When a modern person thinks of artistic genius, they imagine an individual. Some have quantified genius by standardized exams – for example, the I.Q. test – but most know a genius by his work. The Brothers Karamazov is proof that Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a genius. Be it Shakespeare, Mozart, or Michelangelo, the man of genius is epoch-making because his work acutely affects history and seems to redefine our basic categories of human potential.
Yet in our common imagination, the artistic genius is not only an individual of excellent output, but an individual of a certain disposition. The man of genius is exceptional in intelligence, originality, and creativity. While free from all that restrains the average person, he bears the greatest burden of all: the burden of being him.
What the modern person misses, however, is that this particular sort genius is but a newborn – and not just a newborn, but a bastard. The modern artist-genius, and the entire modern notion of art, was engineered in the cultural and philosophical laboratory of the Renaissance. The Renaissance assault on millenniums-old beliefs about genius gave birth to both the modern idea of Art and artist. History has forgotten what truly made the Renaissance radical—their re-writing of the classical world.
In the classical world, the genius was not a man at all. It was a god.
For both the Greeks and Romans, the genius was a personal attendant god, like a guardian angel. Of the yoked partners, the human was the lesser, and was charged with pleasing its superior genius. If pleased, like the angelii of the later Christian tradition, the genius would impart to man the wisdom of the Demiurge—the source of all being, according to Plato. Because the Demiurge was ultimate and transcendent, communication between God and man required an intermediary: the genius. In the classical period, wisdom descended from on high, and the genius was the tongue of proclamation. Ultimately, the genius was the source of man’s insight into the created order and the Creator.
Like all things born in Antiquity, the ubiquitous genii were subservient to a strict hierarchy. In the Ptolemaic cosmology – from the very earth, to the upper air, through the aether, the seven heavenly spheres, the fixed stars, and eventually to the border of the Primum Mobile (the Sphere closest to God) – the genii, like Jacob’s ladder, whispered man’s petitions upwards and the revelatory wisdom of God down the great chain of being.
Indeed, unlike the vacuous, empty expanse of Copernicus’ later model, Ptolemy’s geocentric universe was a palace teeming with life. And presiding over his throne was the greatest of all the heavenly spheres: the chief Genius, Jupiter. Known by the late-Roman Stoics as the Progenitor-Genitrix, Jupiter was the demiurgic source of all creation and Lord of all lesser genii. In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis, scholar of Medieval and Renaissance literature, describes the reign of Jupiter:
The Character [that Jupiter] produces in men would now be very imperfectly expressed by the word “jovial,” and is not very easy to grasp; it is no longer, like the saturnine character, one of our archetypes. We may say it is Kingly; but we must think of a King at peace, enthroned, taking his leisure, serene. The Jovial character is cheerful, festive, yet temperate, tranquil, magnanimous. When his planet dominates we may expect halcyon days and prosperity…He is the best planet, and is called the Greater Fortune, Fortuna Major.
But as we can see, the temperament of the modern man of genius stands in stark contradistinction to the genius of myth.
And so we come through history to the penultimate chapter of the mythological genius: the Christian Middle Ages. To the medieval Christian thinker, the assumption that all things had been created good, and that evil was merely a distortion of it, became axiomatic. No thing was worthless. If something were “baptized” (in other words, Christianized), it would reclaim its full and rightful goodness.
As a result, the genii and their progenitor, Jupiter, were subsumed into the greater Christian schema. While Jupiter officially lost its godhood, it remained King of the heavens and became an “influence” that promoted festivity, magnanimity, and prosperity in man. Similarly, the genii became either angels or demons, messengers of divine truth or malefic falsehood. And yet, the jovial genius, much like our melancholy genius, was deeply entrenched in the medieval imagination and retained a central position in Christian literature, as exemplified by Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
Finally we have reached the Renaissance, the sepulcher of the mythological genius and the womb of the man of genius. But before we go further, we must investigate an essential gap in the telling: the nature of Man and Art in the genial universe.
From the late 14th to early 17th century, humanism alleged that Late Antiquity and the Christian Middle Ages were false historical developments, long divergences from the true history found in a continuum of humanity between Athens and Florence (the center of humanist thought). Their movement was called the Renaissance, meaning the “rebirth” of Man.
In spite of this humanist contention, Florence’s claimed anthropological commonality with Athens seems a stretch. Plato and Aristotle, the most preeminent Athenian thinkers, both postulated that man had an unchangeable essence defined by the creator of Nature, the Demiurge. And in the hierarchy of the created order Man stood low. Departing radically from Athenian thought, the humanists asserted that Man was not ruled either by essence or hierarchy. Rather, to the humanist, Man was the very apex of being, free to choose its own nature. For example, Pico della Mirandola, an influential 15th century Florentine, held that Man’s soul had the chameleon-like ability to change into whatever he chose. One wonders why the humanists so forcefully claimed continuity with Athens.
Whatever the intention, there was a devil-may-care revisionism surrounding the humanist movement. After all, one does not alter canonized history and long-held beliefs about the eternal nature of Man without hubris. And just as they changed these, they began to change the nature of art as well, laying the foundation for what we know today.
In bedrock of the fine arts is a noble lie, born from the falsified history of Renaissance humanism: that Art, by which they meant the “fine arts” (painting, literature, poetry, architecture, dance, music, sculpture, and theatre) has existed as a distinct category since time immemorial. But once again, true history contradicts the humanists.
From the ancient Greeks to Medieval Man, spanning well over 2,000 years, the West divided the hierarchy of being into two distinct categories: Nature, God’s ex nihilo creation, and the arts, meaning the artificial, any human product. The hierarchy was further divided into two distinct categories of art – a “syllabus,” as Lewis said, that by the time of the Middle Ages “was regarded as immutable…By long prescription, [it] had achieved a status not unlike that of nature herself.” The first category was the superior art of the mind and work of the cleric, the revered seven Liberal Arts: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music (theory, not practice), Geometry, and Astronomy. The second was the lesser art of the body and the work of the layman, the mechanical arts—painting, farming, sculpture, shoe making, and all else. Larry Shiner, the author of The Invention of Art, writes frankly: “The ancient Greeks, who had precise definitions for so many things, had no word for what we call fine art.” And for that matter, neither did Rome, nor the Middle Ages. Fine art is a recent category midwifed by the Renaissance humanists, reared by Enlightenment philosophers, and now, in the 21st century, it has grown old beyond its years and has forgotten its own nature.
John Milton, perhaps the last true medievalist, published Paradise Lost in 1667, the denouement of the Renaissance. In his infamous harangue, Satan, Milton’s extraordinary protagonist, proclaimed that it was “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n.” Because of our democratic temperament, the modern person naturally commiserates with Satan’s quest for autonomy from God. To Milton, contrarily, Satan’s radical selfdom was the very cause of evil: pride. In accord with Christian orthodoxy, Milton saw pride as the unwillingness to accept one’s God-ordained nature. Paradise Lost, while not solely allegorical, was partly a lamentation for the collapse of the medieval order by the hand of the humanists, whom, like Satan, Milton saw as unwilling to accept their position in the cosmic hierarchy.
On that account, we must complete the testimony of the genius. In more ways than I can possibly detail, the humanist artist embodied Miltonic pride. But the most damning evidence was their unprecedented proclamation that they, mere men, were geniuses. In 1533, Agrippa of Nettesheim, a German humanist, in his De occulta philosophia, explained that rather than wait for the genius’ descent, one could use one’s reason to bypass the hierarchy and take the knowledge of the genius by one’s own power. Coeval with this myth was a new drive by artists to be understood as inspired, creative, and autonomous individuals. In contrast with the humanist agenda, inspiration, to that point, had been the gift of the genii; Creation was solely the power of the God who made Nature from nothing (and the artist, both liberal and mechanical, was said to merely imitate the natural order); autonomy, as I described above, was thought the devil’s desire. And finally, just as they chose genius as their true nature, they also chose a new planetary master. They replaced Jupiter, Fortuna Major, with Saturn, the planet that produced melancholy in men, Infortuna Major, the Great Infortune. Like Prometheus, the artists had stolen the powers of the gods, Jupiter and genii both. Eventually, the mythological connotation of the artist-genius was forgotten, and genius became the innate excellence of the individual.
Today, because the genius is within Man, art has become self-expression, not an appreciation of God and his Nature as it once was. When a person looks at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he or she does not do so in order to see God communing with Adam; rather, it is to see Michelangelo. Originality, because the power of creativity now belongs to the fine artist, has become idolized as the criteria for judging a piece’s worth. As any artist will tell you, this, more than any other art convention, is most crippling.
And ever since the Renaissance, Saturn has cast a melancholy shadow over the mind of the artist, turning art into an agonizing vocation. Because of the pride of the humanists, the sins of the father have visited the son: the art world. Unfortunately, contemporary artists, who know nothing of the arrogances of their predecessors, are forced to carry a torch, which, if not returned to the hearth, will continue to burn those who carry it.