We’ve had some discussion recently on genius and the possibility for authentic art. Most recently, Lisa (using Woolf) called the term “genius” into question, suggesting that it does not adequately account for the extent to which those reckoned “great artists” are in debt to those who came before (teachers, colleagues, mentors) and to the social conditions that made possible their position as an artist. In this way, genius functions as a sort of privileged male illusion that allows the most indebted to consider themselves self-sufficient and authentically creative because of their self-sufficiency. I agree with Lisa’s critique and would like to push it further. I want to use Jean-Luc Marion’s analysis of the idol to suggest that much of what we consider the marks of “genius” indicates idolatry and illusion. Nevertheless, I would still like to claim that not all art is absolutely determined by a stifling immanence; in other words, that there is more to art than its context. To do this, in part two, I will draw on Marion’s understanding of the icon.
Perhaps the central point Marion makes about the idol is that it is nothing beyond the gaze that beholds it. This does not mean that idols do not exist, for one of their defining features is that they are seen. Indeed, they are idols because they are seen too much: they prevent truer sight by filling and dominating the gaze, becoming the entire world to the gaze. However, Marion argues that the idol only “fascinates and captivates the gaze” because “the gaze…desire[s] to satisfy itself in the idol.” It is the gaze that makes the idol “the privileged fixed point of its own consideration.” In the idol, the gaze finds its own limit and scope: that at which it is stuck or cannot see past, the hang-up, predisposition, or obsession that prevents a person from seeing clearly. “The idol thus acts as a mirror…that reflects the gaze’s image, or more exactly, the image of its aim and of the scope of that aim.” But, of course, as a mirror, the idol disguises itself as this function. Therefore, the gaze beholds its own limits and measurements, even while ravished by the idol, whether it be object, person, ideology, desire, concept, or art. In all cases, it is the gaze’s hidden conviction that the idol holds all truth and is the reference point to all meaning that creates and maintains the idol.
My suggestion is that this analysis tells us quite a bit about the spectre of genius. To argue this I do not want to consider whether or not certain recognized geniuses were “idolaters.” Instead, I want to look at all of us aspiring geniuses.
I suspect that most of those who strive to create (music, art, writings, ideas) face some temptation to aspire to genius. As Marion’s analysis of idolatry continues, he points out that in a polytheistic, post-Nietzschean, and nihilistic world we intentionally give ourselves idols in order to hide from the vanity of our lives, actions, and everything we consider important (which is why Marion so strongly recommends Ecclesiastes). This is simply to say that part of our condition is to evade our mortality and smallness. Avoiding idols and seeking truthfulness is exhausting, and we prefer an artificial busyness of vain pursuits. In our creative work we become tired or lazy: we find a solution and would rather not keep our eyes open for problems with it or for other solutions; we lack the discipline to cultivate what we consider our natural gifts or to pursue projects we have dreamed up; we forget that what we are making is not the entire world. With such moves we look for recourse in precisely the defensiveness, dishonesty, and hiding that Marion describes, not realizing that we are doing so.
This tiredness with being honest is a search and desire for independence and security. “In its funding, it is founded on itself, on its ‘works,’ and wants thus ‘to glorify itself before God’ (1 Cor. 1:29).” As such, it is made possible by a prior idolatry, closer to the surface. We become tired because we want the glory and (relative) fame of having contributed significantly to our discipline. Or we want that feeling of being purely creative. We want to proudly behold our finished work of art and marvel at our accomplishment. We want the self-assurance of knowing that, whatever others may say, we are authentic, with our original ideas and makings. And above all, even though we hardly admit it to itself, we desire the name of genius, so that we can be just like our heroes who so inspired us. Far from exemplars (saints) who give us glimpses of what it might mean to live truthfully, these heroes are an image held in front of us. They don’t point to a way of being, but simply are a perpetually achieved state of genius.
And this last desire points us to the idols of our geniuses. As in Marion’s analysis, the problem is not that the Gould’s interpretation of the Goldberg Variations are naturally idols. However, our gaze does have a tendency to seize the truth in such works of art, which makes them into objects rather than expressions and thereby destroys that very truth. The gaze creates an absolute and complete work of art and an absolute and complete creator, both of which are therefore unable to speak any longer. In the creation of geniuses we destroy the human who strove for an authentic expression and create the idol of a purely authentic expression. We remove flesh and blood from those who could be our exemplars – their struggles, their indebtments, their contexts, their influences as active conversation, and their ongoing activity as workers. Above all we forget how integral an ongoing receptivity was to their work, for without receptivity there is no inspiration and no material. Rather than humans again and again taking up the call to a new effort of expression in the midst of contingency, we instead see the work as already finished. We see a necessary thing simply presented by someone who possessed and then presented the truth.