Over the last month we’ve had a few discussions on art and genius. One theme has been the question of whether art can reach outside of its context to speak truth, what such art might look like, and whether such art (if possible) would be recognizable to people. I thought we couldn’t do worse than get some of Proust’s ideas on the subject.
In the paragraph I’m about to quote, the narrator is looking at some paintings by his favourite painter, Elstir. He is reflecting, also, on the fact that ‘society people’ despise Elstir’s work. The argument is that genius is never appreciated in its own time, precisely because genius breaks with its own time in its ongoing effort at expression. It’s an open question as to whether this is because art naturally progresses (and people are a step behind) or because the genius creates the foundations for future epochs of art (which are disturbing to those who assume different foundations), though I would tend to favour the latter interpretation.
From The Guermantes Way:
The people who detested these ’horrors’ were astonished to find that Elstir admired Chardin, Perronneau, and many other painters whom they, the ordinary men and women of society, liked. They did not realise that Elstir for his part, in striving to reproduce reality (with the particular trademark of his taste for certain experiments), had made the same effort as a Chardin or a Perronneau and that consequently, when he ceased to work for himself, he admired in them attempts of the same kind, anticipatory fragments, so to speak, of works of his own. Nor did these society people add to Elstir’s work in their mind’s eye that temporal perspective which enabled them to like, or at least to look without discomfort at, Chardin’s painting. And yet the older among them might have reminded themselves that in the course of their lives they had gradually seen, as the years bore them away from it, the unbridgeable gulf between what they considered a masterpiece by Ingres and what they had supposed must for ever remain a ‘horror’ (Manet’s Olympia, for example) shrink until the two canvases seemed like twins. But we never learn, because we lack the wisdom to work backwards from the particular to the general, and imagine ourselves always to be faced with an experience which has no precedents in the past.