(This piece was originally published in Mouth, Dartmouth College’s literary journal, in 2016)
“All the chance events of our lives are materials from which we can make what we like. Whoever is rich in spirit makes much of his life. Every acquaintance, every incident would be for the thoroughly spiritual person—the first element in an endless series—the beginning of an endless novel.”
Eugène Delacroix, La Barque de Dante (1822)
In this essay I would like to address a certain myth, that of individual genius, the lone artist who rejects the confines of social convention to pursue his (and, as we shall see, it is usually his) personal vision. Great art is said to be timeless and universal, transcending the contingent circumstances of its own genesis and speaking to men across the ages. In other words, the fruits of genius are ahistorical. Such was the view of Nabokov, one of the past century’s indubitable geniuses, who labeled political and social literature as “topical trash.” His indictment is worth quoting in full:
For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas. (314-315)
For Nabokov, what was important was the aesthetic effect of a work rather than its moral or didactic dimension. This is the idea that if artistic creation is to be truly great, it must be authentic, and thus it cannot be held answerable to ethical or political concerns. It is a view persists today, in our age of self-styled bohemians. I will return to Nabokov later, but I would first like to ask after the origins of this system of value, which places the purity of subjective expression above all else, for even this rejection of history as a criteria for artistic creation must itself be rooted in history.
Such roots can be found in the subsumption of the Enlightenment by the tide of Romanticism, what Isaiah Berlin calls the “great break in European consciousness” (8). As is well-known, the advances of the 17th century in philosophy and science (then called natural philosophy) emphasized a geometric order to nature which could be grasped by man’s rational intellect. Thus, Descartes and Leibniz posited that man could access eternal or necessary truths about the world through intuition and deduction alone, while Newton sought to explain physical motion in purely mathematical terms. The import given to nature and reason was likewise reflected in liberal political philosophies that attempted to articulate forms of governance rooted in rationality and natural law.
As Jürgen Habermas argues in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Enlightenment liberalism, the advent of property rights gave rise to the private bourgeois family at the same time that a loosening of press censorship brought about the appearance of an opinionated public sphere. Habermas claims that the bourgeoisie sought to conceive of themselves not merely as members of a family or actors in a free market, but as complex human beings; “[a]s a privatized individual, the bourgeois was two things in one: owner of goods [as businessman] and persons [as patriarch] and one human being among others, i.e., bourgeois and homme” (55). Both the idea of the private merchant and the private family member were underpinned by a concept of the private individual, and it was these private persons who together formed the public as such. In the press and in the republic of letters, the bourgeoisie debated art and politics, forming a court of public opinion ostensibly governed only by the common denominator of public reason.
With the appearance of the public sphere, the arts increasingly expressed a concern for the social, seeking to carve out a role for public reason and for private family values. This was reflected in Voltaire, who famously satirized church superstition and government injustice, and also in the Augustan poetry of Swift and Pope, who, despite their skepticism toward an all-encompassing reason, endeavored to transform society through public ridicule. Similarly, neoclassical genre paintings addressed public mores, as in the works of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, whose depictions of provincial domestic life promoted traditional family values as natural (and therefore good), leading Diderot to champion him as “a painter-preacher of good morals” (Salon of 1765, 89). Another neoclassical painter, Jacques-Louis David, harkened back to the republican values of ancient Greece and Rome in scenes inspired by classical friezes, thus expressing his support for the revolutionary politics brewing in France.
If, during the Enlightenment, art was directed toward the public, then Romanticism marked the beginning of an inward turn toward the personal, the subjective, and the imaginative. The advent of Romanticism was thus both a reaction against the Enlightenment, and at the same time rooted in it. Romanticism was a product of the Enlightenment insofar as it was built upon the Enlightenment ideal of the privatized, atomistic subject endowed with an individual liberty. But the individual of the Enlightenment was not truly free – both in the realm of the family and in the public sphere he was expected to fill a particular, circumscribed role. In other words, “Subjectivity, as the innermost core of the private, was always already oriented to an audience” and thus accountable to the norms of that audience (Habermas 49). In contrast to this, the Romantic subject sought a total freedom, one which was to be pursued even in the face of social or familial disapproval. As Berlin writes, “Since we must be free, and since we must be ourselves to the fullest possible degree, the great virtue – the greatest virtue of all – is what existentialists call authenticity, and what the Romantics called sincerity” (139).
It thus comes as no surprise that the Romantics would likewise reject the geometric order of Descartes and Leibniz and the idea that all men were subject to the same objective truths and limited by necessary laws of nature. Coleridge attacked Descartes for suggesting that “all men necessarily perceive ideas in certain Relations to each other”, leaving no room for individual imagination (The Collected Letters of Coleridge, Vol. 2, 676, cited in Wendling 1995). In the same way, the Romantics rebelled against the liberal politics of the day – the idea that all men had a common nature, or that they all ought to be ruled by a uniform system of government. More broadly, the Romantics saw the mechanistic science of the Enlightenment as dividing the natural world in categories and subcategories without accounting for the possibility of any kind of mystical or spiritual experience. Chateaubriand would write that Newton “ascertained the movements of all the worlds, penetrated into the origin of colours, and stole from God […] the secret of nature” (An Historical, Political, and Moral Essay on Revolutions, Ancient and Modern, 357).
The Romantic rejection of rationalist certainty in favor of subjective experience was felt most of all in the arts. M.H. Abrams notes that from antiquity through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the objective of art was considered to be mimesis – that is, the accurate representation of nature and, in the case of the neoclassists, the detailed depiction of history. For this reason, the dominant metaphor in describing both painting and poetry had been that of the mirror which reflects the external world. The Romantics regarded the arts as expressive, as an overflowing of the passions – if poetry was a mirror, then to the Romantics it reflected the inner subjectivity of the individual artist. As Abrams concludes:
The first test any poem must pass is no longer, ‘Is it true to nature?’ or ‘Is it appropriate to the requirements either of the best judges or the generality of mankind?’ but a criterion looking in a different direction; namely, ‘Is it sincere? Is it genuine? Does it match the intention, the feeling, and the actual state of mind of the poet while composing?’ (21)
Whereas the artists of the Enlightenment had engaged with the external social world, the Romantic artists drew inwards, focusing on the realization of an individual vision. Wordsworth’s nostalgic pastorals and the mythic, the intensely personal odes of Hölderlin; the luminous seascapes of Turner, Delacroix’s coldly violent portraits of disaster; all of these were driven by the idea that artistic authenticity could only be realized through absolute autonomy.
My point in this historical excursion is to demonstrate that the myth of the lone artistic genius is a relatively new one which dates back only to the end of the 18th century. We might say that even in our post-Romantic era, the archetype of the artist is nonetheless thoroughly Romantic. This is most evident in the contemporary art market, driven as it is by the cachet of names that conjure images of tortured, solitary brilliance. Consider Jackson Pollock, who placed his canvasses on the floor so that he might paint in “pure harmony”, and is now remembered one of the great creative minds of the 20th century.
I’d like now to introduce two critiques of this idea that the freedom and sincerity of the artist is to be valued above all else. The first of these critiques is political in nature, while the second arrives from a feminist perspective. Let us begin with the political charge. As we have seen, the Romantics sought to abandon political and social concerns by turning inward toward the personal and the aesthetic. For this reason, the political theorist Carl Schmitt called the Romantic mindset one of “subjectified occasionalism”, in that the Romantic saw
the world as the occasio of his activity and productivity. For him, even the greatest external event a revolution or a world war — is intrinsically indifferent. The incident becomes significant only when it has become the occasion for a great experience, a genial apprehension, or some other romantic creation. Therefore true reality has only what the subject makes into the object of its creative interest. (96-97)
But Schmitt observed that such a perspective is hardly apolitical, but rather fundamentally conservative, for in accepting the societal status quo as a backdrop for artistic creation the Romantics implicitly legitimized that same political order. Moreover, Schmitt recognized that the omphaloskepsis of the Romantics was dependent on the bourgeois order, in that their material security as members of a market economy allowed them to devote themselves to their personal, aesthetic pursuits. Thus Schmitt concludes, “Where political activity begins, political romanticism ends” (160). This point is echoed by Georges Bataille, who notes that though the poet may attack the suffocating nature of the established order, if he truly finds it intolerable he “abandons poetry” for “political action” (38). According to Bataille, “romanticism was no more than an anti-bourgeois aspect of bourgeois individualism” which reified the very social order it railed against (57).
Feminist thinkers have also criticized the individualist conception of autonomy which underpins the post-Romantic image of the lone artistic genius. These theorists contend that traditional accounts of autonomy have overstated the importance of independence. As Marilyn Friedman writes: “Western culture has […] associated autonomy with […] masculine-defined traits, for example, independence and outspokenness. Traits popularly regarded as feminine, by contrast, have no distinctive connection to autonomy — social interactiveness, for example” (39). Historically, this emphasis on self-centered individualism has created a false dichotomy between autonomy and social connectedness, implying that one cannot be autonomous while still having close social ties to others, and by extension implying that women who place value on social relationships cannot be autonomous as male artists, and thus not as profound.
In the same vein, these feminist critics argue that the individualist model of autonomy places undue weight on the idea that those who act authentically are endowed with the societal privilege of autonomy. They note that one might act ‘authentically’ but nonetheless lack true autonomy because one’s choices are limited by one’s social milieu. Obvious cases would include a slave who cannot act freely for fear of violent reprisal, or a woman whose ability to lead her own life is curtailed by her financial dependence on her husband. But these critics also acknowledge that deeply ingrained values and beliefs can likewise allow people to believe they act authentically while curtailing the possibility of true autonomy – consider the case of the adolescent girl who elects to dress in a certain way because she has internalized certain beauty norms, or a person who is raised with the religious belief that using contraception will result in damnation.
On one face, the emphasis on independence suggests that those with a concern for the social, the historical, or, more broadly, the political cannot be autonomous, thereby justifying their exclusion from the canopy of ‘pure art’ – hence the distinction between literature and ‘black literature’ or writers and ‘women writers’. On the other face, the emphasis placed on authenticity assumes that those who did not create ‘great art’ had the autonomy to do so but simply weren’t capable, or, as Linda Nochlis quips, that “If women had the golden nugget of artistic genius then it would reveal itself” (Women, Art, and Power 156). In other words, the supposition that authenticity is sufficient for autonomy ignores the social conditions that have historically precluded women and minorities from becoming artists in the first place. Thus, these two assumptions of post-Romantic individualism – that autonomy necessarily entails social independence and that authenticity necessarily entails autonomy – serve to exclude multitudes from the pantheon of great artists. But the myth of the individual genius is predicated on this double exclusion, for it can only manifest in contrast to the masses who could have reached the same aesthetic heights but were too beholden to social ties or simply lacked a poetic calling.
When we understand this polarity in the context of Schmidt and Bataille’s charge that the Romantic ethos is fundamentally conservative, we can see that in tacitly (though perhaps not rhetorically) consenting to the status quo, the myth of the artistic genius fails to challenge those mechanisms which limit the autonomy of others and thus perpetuates its own condition of possibility. It is only those artists with a concern for the social – those who are purveyors of “topical trash” – who are able to turn their eye to the circumstances which render others nonautonomous and preclude them from pursuing the arts in the first place. By casting socially-concerned writers, painters, and poets as insufficiently focused on a subjective aesthetic to be able to create great art, they diminish the very works which could draw attention to unjust social conditions.
As long as the the myth of the artistic genius is founded on a misguided notion of what it means to be autonomous, then efforts to address societal injustice or cultural micropolitics will remain stymied and swept to the sidelines. Only by broadening our notion of autonomy will we be able to realize that having a concern for one’s community is not mutually exclusive with a desire to weave an aesthetic vision. We see this synthesis in the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, and, more recently, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, artists who map the way in which subjective experience is always bounded by societal institutions and cultural myths. These writers, in crafting narratives as personal as that of any Romantic artist, while expressing a responsibility to the world around them, dissolve the distinction between topical trash and great art, and with it, the image of the great artist with his head perpetually in the heavens.