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Genius, “genius”, and artistic growth

26 Jan

I’ve started reading Berger’s The Success and Failure of Picasso, and it’s inspiring in its willingness to show how Picasso’s strengths were directly related to his weaknesses (it’s also cool for allowing that Picasso HAD weaknesses). People seem to have an inherent need to rank and rate the things they are inspired by, creating little “Facebook like” lists in their minds. But what if someone like Picasso was inspiring and worthwhile for the same reason that he was, in an important way, less interesting than many other artists of his time?

Picasso was certainly a prodigy, possessing great talent without ever having struggled or worked for it in the way that many others have. When he was fourteen, his father allegedly quit painting, telling young Pablo that the latter had surpassed him in skill and that there would be no point in continuing to paint. Berger believes that this event was related to Picasso’s absolute refusal to approach his art in any but an instinctual way:

“Is it likely that a boy will ever believe in progress step by step when at the age of puberty he is suddenly told by his father that he deserves to take his father’s place and that his father is going to step down? Since this is what every boy wants to happen, is he not more likely to believe in magic?”

By all accounts, Picasso did not respect theory, learning or explanations of any kind in regards to art (or life in general, for that matter). His art was a thing more powerful than him that worked THROUGH him, and all schools of art were simply unnecessary for “pure” expression. Because of this, he could only ever be a genius: he could never be humble enough to actually learn anything.

Many, many people have commented on the thin line between genius and madness, to the point where it’s tough to say anything new or interesting about it. Berger does, though: “He is lonely in the same way that the lunatic is lonely: because it seems to the lunatic, since he never meets opposition, that he can do anything.” This is a trait common to celebrities, “gifted” kids, mental patients, Americans, and many of the rest of us in our worst moments. Picasso cannot really be compared to any other artists, since he is not in competition with them. The same is true of a crazy person who thinks he has access to powers others lack. It is a tempting mental state, and probably an unhealthy one.

I want to explore this idea with Melies. He was an incredibly gifted artist, but the stories and movies about him have an unfortunate tendency to turn him into a magical, childlike innocent who died poor because he was just too much of a genius. I’m taking a LOT of creative liberties with my characterization of him. Who knows if any of it is true? But stories about flawed people are more interesting. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to imply that maybe he wasn’t humble enough to learn much from other filmmakers.

(It’s really tempting to just post huge blocks of text from Berger’s book. It’s a good read, and has some interesting things to say about the artistic process.)

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