Genius is a solitary
business. To whom can you liken
artists, craving our idolatry,
every one a godlike icon?
Pity of the self may be
perfect as the price of art,
paid by idle men unfree,
psyche-sickened in their heart
Talent is the legal tender
artists offer when they barter
homage to themselves and render
intercession like a martyr.
Idols they produce are mantic,
worshipped by the ones who purchase
resumes of the romantic
dreams that rationalize their urges.
This poem’s primary influence is Deutero-Isaiah’s polemic against idol-makers in Deutero-Isaiah Isa.46: 5–7, itself a polemic against the narrative of creation Genesis 1:
To whom will you liken me, and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like?
Some pour out gold from the bag, and weigh silver in the balance. They hire a goldsmith, and he makes it a god. They fall down-yes, they worship.
They bear it on the shoulder, they carry it, and set it in its place, and it stands, from its place it shall not move: yes, one may cry to it, yet it can not answer, nor save him out of his trouble. Also inspired by an article on the exhibition “Rebels and Martyrs” in the National Gallery London by Alan Riding in the NYT, July 27,2006 (“When Anguish Among Artists Became Both Respected and Expected”)
When exactly did artists decide that they were different from ordinary mortals, that in all likelihood they were superior to the rest of us? Or, viewed differently, when were they granted such a privileged status? When did Western societies start venerating them as sensitive, misunderstood geniuses? For a long time, it seems, being a great artist — a “skilled manual worker, ” as Samuel Johnson put it — was enough. For Bach and Mozart, for Rembrandt and Titian, even for Shakespeare, their art was their job. Their output was valued, but in a social order dominated by church, royal court and wealthy patrons, their standing was not high. Then came the Romantic movement, and with it, artists turned from pleasing the world to indulging themselves: they rebelled against conventions, proclaimed their uniqueness, disdained the bourgeoisie as philistine, savored their own melancholy and formed cliques. Many also chose a bohemian lifestyle to exhibit their otherness.
How this change came about is explored in “Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the 19th Century, ” an entertaining exhibition at the National Gallery in London through Aug.28. It addresses only painters (as well as Rodin) , but the shadow of Byron, Goethe, Baudelaire and other writers is never far away. And, perhaps most intriguingly, it shows how the Romantic artist still influences the image of the artist today. “In our oh-so-civilized society, it is necessary for me to lead the life of a savage, ” Gustave Courbet, the 19th-century French painter, noted theatrically. “To do that, I have just set out on the great, independent, vagabond life of the bohemian.” But there is also anguish. “The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, ” Vincent van Gogh, the quintessential suffering artist, wrote, “so much more am I an artist, a creative artist.”
Linda reduced this poem to eight lines:
Genius is a solitary business to whom can you liken
artists craving our idolatry, everyone a godlike icon?
Pity of the self may be the price we have to pay for art
Idly hoping we may free psyches sickened by the heart.
Talent is the legal tender artists offer when they barter
homage to themselves and render intercession like a martyr;
idols they produce are mantic, worshipped by us when we purchase
Interpretation of romantic dreams, that rationalize our urges.
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- I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
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