The Saturnine Age and the Modern Genius

Michael Toscano on how the definition of artistic genius has changed throughout history:

When a modern person thinks of artistic genius, they imagine an individual. Some have quantified genius by standardized exams — for example, the I.Q. test — but most know a genius by his work. The Brothers Karamazov is proof that Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a genius. Be it Shakespeare, Mozart, or Michelangelo, the man of genius is epoch-making because his work acutely affects history and seems to redefine our basic categories of human potential.

Yet in our common imagination, the artistic genius is not only an individual of excellent output, but an individual of a certain disposition. The man of genius is exceptional in intelligence, originality, and creativity. While free from all that restrains the average person, he bears the greatest burden of all: the burden of being him.

What the modern person misses, however, is that this particular sort genius is but a newborn — and not just a newborn, but a bastard. The modern artist-genius, and the entire modern notion of art, was engineered in the cultural and philosophical laboratory of the Renaissance. The Renaissance assault on millenniums-old beliefs about genius gave birth to both the modern idea of Art and artist. History has forgotten what truly made the Renaissance radical — their re-writing of the classical world.

In the classical world, the genius was not a man at all. It was a god.

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