Ever heard of John Eliot Gardiner? He’s a conductor who specialises in Bach. He’s also an elite-educated land-owning chum of the Prince of Wales, a widely detested authoritarian and son of a far-right Nazi sympathiser. Also an atheist. Bear that in mind and take a look at this [6 minute] account of J.S.Bach by Gardiner. Look at his face too, get a feeling for the vibe of the man.
Get the idea? According to Gardiner, Bach, one of the greatest composers of all time, was not just quite ordinary, but ‘flawed’… and by flawed he means that Bach combatted authority and rejected schooling. There is, Gardiner tells us, no connection between character and creation.
Now go from there and compare Gardiner’s Cantata 21 with, say, Karl Richter’s. Take a few deep breaths first, and listen with the pit of your belly, feel how they touch you. Notice anything different? (apart from the fact that Gardiner uses a smaller, more authentic, orchestra and choir). Can you tell which recording is often dismissed — in fact hated — as dry, spiritless and profane?1
Do you see the connection between all this? Can you feel (listening to Richter — try a bit of this one perhaps) what kind of man Bach must have been, what feeling for life he must have had? Can you imagine what it must take to really do justice to Bach’s work, the love or trust that the orchestra must share, the connectedness, the sense of reaching beyond time and space together?
There is, naturally, no question that Bach was an ordinary man. All those who channel genius are — as they are often at pains to tell us — not special. Bach himself told a despairing student, ‘you have ten little fingers, just as I do.’ Genius is the friend of all who are prepared to do what it takes to prepare the bridle-chamber for her. But this does not mean that those who arduously climb to the peak of themselves are, really, in fact, still down in the valley.
It is only the mediocre artist, manager, politician or priest who claims that there is no connection between who you are and what you create. Gardiner wants you to believe that there was nothing in Bach’s character that was awe-inspiring, that Bach did not touch the ineffable source, that he wasn’t as good as his music. Gardiner wants to select those incidents from Bach’s life (about which we know next to nothing), that back up his notion that there is no such thing as greatness.
Why would he do this? Let’s ask another of the greats…
The public has a dog for its amusement. That dog is the Media. If there is someone better than the public, someone who distinguishes himself, the public sets the dog on him and all the amusement begins. This biting dog tears up his coat-tails, and takes all sort of vulgar liberties with his leg—until the public bores of it all and calls the dog off. That is how the public levels.
The Present Age, Søren Kierkegaard.
People have a tendency either to bring greatness down to the base level, the shoddy ‘real world’. Or to exalt greatness, to put it on a pedestal; to say, in effect, ‘ah, Shakespeare was great, but he was a genius, you see, he was one of the mad special ones.’ As is so often the case, prominently opposed ‘schools of thought’ are, in fact, functionally and essentially identical. In both cases the implication is the same — I can continue to be mediocre.2
That genius does exist, and that there is a way to invite her into my experience, is, to the mediocre mind, taboo. This is why the idea of genius changed from the pre-modern understanding that it is a reality beyond the self which can be channelled, accessed or [through years of arduous discipline] artistically realised, to the modern ideology of specialness, that it is a characteristic of the self (and so my self cannot experience it), to, finally, the postmodern ideology of illusion, that genius, like meaning, simply doesn’t exist (and so no self can experience it).3
All the fear and pain that people — particularly adolescents — have in exposing themselves artistically is down to the ideology of specialness. I paint a picture, it is crap, and so I feel awful because I must be crap. But it’s okay, I eventually console myself, we can’t all be special. Ho hum. Can’t complain.
All the horrific mediocrity and pretension of modern and ‘mainstream’ art is down to the ideology of illusion. I paint a picture, it is crap, but it doesn’t matter. Quality doesn’t exist anyway! I am special after all! Here’s your Tate commission! Yay!
There can be no great art until genius is recognised for what she is… A grey-breasted hill-partridge.
THE PARTRIDGE OF TRUTH
I live with a grey-breasted hill partridge. His name is Peligro.
Peligro’s unique talent is that he knows when things should stop. When I’ve listened to too much music, read too much, not done enough exercise, eaten enough, planned enough or got to the point of a drawing where another stroke would ruin it, he gently pecks my ankle and looks up at me. I have to be present, sensitive to the moment, or I can’t feel his little tip-taps, but when I feel his soft instructions, I keep to the channel, connected to the good thing.
This morning I was sitting quietly and started worrying about the future. Peligro came up to me and smashed me round the face with a cricket bat.
One savage blow after another rained down on me, blinding pain. I clawed at the air, trying to defend myself, but in vain. He was too fast, too strong.
Eventually it stopped. Battered and throbbing, one swollen eye half-closed, I looked up at Peligro, who was hovering in the air before me. He was no longer the ordinary bird I had rescued and raised from a chick, but a vast, pulsating, glowing bird-god, filling my room with rays of red and gold, the light from his jewelled wings flowing over my furniture like radiant honey. He had shed his mortal birdform, and was revealing himself to me.
I wept with gratitude and Peligro shone with the joy of receiving it. And thus we remained for, I don’t know how long — time melted into eternity — before he flapped his mighty wings and then glided, gloriously, out of the window, off to beat the living shit out of everyone else.
More thoughts on genius here.
- Often praised too of course, but then so is Kanye West. I’m not making an ‘argumentum ad populum’ here.
- Likewise, I can preach greatness, I can tell you what it is, or what you must do, but there is no need for me to be great to do so. This is the ‘do as I say not as I do’ school of teaching practiced by mediocre priests, teachers and art critics since the dawn of time.
- This is why with works of genius you have no idea how the artist did what they did while, at the same time, you feel that they are somehow communicating the nascent truth of your life which you feel charged to let grow. With works of mediocrity on the other hand, you feel that they are communicating the truth of their life, and that if you tried hard enough, you could probably do the same kind of thing.