|Geniuses, as we all know,
are often unrecognized in their own time. Thats why we need
the National Endowment for the Arts. Were it not for the support of the
federal government, the philistine American public might have failed to
appreciate the young woman who smears chocolate all over her nude body in
front of live audiences. She might have had to do it alone in the privacy of her
home, languishing in obscurity. Unless she did it on videotape, even posterity
might not be able to appreciate her.
The myth of the neglected genius isnt entirely false. On the other hand, artistic charlatans are often appreciated far too much in their own time. Does anyone remember Salvador Dali? Does Dada ring a bell?
Or how about the great Pablo Picasso? Picasso was to painting what Lenin was to politics: a man who was far too successful in his day. Is there any particular work of Picasso on which the eye lingers with delight and permanent interest? Would anyone pay for his paintings if they werent famous or rather, if Picasso himself hadnt become a celebrity?
I mean, if nobody had ever heard of Picasso, would you, looking at one of his mature efforts, say to yourself, Ive just got to have that!? Dont be silly. What would be the point of owning a Picasso if you couldnt tell people you owned a Picasso?
Picassos early work shows that he had considerable skill as a painter. But his career helped banish the idea of skill, or craftsmanship, from discussions of art. It wasnt long before our colleges were full of art majors, which led to the existence of what is now called the artistic community: a critical mass of art majors who cant support themselves and demand that the taxpayer support them.
Along with the bogus genius, there is another category we often overlook: the local or temporary genius. Some artists are successful in their own time and place, but opaque to foreigners and underrated by posterity. Their work doesnt travel well. J.S. Bach suffered a long eclipse when his music went out of fashion; his sons achieved more celebrity than he did.
Often an artist finds his best audience in his own contemporaries. A poet writing under the name William Shakespeare made a smash in 1593 and 1594 with a pair of narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Later he published plays that remain fairly popular, but in his own time he was known chiefly as the author of these two poems, which even Shakespeare scholars rarely read nowadays. Hamlet and King Lear have traveled well. Venus and Lucrece, which outsold the plays for decades, havent.
Too bad, because Lucrece is a masterpiece of its kind. It lacks the drama of the Shakespeare plays, but it demands, and rewards, a different kind of attention. It must have cost its author far more effort than his dramas. Its difficult rhyme scheme and solemn, compact wordplay make it the poetic equivalent of a Bach fugue. (Richard Burtons superb recording of it is still available.)
Modern readers, eager to get on with the story, find Lucrece tedious, but it invites a sort of appreciation we rarely give: It solicits our admiration for its own amazing workmanship. Its deliberately artificial because it assumes that artifice itself deserves attention. The story of betrayal and rape would no doubt have raced faster in the hands of James M. Cain, but it says something for Elizabethan readers that they savored the artistry of Shakespeares slow-motion treatment.
But the Elizabethans favorite poem was much longer and slower-moving than even Lucrece: Edmund Spensers Faerie Queene. It still has its partisans, but they are dwindling. Spenser was so popular and respected in his own day that when he died, he received a huge funeral and most of Londons great poets threw their pens into his grave in homage.
So its smug to assume that we moderns have a keener appreciation of great art than our ancestors did. Our current opinions arent the final standings. And the government can hardly administer criminal justice; only a fool would ask it to discharge poetic justice.
|Copyright © 2006 by the
Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
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