There are entire genres of art that have self-destructed in the last
hundred years — become drained of vitality, driven their audiences
away to the point where they become nothing more than museum exhibits
or hobby-horses for snobs and antiquarians.
The three most obvious examples are painting, the literary novel
and classical music. After about 1910 all three of these art forms
determinedly severed the connections with popular culture that had
made them relevant over the previous 250 years. Their departure left
vacuums to be filled; we got modern genre literature, rock music, and
Other art forms underwent near-death experiences and survived only
in severely compromised forms. Jazz, running away from its roots in
honky tonks and dance halls, all but strangled on its own
sophistication between 1960 and 1980; it survives today primarily as
smoothed-out elevator music. Sculpture, having spent a century losing
itself in increasingly meaningless abstraction, is only now feeling
its way back towards a figurative vocabulary; the most interesting
action there is not yet in the revival of mimetic forms but in artists
who speak the vocabulary of mathematics and machine technology.
What makes an art-form self-destruct like this? Many things can
contribute — hankerings for bourgeois respectibility, corruption
by politics, clumsy response to a competing genre. But the one we
see over and over again is deadly genius.
A deadly genius is a talent so impressive that he can break and
remake all the rules of the form, and seduce others into trying to
emulate his disruptive brilliance — even when those followers
lack the raw ability or grounding to make art in the new idiom the the
genius has defined.
Arnold Schoenberg (classical music). James Joyce (literary
novels). John Coltrane (jazz). Pablo Picasso (painting). Konstantin
Brancusi (sculpture). These men had the knack of inventing radical
new forms that made the preexisting conventions of their arts seem
stale and outworn. They produced works of brilliance, taught their
followers to value disruptive brillance over tradition, and in doing so
all but destroyed their arts.
Artistic tradition can be limiting sometimes, but it has one thing
going for it — it is the result of selection for pleasing an audience.
Thus, artists of moderate talent can imitate it and produce something that
the eye, ear, heart and mind will experience with pleasure. Most artists
are at best of moderate talent; thus, this kind of imitation is how
art forms survive and keep an audience.
On the other hand…imitation Schoenberg or Coltrane is
unlistenably bad. Imitation Joyce is unreadable. Imitation Picasso
looks like a toddler’s daubings and imitation Brancusi is ugly junk.
Worse still is when mediocre artists strain themselves to be the next
disruptive genius. And perhaps worst of all is what happens when bad
artists turn disruption into cliche.
Art forms self-destruct when enough of their establishment follows
a deadly genius off a cliff. And we had a bad streak of this sort of
thing just about a century ago; three of the four deadly geniuses I’ve
named above flourished at that time. Why then?
Tom Wolfe argued in From Bauhaus to Our House that the
breakdown of the traditional patronage system in the late 19th century
had a lot to do with the degenerative changes in modern art. Wolfe never
identified deadly genius as a core problem. but his argument readily
extends to an explanation of why deadly genius become so much deadlier
at that time.
Wealthy aristocratic patrons, had, in general, little use for
disruptive brilliance — what they wanted from artists was
impressive display objects, status symbols that had to be
comprehensible to the patron’s peers. Thus, artists learned to
stay more or less within traditional forms or starve. Evolution
happened, but it was relatively gradual and unsconscious. Geniuses
were not permitted to become deadly.
After 1900 all this changed. Wolfe elucidates some of the complex
reasons that artists found themselves with more freedom and less
security than ever before. In an increasingly bourgeois climate, the
cry went up that artistic creation must become autonomous, heeding its
own internal imperatives as much as (or more than) the demands of any
audience. The breakneck pace of technological change helped reinforce a
sense that possibilities were limitless and all rules could be
In the new environment, artistic tradition lost much of its normative
force. “Back to zero!” was the slogan; forget everything so you can invent
anything. And when the next wave of deadly geniuses hit, there was nothing
to moderate them any more.
It is unlikely that anything quite like the Modernist disruption will
ever happen again, if only because we’ve been there and done that now. But
as we try to heal all the fractures it produced, this one lesson is worth
bearing in mind. Genius can be deadly when it goes where mere talent