The Cult of Art Genius

October 13th, 2004 · 1 Comment · Writing


2 Blowhards is one of the better academic blogs in the blogosphere. Confusingly, it has more than 2 authors, but all of them are certainly blowhards — in a good way. Friedrich von Blowhard, one of the more gleefully braggadocious authors, wrote a fascinating post last week on Renaissance and Religion, where he began by questioning “why art history generally tends to be such bad history.” It was the comments that followed that really got me thinking.

At one point during the commenting frenzy, Friedrich himself said:

“I certainly seem to have stirred things up here. I obviously forgot the strength of the cult of art genius…”

Interesting to me, of course, because I have been flirting with “the cult of art genius” all semester in my mid-19th to mid-20th century art theory class. In fact, these days, I’m tempted to don a beret and cloister myself in a garret along with the last remnant of true believers.

Oh, but it’s not what you think! I’m not one of those cult-members, driving around with a “Music is My Bag” bumper sticker (to steal from Meghan Daum) on my 20-year-old Volvo, and fervently believing that all we need to fix the world is to teach the little children how to play Mozart on the violin. I’m no volunteer museum docent! I’m no classical music station supporter! I don’t write Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnets on the inside of Valentine’s cards! And I certainly have never worn a t-shirt with a caricature of William Shakespeare and a giant quill pen.

I’ve been a dyed-in-the-wool postmodernist for years! I know how you’re supposed to look at art these days: in its cultural and historical context, with skepticism and a begrudging knowledge of the artist’s intentions, aware of its primary usefulness as a cultural thermometer, interested in the ideas that are being communicated, superficially aware of such niceties as color, composition, balance, line, space, etc., but ready to forgive the lack thereof, and above all, keeping your eyes peeled for the hidden joke, which, if you find it and laugh, just long enough, in that dry, world-weary way, will signify that you are not just a civilian audience member: you’re part of the in-crowd.

Yeah, yeah, I know that Roy Lictenstein’s Compositions I is a joke about Jackson Pollock and the idea of an artwork being about “composition.” I can chuckle at a Jeff Koons. I’m cool like that.

I remember in my first literary criticism class back in undergrad when my professor warned about Nabokov: never think he’s being friendly with you; he despises his audience; in fact, he’s probably laughing at you. I know how these things work.


I’m bored with cultural thermometers. And I’m tired of having to look at a reflection of a culture that, frankly, often makes me sad and worried about our future. I wish, oh how I wish, that the truly gifted artists I know would even for one moment envision themselves as those rarified individuals that Kierkegaard talks about: artists whose aim is in making art that achieves transubstantiation. Artists who truly believe that they are making art that is extraordinary.

Postmodernity has taken that away from us, just as surely as Andy Warhol promised that everyone would have his or her 15 minutes of fame. Postmodern thought worked long and hard to tear down the “cult of art genius.”

One of the things we’ve ended up as a result is a bunch of demoralized and jaded artists, aware that no one would ever mistake them for Beethoven. Aware that the work they do is nothing special, that it’s silly to presume that it would transport anyone to a higher plane. Knowing full well that art is dependent on having something witty and highly coded at the center of your tootsie pop, so that the few people who bother with it will feel slightly rewarded.

Makes me wish for the simpler and romantic days of yore, when an artist might presume to try and take you someplace. Back when an artist might presume anything at all. Back when Rothko wanted you to weep before his color field paintings. Back when artists had the audacity to assume they could do anything more than shock and alienate their audience with one hand, and ask for their tax dollars with the other.

Category: Writing

One Comment so far ↓

  • Friedrich von Blowhard

    Thanks for the mention. However, why do you consider 2blowhards to be an “academic” blog? I am a 50-year-old entrepreneur, hence just about the least academic person imaginable. And my point wasn’t in any way to denigrate the accomplishment of the artist–to misquote David Hockney, “the culture” doesn’t paint pictures…artists do. My interest in the art/culture nexus actually stems from wondering why so little contemporary art does a whole lot for me, whereas I can look at virtually all art of the past with fascination. My suspicion, which I am spending way too much time trying to poke into, is that it is expecting too much of artists to create their own culture, and yet that is pretty much what contemporary artists are being forced to do. This is enormously unlike the days of, say, Giotto, where the Franciscan monks he worked for were virtually co-creators of his artwork, as they had a very specific program they were using him to advance. Maybe the problem with art today is actually a problem with religion?
    Anyway, thanks for stopping by.

Leave a Comment