One of the “big ideas” I’m always working on in my head has to do with “geniuses,” and whether or not such a type of person could even exist. To believe a person is a genius, at least in art, you would hypothetically also have to believe in objective judgment, an inherent talent (but for what?), and some aesthetic autonomy from marketplace, ego, and material concerns. The people who recognize an artist as a genius, and bring that artist to public attention—writers, I suppose—would have to be untainted themselves by material concerns (I need to write this bullshit fluff piece to pay my rent), prejudices (this guy seems, from his artist statement, like he came from a rich family), and poor taste (an 80-year-old artist dabbling in the digital realm must be onto something because it’s new media, he’s old, and a more famous critic loves his work). Because if a genius makes a masterpiece, and no one reads about it in the New York Times, has that genius really existed?
Part of my “big idea” arises from conversations I have with myself when I’m writing art reviews. I used to feel incredibly unqualified to write them. But now that I’ve practiced more—and these last few years, I’ve practiced very much—I’ve begun to see that there really is a thin film of brilliance that lies on top of the so-called (by me) detritus. There is an occasional artist who frees herself (go girl) from all of the bullshit critical theory, and fear of failure, and insipid art world system (blah blah blah) to say something honest. Because honesty, I’m starting to think, at least with one’s own intentions, lies at the heart of great work.
I am at the very beginning stages of developing an eye, based on a very broad set of criteria—education, exposure, hard work—that, perhaps in the future, may even allow me to see said thin film of brilliance without someone else telling me I should look at it. Now, I’m mostly just grateful when an editor even responds to an email, and incredibly complimented if they assign me a review. I can write about things that have already been validated by a larger system.
That being said, I had drinks with a very well-read friend from graduate school last night, which served to remind me that I am not actually that smart, and discourages me from exploring my thoughts on such matters further.
But still, genius comes up in my thoughts. For instance, Dreiser, in a paragraph from Sister Carrie I read earlier today, wrote: “To the child, the genius with imagination, or the wholly untravelled, the approach to a great city for the first time is a wonderful thing.” Which got my mind all a-whirring about whether or not people into the 19th century were more into the idea of the “genius,” and where I had read that thought, and maybe it was Adorno, and if there could not be poetry after Auschwitz, then there could not be genius, either? After the Holocaust, people were rightful in thinking that the Enlightenment—the idea that humans were elevating their race through art and culture—were null and void. Because the fucking Germans, an advanced civilization, still went ahead and annihilated millions of Jewish people for no logical reason. Their only advance was that they did it efficiently. If all humans are so inherently base, then how can anyone (or anything they produce) ever truly rise above? I don’t really understand Adorno, so you should probably ignore the entirety of the last paragraph.
Also, this past Friday night, I went to go see Bon Iver perform at Radio City Music Hall, with Hairilyn, an advance gift for my steadily approaching 30th birthday. The first time I heard their album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” I was lying on my bed, about to go to sleep. I didn’t stop listening to it for almost three weeks—on the subway, at my desk, with my friend who introduced me to it, lying on the floor of my apartment—and I still haven’t gotten sick of it, four years later. Even today, I listen to it weekly, if not more, and feel a profound sense of great love lost. This is one of those instances when I’m trying to be honest with myself about why I love the album, but can’t, so the description is going to sound formulaic and contrived. It is otherwordly! It is so raw. When I listen to it, I’m able to enter the fantasy I’ve always had about what being perfectly in love feels like, and the person I feel that for, briefly, seems to be there with me.
Caleb and I bought Bon Iver’s new album when it came out on vinyl. We listened to it one time, decided it wasn’t that great, and shelved it. I was hoping to like it better at the concert. I was also hoping that they wouldn’t play too much of it.
But Bon Iver did. He played every single song from it, in the midst of a tripped out light show that included, at one point, a trick that made his entire band look like they were made up of bands of color. Awesome! By the third track, I was bored. (Sorry Hairilyn, I still had the best time though, I seriously did!) Even though the show was perfectly executed—and Justin Vernon’s voice was gorgeous—I didn’t feel transcendent. I just felt like I was at a Coldplay concert.
When they left the stage, the cries from them to come back on were tepid. They began their encore, however, with “Skinny Love,” perhaps the most recognizable track off “For Emma, Forever Ago,” and the crowd lit up with screams. The whole concert, everyone had been waiting for Bon Iver to stop playing his harmonized, bland, over-produced shit, and start giving them the songs that had made them fall in love with his music. It wasn’t only me. I wasn’t the only one who wanted it.
Which got me thinking, as I sat there, singing along, to the idea of muse. At least in mythology, geniuses have muses, right? And often, those muses only strike once. The muse struck Justin Vernon when he wrote ”For Emma, Forever Ago.” Does it make him a genius? I DON’T FUCKING KNOW, WHY DON’T YOU TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK. I get so sick of hearing the sound of my own mental voice.
Now where’s that bottle of whiskey I keep under my desk? Just kidding, I’m going to stop my brain by planting myself in front of a television, and thinking nothing at all while I watch the television program Revenge. Or I could just sit here and keep writing this post. No pressure at all for it to be genius, right?…Or do you see something here you want to tell the world about?