We look around lately at the arts and culture, literature and poetry, theater and the cinema and perhaps cannot help but to feel that somehow as a generation we are lagging behind our more accomplished predecessors. Is our age, our (post)modern condition, somehow unprecedented in its artistic mediocrity? Is the age responsible for the impossibility of real genius in the arts today? Or is this condition (if one such exists) perpetuated by our own lack of confidence in our accomplishments?
Walter Kaufmann looks back into history to find some examples of genius or excellence in philosophy, music, and literature. We revere Plato and Aristotle for their philosophy, Mozart and Beethoven for music, and Shakespeare above all for drama, while modern artists wallow in self-pity and burn their works and egos on the altars of futility crying, “Oh, if I were only born in another age!” After all, who are our heroes today? Who do we idolize? Hollywood and mass media teaches us to follow popular trends too readily. Social media further shows our preferences. For example as of today, the most popular on Twitter are Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Barack Obama (the only politician who has wiggled his way into this entertainment pageant). Perhaps the problem lies not in the lack of genius but in the lack of recognition of genius: if a Shakespeare or a Mozart or Aristotle appeared on our culture’s stage, would we even recognize their remarkable talent or would we boo them off the stage?
Although I cannot disagree that popular taste is not the most sophisticated or discriminating nowadays, has it ever been? As Kaufmann explains, Socrates was put to death, Dante was exiled, Van Gogh died a pauper. Are we lacking an elite, a sophisticated audience? Have our tastes disintegrated because of poor education? I don’t believe so. I think we are more starved for quality cultural products than ever–starting with TV programming, news, art, music, cinema ending with philosophy and politics.
Instead of complaining and whining about our inability to live up to the best other ages had to offer, we should confidently march on and pursue our passions because without passion and spunk none of these great men would have made it into the pages of history. Besides, only the future is capable of singling out a generation’s men of genius. So we might as well abandon our anxieties and reach for the stars!