CS Lewis wrote much of his output after a single revision.

I wonder how much freshness and fluidity and personality we have lost by multiple drafting, and by the use of editors to polish another person's work.

Still, on the other hand, there are heavily worked labours of love - such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings; or Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - which took a decade.

SO we can be sure that genius uses technique and skill, but is not defined by it. What defines it is 'psychological', as I try to establish in the book - but the meat of the argument is on my Intelligence, Personality Genius blog - indeed most of it was published here.

But Charles Murray was, I think, correct when he noticed that supreme achievement seems to require a world view in which supreme achievemet is accorded transcendent value - the conviction that the work 'makes a difference' that is important.

A culture such as our own, which takes fashion and diversion more seriously than God... which regards morality as made-up, beauty as arbitrary, truth as a social construct? Death as extinction.

Well... by our culture's own definition there is nothing to be a genius *about*.

Thursday said...

Heavily worked over is not necessarily the same thing as technically proficient. People who have mastered their craft may produce work that does not require a lot of revision.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thu - Agreed. Some geniuses work over their work multiple times, others don't -- it varies.

Jonathan C said...

"Secular culture, culture which denies the reality of religion, cannot answer any 'why' questions." Great observation, obvious in retrospect, but I hadn't quite put it together like that in this context.

I've long thought that art, via Beauty, exists as a way to introduce divinity and the transcendent into our lives. I've said in this blog's comments before that Beethoven's late piano sonatas, and some other pieces of classical music, played a pivotal role in my conversion back to Christianity.

So it makes sense to me now that secular culture--more specifically, Positivism, if I understand your definition of it right--can't make head nor tail of art.

And it's very interesting that even against the cultural backdrop of assumed Positivism, still the spiritual instinct is so strong in men that many of them dedicate their lives to making ugly art. They have badly misdirected spiritual motivations, but most of them don't recognize that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - Yes, there are a lot of very confused people in the arts - and have been for a long time. Think of James Joyce - capable of writing some of the most sheerly beautiful prose in the language, and then... Finnegans Wake! Or Michael Tippett's lush English lyricism in some of his early works - then later... completely unenjoyable horrors.