Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Romanticism and the Cult of Genius


Studies in Art History:

"A dominant cultural tendency in the Western world during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It caused a reevaluation of the nature of art and the role of the artist in society...

Though hard to define it essentially involves: 

1) placing emotion and intuition before (or at least on an equal footing with) reason; 
2) a belief that there are crucial areas of experience neglected by the rational mind; and
3) a belief in the general importance of the individual, the personal and the subjective"[1].

     The Romantics were after perfection, or at least some kind of metamorphosis, so it stands to reason that they would personify the idea of the creative genius. The did take themselves very seriously, after all they were dealing with the sublime...mere mimeses (copying) was not on the agenda.

     Romanticism held firm that nature was a whole of which humanity is intrinsically connected, that meant one could evoke the genius within, or at least train oneself for genius, they called this "Ingenium".

The Romantic Ideal for the painting genius;

• To articulate the supreme value of the creative imagination.

• To achieve and inspire unity of spirit and matter.

• To capture emotion, spontaneity, movement, expression, individuality...and so on.

• To express a sense of harmony; awareness of inner dissension between the intellectual and the sensual     

John Constable
Embrace the myths, allegories and art that embrace expressive vision.

• Paint in the “grand manner” capture ideal forms, inspire longing.

     So it begins with sprawling nature, horrendous mountain peaks, impossible impasses, apocalyptic disasters or alternatively; divine arches spiraling upward toward a heavenly interjection, but mostly we see a society in dilemma as the Romanticists show despair at humanities obvious insignificance.

     For the Romantics the idea of genius meant a different order of human being[2]. It was during this time that a kind of cult shrouded the spirit of genius.

     There was a lot going on at this time to inspire the cult of genius, with proof of progress on display across a great sphere of endeavor. In the areas of poetry and music geniuses were popping up everywhere, the writers were not to be outdone either while the philosophers and scientists were busy explaining it all opening up new pathways in our brains, but of course it was the artists who were responsive enough to capture it all on canvas.

     Romanticism was more an attitude of mind than a set of particular traits, however their taste for the sublime fueled a new understanding and appreciation of the horrific as well. 

     Another important aesthetic development in Romanticism was the concept of the Picturesque...this was based on the idea of travel which in turn promoted an interest in the quaint, the Old World and the irregular. Above all Romanticism encouraged associationism, that aesthetic experiences could evoke ideas and sensations while remaining autonomous. Thus the contemplation of nature, of ruins and of the past could inspire heady poetic experiences....[3]”

Super Romantic Genius: Eugene Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix
     The last of the great artists of the Renaissance and the first moderns” noted Charles Baudelaire on Eugene Delacroix. For Baudelaire, Delacroix's position as one of the great figures of art history was assured not just by his daring and originality qualities generally considered Romantic but for the fact that they found expression within a tradition.

     The last of the great Renaissance artists, Delacroix comes of a lineage whose founder is Michelangelo and whose prodigal son is Paul Rubens. In his Journal, Delacroix more than once lays claim to this heritage:

     In his Journal, Delacroix noted: "...Venice possesses artists who perform miracles of colour without any derogation from beauty. All the great problems of art were resolved in the sixteenth century, perfection, in drawing, grace and composition, colour and chiaroscuro."

     Delacroix embodied the spirit of the time and particularly that of The Romanticist. To fully comprehend a Romanticists point of view we must look at the environment in which they lived and at the events that shaped their existence[4].

Major Events of the eighteenth century
     The eighteenth century followed the emergence of the land owner and the end to the feudal system...and then there were the revolutions...American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. This was the age of Enlightenment. Philosophy and science increased. Philosophers were dreaming about a better age... Great Britain became a major power worldwide. The industrial revolution started in Britain which would radically change human society and the geology of the surface of the earth.

Major Events of the nineteenth century

     During the nineteenth century, the Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Ottoman empires began to crumble, the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved paving the way for The British Empire, The German Empire, and additionally the United States of America to spread their influence internationally which led to each power engaging in conflicts and new advancements in exploration and various sciences. After the Napoleonic Wars, the British Empire became the world's leading power.

     The nineteenth century was an era of widespread invention and discovery, with significant developments in the understanding or manipulation of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, electricity, and metallurgy largely setting the groundworks for the rapid technological innovations which would take place the following century.

     Europe's population doubled during the nineteenth century. The introduction of railroads radically altered the way people could live and move in countries across the globe. London was transformed into the world's largest city. New settlements in North America and Australia were founded ... Approximately 70 million people left Europe during this time.

Super Geniuses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries;
Literature: Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, Victor Hugo, Marquis de Sade, Charles Baudelaire...

Music: Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Richard Wagner...

Artists: Francisco de Goya, William Blake, Mary Cassatt, Camille Claudel, Eugène Delacroix, Joseph Mallord William Turner...

Other Super Geniuses: Erasmus Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Marie Curie, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Edison, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche

WHERE did the Romantics get their ideas?
     Religion, Ancient Rome, The Renaissance...and their own powers of alchemy and metamorphosis the proof was all around them. It seemed all was possible to the modern man. However the evidence of his superiority over nature cast a threatening shadowy existence over their humanist souls...for dreams soon turned to nightmares filled with monstrous inventions, bloodied discoveries and relentless creations. Escapism was born in the name of Romanticism.

     The Romantics had their own ideas or interpretations of genius too, but lets step back a moment to ancient times and how the idea of genius has evolved.

The Mythological Genius
     In Roman mythology a Genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. It was often depicted as a snake. In contemporary usage, "genius loci" usually refers to a location's distinctive atmosphere, or a "spirit of place", rather than necessarily a guardian spirit.

     In Roman mythology, every man had a genius and every woman a juno (Juno was also the name for the Queen of the gods) [5]

The Hellenic Genius
     This was the time of Socrates and Plato for whom art was representational - mimesis, copies of nature were certainly not worthy of being called genius. Plato's Dialogues contain at least five separate elements, each of which will later have something to contribute to the concept of genius. The fact that these elements do not coalesce into a single concept can teach us something about how the modern and more unified concept of genius and creativity came into existence [6] .

  1. Mantike: Maniac 
  2. Enthousiasmos: Enthusiasm 
  3. Techne: Technique 
  4. Arete: Excellence 
  5. Daimon: Genius 
  6. Demiorgos: The craft, the method 
The Roman Genius
     The begetting spirit in the family embodied in the paterfamilias and involved those aspects of male procreativity that ensured that the gens or male family clan continued, and that the reproductive line remained true to itself. (It is important to register that the genius was never associated with the more mundane physical aspects of reproduction. It was the male forehead that was honored in the Roman rites of genius..not the penis [7].

Renaissance Genius
     During the Renaissance the phenomenon of genius was being manifested almost on a daily basis, it’s not surprising that it also caused a great deal of intellectual speculation. Platonic theory of divine frenzy and an Aristotelian theory of melancholy genius was popular during the renaissance however eventually disintegrated under the force of later events.

     For some thinkers of that time and place genius suggested possibilities of the human mind which transcend the finite limits of material nature, where as for others, no matter how marvelously circumscribed by the finite boundaries of nature. As viewed by the first group, genius was, at its core, a supernatural miracle originating in the transcendent realm of God, whereas for the second group it was a thoroughly natural expression of the human psyche [8].

The Romantics Genius
     Gradually all these elements of genius collapsed into each other as the framework of aesthetic and cultural values also changed. By the late eighteenth century there was talk of a person “having” genius, and genius could be great or small. However by the end of the eighteenth century genius no longer primarily meant “talent” and could even be opposed to talent. The genius was now a type of human being: one who was frequently credited with a begetting spirit, a god, or an inner damon that drove him to the most awe-inspiring kinds of artistic production. As such, genius was extensively employed to mark the boundaries between the truly original artwork and mere novelty or imitation, and between sublime and merely inferior human types.

     During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as in the time of Socrates and Plato, art was represented primarily in terms of mimesis, but the dominant analogies for the processes of artistic production were now those of mechanistic design. Training the artists ingenium or inherited talents remained the dominant concern. By the end of the century genius was especially valued where it was primitive, natural, and sublime. An aesthetic category linked to terror and immensity, and opposed to beauty [9]. 

Current thoughts on genius
     In his Critique of Judgment[10] (1790) Immanuel Kant defines genius as an artist capable of articulating truths or understanding in an imaginative, and uniquely creative way. Kant writes of genius in the ‘production’ of works of art by the artist where the artist acts as a vessel for the genius spirit. The artists were the bearers of divine ideas...on loan from God and only in the realm of that art.

     Despite intellectuals waxing and waning over ‘genius’, the term continues to flourish even though often savagely criticized. We still pretty much agree with Kant, we also continue to celebrate and offer great celebrity to the genius who shatters conventional ideas of reality. Now we talk of different types of genius too as we accept that genius needs to be specified not generalized. We have also discovered that genius has little to do with IQ or even intelligence...and that it must be applied to a certain area of a persons activity, that it is not necessarily applicable to everything they do. We have coined new phrases too like; The Conceptual Innovator which we attribute to likes of Pablo Picasso the baby genius and The Experimental Innovator to describe a creative genius such as Paul Cezanne the late bloomer.

     We support a booming industry of instructional ‘self help’ products and traveling lecture shows promising to tap into your creative genius, the internet is full of them. We try to physically measure or quantify genius and love to dissect the brains of dead scientists (or great leaders) in search of the truth, or for a fragment of genii.

     In this current state of intellectual, artistic and cultural pluralism we believe all have potential to be a creative genius and like the Romanticists who believed that through the efforts of ingenium we will continue to search out ways for training our brains toward the heady heights of Super Creative Genius. Meanwhile the search for its secrets continue to allure and elude us.


[1] William Vaughan. "Romanticism."
[2] Gould, Timothy and Christine Battersby. "Genius."
[3] Eldridge, Richard, et al. "Romanticism."
[4] http://www.artchive.com/Delacroix
[5] http://www.oxfordartonline.com
[6] ibid: Gould/ Battersby. Page 1
[7] ibid: Gould/ Battersby. Page 5
[8] The debate over the origin of genius during the Italian Renaissance by Noel L. Brann, Page 24
[9] Battersby, Christine. “Genius and Feminism”. Page 2 
[10] The Critique of AESTHETIC JUDGEMENT, Immanuel Kant

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