General 9-29-2004

Where Have You Gone, Pablo Picasso? The World Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You

Michael Fallon reasons his way through the relation between Picasso and Barry Bonds.


DO YOU EVER WONDER WHY there are no more genius artists? You know the type I’m talking about: the Van Goghs, the Michelangelos, the Leonardos, the Picassos—those artists we can all agree in an instant are certifiable visual Einsteins. I’m talking about artists whose work is so absolutely beyond the norm, whose level of skill and talent and brains is so absolutely above the common person’s, that it’s almost otherworldly. These are guys who rise above the rest of humanity, who become household names in their times and beyond, who become the stuff of legend and Hollywood film.

It bothers me that I can’t seem to find anyone who fits the description these days. Or, as the poet once said, “they just don’t seem to make ’em like they used to.”

You don’t believe me? Well, then, I have just one little question for you.

Please name one such artist from our era, whose work approximates the status of the figures mentioned above.

Take a few moments to think about it.

No pressure.

Have you got the artist? OK, I can wait…

(Humming Jeopardy theme.)

Got one now? Good.

If you were like most average ordinary (read: not the small, very small minority of art-obsesse-, uh, -informed people), you probably answered “Andy Warhol.” And hey, I applaud that answer.

Warhol was a popular artist, and he was arguably of the genius ilk. Certainly his work was revolutionary in several ways, and his wide renown in his own time approached that of genius artists of the past. One might even say the bulk of his work was brilliant for its merging of popular forms of imagery and fine art concerns.

But I spoke about him in the past tense, because Andy Warhol’s dead. He’s been dead, I’m sorry to say, for nearly twenty years now. And his most vital work is probably thirty years in the distant past.

There are no more genius artists these days.

HERE’S ANOTHER EXAMPLE. We all know that art made by great artists is lasting, popular with future generations, hundreds of years distant. We can see this in the recent spate of books by novelists and historians fascinated with how artists from the past accomplished their masterpieces. Ross Kings’ historical narrative Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, for example, details the painting of the Sistine Chapel. He also wrote a book of the same sort about Brunelleschi. Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, meanwhile, is a fictional account of how the eponymous Vermeer painting came to be (the book was made into an Oscar- nominated motion picture). Susan Vreeland also trumpeted the genius of Vermeer in her novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

There are certain characteristics that define the new Genius-Artist-Genre of literature. For one, authors of these books manage to tell a rollicking good yarn using only the most basic tools—depictions of the daily life of artists from long ago whose reality was very much unlike our own. Also, it’s a characteristic of the genre that the authors praise the artists, their methods, and the quality of their works. The artists are singular characters whose high devotion to their craft yielded lasting legacies despite all obstacles.

That such books find a mass audience is a tribute to the value placed on artistic masterpieces and the geniuses that create them. But their writers are lavishing attention on artists long dead and buried while the work of the vast majority of artists today remains relatively ignored. The implication is that the achievement of these figures of the past is nearly impossible in a world as fragmented and distracted as ours. It’s also possible that perhaps this is just nostalgia. We tend to locate the “Golden Age” in some unreachable past time—maybe this is what makes us think that no artist will ever live up to it.

If you compare the genius artist stories to portrayals of contemporary artists in recent books, you’ll see how little regard we have for our own. That is, an artist today is thought to be almost the opposite of a genius—fool, buffoon, clown, and booby are words that might come to most people’s minds. As I’ve written in columns past, fictional portrayals of current artists show little praise or admiration. Instead, artists are almost always shown as flawed and abnormal. I won’t go through the full list of the fictionalized lives of artists again (you can peruse it by clicking the link below), but in summary, contemporary fictional accounts show artists unable to cope with society, reclusive and disturbed, drug-addled and debased, self-destructive and nasty, and otherwise unequipped and struggling to participate in “normal” society.

One might also expect to find at least one contemporary artist’s biography written in the same glowing terms as the Genius-Artist Genre–but that just ain’t so. Instead, the focus is almost always on the wingnuts. This includes tragicomic characters such as Lawrence Weschler’s “hero” in Boggs: A Comedy of Values (about an artist who renders currency and then uses it to buy stuff). Or portraits of young, mixed-up, drug-addled creatives getting torn apart in the tug-of-war art market (see the 1996 bio-flick Basquiat.). There’s a great, great distance between these flawed tales and those of John Richardson, who wrote three glowing tributes to the giant genius artist of his world, Pablo Picasso.

I HATE TO KEEP USING THIS COLUMN TO POINT OUT UNSAVORY FACTS REGARDING ARTISTS’ LIVES, and I promise to get off the topic soon–but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it important. And in fact, I may finally have an answer to the question that’s plagued me for months now: What does it exactly mean that there are no more genius artists, no more Big Names?

What’s nagged me particularly about this lack is the paradox suggested in Hans Abbing’s book Why Are Artists Poor? Since the 1950s fewer artists have been celebrated as geniuses and the cultural status of artists in society has diminished to what seems an all-time low. Yet ever-increasing numbers of people have become artists. How can such a counterintuitive thing be true?

A book of essays on baseball by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, suddenly clarified for me the question of Big Names. In “Why No One Hits .400 Anymore,” Gould brings up the question of the exceptional talent. “Hitting .400″ means that a hitter gets 4 hits to every 6 times he gets put out. This may not sound like much to the non-fan, but it’s so rare a feat that the last time it happened was in 1941 (when Pablo Picasso was 60 years old, and Andy Warhol was 13). In other words, then, baseball has, in some ways, been experiencing the same lack of geniuses (in this case, in the hitting department).

I began to wonder about this. In baseball, common sense and simple observation dictates that the opposite should be true (we should have more geniuses, not fewer). Gould notes that as people in developed nations on average are getting taller and living longer, and as lifespans have increased, ballplayers are on the whole are throwing and hitting harder and running faster than players of yore. “In short,” he writes, “the old-timers did soar farther above their contemporaries… [but contemporary] athletes have gotten better (the world in general has become bigger, faster, and more efficient).” But, he explains, it is precisely because the average ballplayer today is better than the average past ballplayer that the best are more rare. That is, the overall improvement in baseball has produced a “decline in variation.”

Gould continues: “Paradoxically, this decline . . . produces a decrease in the difference between average and stellar performances. Therefore, modern leaders don’t stand so far above their contemporaries.” Translation: Better overall quality in the ballplayer pool means fewer geniuses. (Barry Bonds being the exception, by the way, that proves the rule.)

This makes sense in comparison with art if we consider that the overall improvement of the education system and the expansion of the number of artists likely means the same thing–it’s harder for the great artists to stand out from the ever-improving, ever-growing crowd of ordinary artists. This means there are no more genius artists precisely because, on average, art itself is only getting better and better, or at least broader and broader.

In the end, if we truly believe that the exponential growth in artist numbers means better art, the next question might well be, why don’t artists have it easier? And why are there still so many people out there who would just as soon prefer all public support of the growing pool of artists be eliminated? Questions perhaps to address in some future column…