ARTISTIC genius can usually be spotted a mile away. Not necessarily as genius, but certainly as something special or unusual. During the past century, it's often appeared where least expected, and in forms that have taken almost everyone by surprise. And, as if that weren't confusing enough, it's occasionally popped up in individuals viewed by their contemporaries as failures or frauds. Both Van Gogh and the young Picasso bore the brunt of such misperceptions - the former because he seemed incapable of doing anything right, and the latter because his Cubist and early abstract paintings were so obviously a joke.
They weren't, of course - and neither was Van Gogh a failure - but it took the world a while to understand that, and even longer to give both artists their full due.
Well, one might ask, so what? Isn't that the classic fate of genius? To always come up against ignorance, prejudice, and convention, and, inevitably, to be misunderstood?
Actually, that's not the case, although it was shortly before and during this century, and, to a lesser extent, for a century before that. The belief that artistic genius is invariably misunderstood is a modern one directly linked to the decline and fall of the Western painting tradition that began with Giotto and Masaccio, and ended with Ingres and Delacroix.
Van Gogh was misunderstood because he rejected a dead, formula-ridden but popular academic approach to art ... Picasso, because he co-invented a new style, Cubism, practically out of thin air. Leonardo da Vinci, on the other hand, was understood and respected right from the start because he embodied and carried to new heights a centuries-old tradition that represented the beliefs, aspirations, and realities of his time and place. He created, in other words, not to react against tradition, but to further and enrich the one into which he was born.
And what was true of Leonardo was equally true of Raphael, Rubens, Vel'azquez, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt - as well as of El Greco and Vermeer - despite the fact that Michelangelo and Rembrandt strained their respective traditions toward the end of their lives, and El Greco and Vermeer didn't receive quite as much attention as they deserved.
It's only when one gets to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that one finds genuine, widespread misunderstanding of artistic genius. But that should come as no surprise, since Monet, Manet, C'ezanne, Gauguin, and the rest were the first group of Western artists ever to set themselves up in direct opposition to everything the art world of their day held dear. In their own eyes, they may have been champions of truth in art, but to most of their contemporaries they were clumsy and uninspired painters at best, and corruptors of cultural values at worst.
Of course, this view was short-lived. By the end of the 19th century, these artists not only were internationally acclaimed, but had established an important artistic precedent as well.
It affirmed that art, by its very nature, is both revolutionary and innovative. Thus, to qualify as art, a painting or piece of sculpture would henceforth have to break new ground, advance a new style or theory, or synthesize two apparently contradictory modernist approaches (as Jackson Pollock's paintings did when they reconciled Abstraction and Expressionism). Since genius and talent, by themselves, counted for little or nothing, this meant that any shrewd and ambitious person with a clever gimmick or novel idea stood a reasonable chance of succeeding with the more uncritical or trendy members of the art community.
Although such shallow recognition usually had a short life span, the frequency of its occurrence did much to undermine the public's already shaky confidence in modernism. If so many ``geniuses'' of one decade were declared flawed or irrelevant the next, was there anything of value in this art at all?
Much of the problem stemmed from art-world hype which all too often took advantage of the public's insecurities in matters of art. The pitch was persuasive, and centered on the many embarrassing errors in judgment collectors had made over the years by failing to grasp the significance of such artists as Van Gogh, Picasso, and Pollock. Don't, the potential buyer was warned, make the same mistake! Always assume that impossible-looking, even ugly, new work will prove to be great art, and that anything immediately appealing will turn out to be superficial or lightweight.
Unfortunately, the result of all this has been widespread insecurity. Even critics feel the pressure. No one, after all, wants to be remembered as French critic Albert Wolff is for his 1876 review in which he labeled the Impressionists ``lunatics'' and ``hallucinated,'' and insisted that Degas knew nothing about drawing and color.
Small wonder, then, that the highly touted entry of a hot new ``star'' into the gallery world's firmament of emerging ``geniuses'' causes so much consternation. Who is to say that what he or she produces is good or bad, especially if it is at least partly intended to violate all rules, and possibly even to challenge the very concepts of quality and significance in art as well.
Julian Schnabel, whose meteoric rise to art-world notoriety made him the most heatedly discussed painter of his generation, is a good case in point. His first assault upon art-world sensibilities took place around 1980 with huge paintings covered by broken crockery. Undaunted by the public's cries of outrage, and cheered on by a handful of supporters, he followed suit with equally large pictures, some on black velvet, to which he attached deer antlers, branches of trees, animal hides, and pieces of copper and bronze. And these, in turn, were followed in 1986 by even larger works painted on discarded Kabuki Theater backdrops, with some of the original Kabuki imagery left intact.
Nothing quite so controversial had hit the art world in years. Alternately reviled and applauded, Schnabel quickly became the most famous artist in America. By 1984, his fame was equal to that of a rock star, and by 1986, he was proclaimed by some as art's major hope for the future.
Today, in 1988, thanks to an uninspired traveling retrospective of his work and Anselm Kiefer's emergence as the new great hope for art, Schnabel's reputation has dropped dramatically. To many, he's a ``has-been,'' a burned-out talent destroyed by ambition and the gallery world's insatiable hunger for the new. Others, however, having noted evidence of genuine talent and substance in his paintings, feel otherwise. To them, he's been given a second chance to develop as an artist, even to prove whether or not he's a genius. And best of all, to do so without the hype and hoopla that surrounded him the first time around.