Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Whither Genius?

I recently read a remarkably dunderheaded blog post I will not share with you, in which some chap makes the perfectly correct statement that without a thorough grounding in music, Mozart would never have accomplished what he did, and then, incredibly, deduces from this that it's training alone that produces artistic genius. This is a fallacy my six year old would squint at. The guy wants to sell you photography education, natch.

It did cause me to wonder what a Mozart of the camera would look like, and I confess myself stumped.

So let's say you're making some work of Art or whatever, and that you're a genius. Where, exactly, does the genius show up?

First and foremost let's stipulate that in the really great stuff there's genius all over it. From the initial concept to the tiniest and most mundane details, there is, in the best work, a little flair of greatness.

That said, though, there's a lot of the work that's typically pretty close to paint by numbers, "Blah blah blah, fill in this bit with standard voice leading, you know how it goes", "this background is pretty much just green", and so on. A skilled technician could fill in various swathes of a symphony or painting or a sculpture with good quality boilerplate, imitating the style of the parts already provided, and complete the work perfectly well. It might not quite sparkly as if the master had finished it, but it's good.

The initial concept, at some point, isn't anything more complicated than "funeral mass, I need to write a funeral mass" which comes with a handy toolbox of tropes (minor key, lots of bass notes, march rhythms, and probably a 100 other things I don't know about) that you can get started with. There's no particular genius shining through here.

The bulk of the genius, it seems to me, actually goes in to what I am going to call "the riff", which isn't quite accurate, because it's more than just a musical motive. It's the part where you synthesize the idea, the tropes that go with the idea, together with some standard stuff and generate an innovative solution that fits, that explicates, the idea.

In music you might use, I don't know, maybe an unorthodox approach to resolving dissonance that makes the particular harmonic progression you're writing work especially well with your concept. You might choose to paint a night sky as a riot of swirling blues and yellows.

Once you've got "the riff" (or several of them) sorted out, a skilled technician can crank out derivative works pretty much ad nauseum. The results might lack a little sparkle, a little je ne sais quoi but history shows us that typically even the experts can't tell, when the technician is really competent. Indeed, the Great Masters themselves did this, they reached into their little box of "riffs" and recycled them, which is really why the forgers get away with it without necessarily having that spark of genius themselves.

How does this fit into a photograph?

The idea of a "riff" still fits in. For some reason Eggleston's tricycle comes to mind, the use of forced perspective makes this picture what it is. It's a "riff" in the sense I mean. It's more than a gimmick, because it's what makes the picture work. It's a visual trick that expresses the idea extraordinarily.

Still, it seems to be somehow basically small. There doesn't seem to be as much room in photography for genius to do its thing. It's not as if we can now use this idea and a couple more like it to really stamp this string quartet with the idea, develop it a couple of different ways, and really let that riff shine, maybe introduce a few more like it and develop them too. It's pretty much "there is it in the picture", done.

This doesn't mean it's not a pretty great idea, it's just that it has a lot less room.

You can get a little farther with a book or collection, but it's still not exactly a symphony, is it?

I think, in short, that a little flash of genius goes a lot farther in photography.

It is as if musical pieces were all about 4 bars long. How would we then tell the difference between Mozart and someone less gifted? I myself might have a momentary flash of genius and write a short jingle of real genius. Mozart, though, could produce these things apparently on demand and elaborate them into hours of music essentially as fast as he could write, and he could write very fast indeed. That is why I'm not Mozart.

So, my thinking, at this precise moment, is that while their [sic] might be a Mozart of the camera running around somewhere, it's going to be harder to recognize that work.