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Art in a Literate Society

ART TIMES Jul, 2003

I SHARE WITH you a Iittle something I gleaned from the writings of Edith Wharton: "Talent is often like an ornamental excrescence; but the quality loosely called genius usually irradiates the whole character."* Long an intimate of many of the larger ‘lights’ of her time in both Europe and America — the quote is from her chapter devoted to Henry James — Wharton counted among her intimates writers, philosophers, musicians, statesmen, painters, performers, divines, lecturers, sculptors, and academics, surely a large enough sampling of both those with talent and those with genius to speak from experience. Her observations into people and life are often penetrating; none, perhaps, more so than this one line toss-off. She quickly follows this comment with a quote from Goethe who, while speaking of Schiller, once said, "If he but so much as cut his nails, one saw at once that he was a greater man than any of them." Certainly she knew how to get the best out of people and, if that one ‘best’ was all there was to have, then, tant pis! — she was sure to root out full-fledged genius elsewhere. She lived, of course, in a different world — one so utterly lost to us that it is difficult for us to grasp just how special those times were. People did seem to cultivate more manners, more character back then. Not all of it can be attributed to a generosity of view in Edith Wharton – for she had no compunctions about deflating the pompous or of lampooning the shallow whenever she saw fit to prick the bubbles of the ingenuous. One can only assume, then, that she knew from whence she spoke when it came to a person’s "ornamental excrescence" as opposed to the possession of true "genius." Wharton’s world — as it surely is today — was full of the "talented" and, also as it is today, short on those who are bona fide geniuses. How delightful that Wharton took the time to observe — and to point out — the difference! Ah, but we are not so discerning today. How we fall over ourselves when the merest hint of talent comes our way! Perhaps it’s because we live in such a culturally deprived world, a world short on civility and long on crass popularity, that we so readily are seduced by even the most frivolous of "talents." We idolize almost anyone who masters even the slightest of skills — the latest actor, the newest model, the best-selling writer, the zaniest artist —never once noting that, bereft of that one talent there is — in the words of Gertrude Stein — "no there, there." Their "claim to fame" is a surface affectation — one can’t say it any plainer than did Wharton when she described it as an "ornamental excrescence" — and, once lost, faded, or passé, renders the "talented" an empty and rather pathetic figure. And how quickly do our modern-day tastes change! No wonder that Warhol only vouchsafes us a mere 15 minutes of fame. Talents come and go and that’s for sure. But how many of us have come across those "irradiated" few whose light shines under any light and under any circumstance — those special few who illuminate the world at all stages of their careers and lives. Surely they exist somewhere "out there" — but who, in this one-dimensional, fast-food, politically correct, celebrity-intoxicated world would recognize genius when confronted by it? Oh, where are the Whartons of yesteryear?

*From A Backward Glance, Chapter VIII, 2.

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