Genius and PopularityThe Guardian has an interesting article on whether U.K. art schools have a culture of celebrity -- if institutions and instructors are encouraging the thought among students that they will be launched into success upon graduation. "Yes," says some established artists, and "No," reply the schools.
It's an interesting read, particularly when you consider that the economy is going south and that money going into collections may well drop, and individuals and institutions both feel an unpleasant tightness about the wallet. But I think that the question of celebrity and success is off from the real question: Who gets to wear the mantle of genius?
As a culture, we often assume that there is a meritocracy in all endeavors, and that the ones at the top are, by nature and work, the best. It's an approach that you could likely trace back to the Enlightenment and has appeared in many forms, whether the Social Darwinism of the 19th century or various forms of institutionalized racism that explained the dominant group's ascendancy as a combination of nature and application of self.
But that attitude is actually a form of rationalization. To accept that one is in a privileged position though pure dumb luck is to admit two things simultaneously: that one's advantage is unjust, coming at the expense of others who might be more deserving, and that one's luck could just as easily turn sour. A moneyed person, basking in his or her "superior understanding of life," can easily park a fortune with the likes of Bernard Madoff and become destitute as a result.
Rationalization of position within society extends into the arts, which have their own hierarchies and power structures. Those who matriculate from the various academies then apply for positions and assignments from the guardians of culture: the various people who taught them. The cycle extends itself and true artistic merit becomes that which fits in. I've seen some visual artists and writers argue that true genius always bubbles up, but I think that is wishful thinking.
Genius is often under appreciated. Bach's musical interests were in areas already on the wane in his time, and he was considered a second-tier composer, though a cracking good authority on the construction of pipe organs. It took a hundred years for his music to be resurrected, and it took a Felix Mendelssohn to do so. Herman Melville was written off by the critics during his lifetime to the extent that on his death, there was only a single newspaper obituary. Van Gogh? No one would buy his paintings. And yet each of these geniuses now outshines many contemporaries who were considered the major talents in their lifetimes. And these are a few of the examples of which we know. How many greats died too young, or utterly lacked in the art of self-promotion?
The great lie told in schools and in society is that those who are best will be known. Clearly that isn't the case. We are lucky as a people to have a hint of who might possess greatness in our own times, and the possibility of misjudging is high. The true way to work in the arts is through humility. None of us can ever really know how the future might treat us, or whether success is a matter of luck and having enough in common with those in power. All anyone can do is work hard, trying to understand the nature of what we do and honor it. Everything else is a distraction and a crap shoot. Or, as Ecclesiastes succinctly puts it, all is vanity.