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 Neglected Genius 


September 7, 2006 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, August 14, 1997]
 for Neglected 
GeniusGeniuses, as we all know, are often unrecognized in their own time. That’s 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. Today's 
column is "Neglected Genius" -- Read Joe's columns the day he 
writes them.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.

 for Neglected GeniusThe myth of the neglected genius isn’t 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?

 for Neglected GeniusOr 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 weren’t famous — or rather, if Picasso himself hadn’t become a celebrity?

 for Neglected GeniusI mean, if nobody had ever heard of Picasso, would you, looking at one of his mature efforts, say to yourself, “I’ve just got to have that!”? Don’t be silly. What would be the point of owning a Picasso if you couldn’t tell people you owned a Picasso?

 for Neglected 
GeniusPicasso’s 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 wasn’t 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 can’t support themselves and demand that the taxpayer support them.

 for Neglected GeniusAlong 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 doesn’t travel well. J.S. Bach suffered a long eclipse when his music went out of fashion; his sons achieved more celebrity than he did.

[Breaker quote for 
Neglected Genius: Local, bogus, and the real thing] for Neglected GeniusOften 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, haven’t.

 for Neglected GeniusToo 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 Burton’s superb recording of it is still available.)

 for Neglected 
GeniusModern 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. It’s 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 Shakespeare’s slow-motion treatment.

 for Neglected GeniusBut the Elizabethans’ favorite poem was much longer and slower-moving than even Lucrece: Edmund Spenser’s 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 London’s great poets threw their pens into his grave in homage.

 for Neglected GeniusSo it’s smug to assume that we moderns have a keener appreciation of great art than our ancestors did. Our current opinions aren’t the final standings. And the government can hardly administer criminal justice; only a fool would ask it to discharge poetic justice.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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