Bewildering Stories discusses...
Don Webb: Harry, thank you for the link to Michael Toscano’s “The Saturnine Age and the Modern Genius.” Since reading necessarily involves interpreting, here’s my take. I’m particularly struck by this thought in the conclusion:
Originality, because the power of creativity now belongs to the fine artist, has become idolized as the criteria for judging a piece’s worth. As any artist will tell you, this, more than any other art convention, is most crippling.
“Originality” is not really a convention of art, it’s a convention of art criticism. But whatever: Toscano says what I’ve been saying for years: Nil novi sub sole (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9-10).
And it’s echoed by Oscar Wilde’s epigram: “It is only the unimaginative who ever invents. The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes” — in other words, Non nova, sed nove — Not new in ideas; new in manner.
Therefore, following from the article, an artist becomes a “creator” genius at the risk of supplanting Jove with Saturn. Or, put in in modern terms (the “nove”), the artist risks replacing the world with the self — with the consequence of existential despair at best, egotism at worst.
Harry Lang: Don, you zeroed in on the same paragraph that struck me. ”Originality,” in the sense of creating a new thing, is an illusion. Most artists acknowledge this but where does it leave them? The sort of radical individualism the article points to leaves us stranded. We’ve cut off the branch we’re sitting on.
Anyone who doubts this should stop by the nearest art school and listen to students talk about their mission to “educate the public” (read “masses”) while learning ever more cryptic formulae to conceal meaning or the lack thereof. Not that students are to blame; they just don’t know any other context.
Bill Bowler: I liked this part:
The first category was the superior art of the mind and work of the cleric, the revered seven Liberal Arts: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music (theory, not practice), Geometry, and Astronomy. The second was the lesser art of the body and the work of the layman, the mechanical arts — painting, farming, sculpture, shoe making, and all else.
Arithmetic, astronomy, farming and shoemaking — it just shows how conventional and arbitrary our thinking about “art” is. I tend to think any craft or branch of knowledge raised to its most superlative level of excellence becomes art.
As for the image of the artistic genius, this seems to evolve through the epochs and may be a mirror of the imagination of the artist’s own time. The one artist I know in real life whom I consider a true genius is a deeply troubled individual who is barely functional in society. This is genius in the sense of “touched.” It can be a burden and even a curse. You can end up in financial ruin and ill health, like Mozart, or face down in the gutter drunk, like Poe.
Lewayne L. White: I just read the “Saturnine Age...” and I have to say that my first thought is “Whatever...”
While it focuses on genius and art, it also seems to give those damn Humanists a kick or three for taking God out of the equation. Now that we have a better understanding of genetics and the environment, the removal seems logical, if a bit less romantic.
Here’s the thing about genius: we recognize it because it leaves us in awe. It’s in the book we read, or painting we see, or the equation that unspools the universe for us that leaves us unable to fully articulate what we feel. Or in the case of most people I know, leaves them with only explicatives to articulate what they feel.
As for originality, that’s a perception of the critic, not the artist. Shakespeare wasn’t the first person ever to write a play, but he was the first to write about the soul of humanity the way he did.
The best script I will ever write will never touch his worst (argue amongst yourselves about which is his ‘worst’). But, the best script I ever write may draw from Shakespeare’s legacy. Einstein obviously wasn’t the first scientist, but he looked at what came before him, looked into the eye of the universe, cocked his head and said, “What if...”
I think one aspect of ‘genius’ that may be overlooked is ‘inspiration’. Not of the artist, but by the artist. True genius also inspires, it influences, it leaves a legacy beyond the artist and his or her work. How many potential geniuses have seen the work of Shakespeare or Michelangelo and held a pen or a brush? How many have heard Mozart or Beethoven and begun tinkering around with music?
Gary Inbinder: A genius may be defined as a person with exceptional powers of imagination and creativity. What the genius produces can be judged objectively, although that judgment typically conforms to taste of a particular time and place: Chacun à son goût.
For example, a painter may be much admired as a “genius” in one culture and ignored or even despised in another. Moreover, even within a culture, someone judged a genius in his own century might be forgotten by the next, or vice versa.
Of course, there are those individuals whose works have been acclaimed by many cultures and over a period of centuries. Perhaps they are the “true” geniuses. While I don’t believe that there are universal objective standards for judging genius, there still ought to be ”time and place” standards so that the phonies can be exposed and rejected.
But our standards have been eroded by a popular culture that declares every 15-minute-of-famer with a TV reality show and a following on Facebook and Twitter a “genius.”
Bertil Falk: As Gary points out, genius is a description that fluctuates from time to time, from place to place. We all consider Shakespeare to be a genius, I think. It shows that you don’t have to come up with a new theme or a new plot to be considered a genius. Shakespeare, like his contemporaries, picked his plots from a lot of places; e.g. the story of Hamlet had been written in Latin by Saxo Grammaticus. It is Shakespeare’s way of writing blank verse and structuring stories, mixing scenes of different kinds etc., that shows genius at work.
I don’t know about Thomas Middleton, who now is rediscovered as an equal to Shakespeare. He has to be studied. Does anyone know about his work? It is available on line.
Don Webb: The consensus seems to be that no artist — let alone a “genius” — works in isolation; all artists work within a historical tradition. The effects of “genius” can be seen in three ways:
A work of genius breaks old rules and establishes new ones.
A famous example: the Salon des Refusés of 1863, which featured now-famous paintings by Manet and Whistler. Napoleon III himself licensed the exhibition as an annex to the salon showing paintings the jury had selected.
And yet the Salon des Refusés was itself part of a tradition: exhibitions of works not favored by official taste had already been held for more than thirty years.
The point is that the great advances that the 19th century made in art and literature were not achieved haphazardly: they were accomplished by artists who knew what rules they were breaking and what new rules they were adopting.
Bewildering Stories itself began as an ongoing Salon des Refusés in science fiction. Over the years, its scope and mission have broadened considerably, but the original spirit remains.
Any work is subject to culture and fashion. Our discussion makes forcefully the point that one can hardly overestimate the influence of fashion, and we provide many examples.
I'll add a paradoxical example from the history of architecture. The 18th-century rationalists invented the term “Gothic” to disparage medieval cathedrals — not for their architecture, of course, but for what it represented. The 19th-century Romantics took a new view, and to this day “Gothic architecture” remains a term of reverence that sums up the emotion that Lewayne describes.
The work is sui generis — unique and inimitable — but serves as a standard reference.
In that regard I never tire of citing the Bible as an example. Of course, many of the genres it contains are not unique at all. Proverbs, for example, are a genre common to all languages and are reflected in Bewildering Stories’ own humorous mottoes.
The Psalms are lyric poetry, which has never gone out of fashion. In fact, some popular folk music, especially that of the mid- to late 20th century, can be seen as secular psalms or even hymns, and they work well as new wine in an old wineskin, to borrow a phrase.
The gospels comprise a genre that has been permanently closed since the 4th century. The authors who compiled them knew the ancient rules of literature; their genius consists in turning those rules upside down. In scene-setting they replaced vague universality with realism; in tragedy they replaced nobles with common folk; and in plotting, if one may use the term, they replaced the heavy hand of fate with political action. They set the standard for all revolutions to come.
In the end, writers must communicate with an audience, otherwise they’re merely talking to themselves. A genius or a work of genius may be undiscovered or underappreciated, but ipse dixit doesn’t count.
As Harry has said elsewhere, all writing is experimental. And that “experiment” puts a double dialogue in play: first the artist dialogues with the work; then the work dialogues with the audience. And as we know, some experiments succeed, others don’t. What, then, does work? And why?
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