Who are the artistic geniuses of today? The Beethovens and Mozarts, the Picassos and da Vincis, the Shakespeares and Jane Austens? Would we even recognize them? Or will their relevance only be apparent in 100, 200, 500 years?
I’ve been thinking about this lately — who might last and why — moved by immersion in two wildly differing bodies of work. The first is the much-discussed six-volume magnum opus “My Struggle,” in which the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard slices the mundane details of his life the way Paul Sorvino sliced garlic in “Goodfellas” — into translucent rounds of prose that melt in your head rather than your mouth. The second is the ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts of the works of Hokusai, the Japanese artist-printmaker of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
I can tell you that “My Struggle” speaks to me now; I can tell you that Hokusai speaks to us still. Is there a through-line there? And what about the other cultural figures we routinely subject to the sobriquet “genius,” a word that has lost its meaning for becoming so common? I know who I think qualifies, but my list doubtless differs from yours. More to the point, none of us has any idea who’s in it for the long haul. Will our descendants hail the films of Scorsese or Spielberg or Adam Sandler? Will John Irving be seen as our generation’s Dickens or will the masses and English classes have caught up with David Foster Wallace? You may think you know, but you don’t.
I’m coming to the end of “A Man in Love,” the second volume of “My Struggle” and have already bought volume 3, “Boyhood”; it’s that addictive. (The English translation of volume 4, “Dancing in the Dark,” was published last month to general hosannas.) Either it’s your cup of self-absorption or it’s not: a 3,600-page novel (Or is it a memoir? Or speedwriting?) of the author’s youth and later life, with passages that record the blinding banalities of shopping, eating, arguing with one’s spouse before pulling back to take in the whole riveting tragicomedy of existence. Knausgaard is a Nordic Eeyore who can wear you out with his griping and then make you shake with dark laughter at the universality of his complaints. Anyone who has raised small children will find the early passages of “A Man in Love” painfully familiar in their crankiness, exhaustion, and abiding tenderness. Any father who has been the only man in the room at a toddler’s “Rhythm Time” class will relate.
Will people read Knausgaard in 100 years the way they read Proust, a much more lyrical, consciously artful literary narcissist? Impossible to say, but I’d bet on yes; the paradox of “My Struggle” is that the mundane details are what make it timeless. The sequence late in volume 1, in which the author cleans out his dead alcoholic father’s house, goes on for dozens of pages, way too long, yet in its length and fanatically recorded specifics it illuminates all the coming to terms a child can have with a parent. If people are willing to listen, I think the books may continue to speak.
Just as the art of Hokusai seems eternally relevant even as it’s anchored so fixedly in the Japan of 200 years ago: Popular art then, it’s nearly Pop Art now. The MFA exhibit, which runs until Aug. 9, has the full series of the artist’s “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” including his “greatest hit,” the iconic “Under the Wave off Kanagawa.” But what stopped me in my tracks and practically brought me to tears was a painting on silk of a wild boar, apparently done by Hokusai on the spot at a party. He was an artist of his time, making commercial work for the society of his time, and yet the rightness of the brush strokes, the sharpness of the woodcut lines, the wise, comic, panoramic treatment of individuals brings them out of their time and right to our perceptual doorstep.
Is that what makes genius? The everyday transformed by a sublime artistic gift? Maybe it’s just the gift itself, unique and irreducible. Or perhaps it’s the human being we glimpse through the gift. Toward the end of his second book, Knausgaard writes, “What is art but the gaze of another person? . . . You meet its gaze alone.”
I can rattle off those artists, alive or active in the last 50 years, whose work raises me to similar heights and whom I’d put on my own little list o’ geniuses. Vladimir Nabokov, for one, on the strength of “Pale Fire” alone. Bob Dylan up to “Blood on the Tracks.” Author David Foster Wallace and cartoonist Robert Crumb. Composer Steve Reich, musician-theorist-giant throbbing brain Brian Eno. Musical theater’s Stephen Sondheim and the Kinks’ Ray Davies. Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, the yin and yang of mid-20th-century jazz vocals. Frank Sinatra, for sure. In poetry, Elizabeth Bishop, W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin. In film, Buster Keaton, Yasujiro Ozu, Howard Hawks, Frederick Wiseman. Maybe directors Paul Thomas Anderson and Richard Linklater — we’ll see.
Now, you’re probably looking at my list and laughing your socks off, because it has nothing in common with yours. Which is as it should be; which is why art is a multiplicity with something to irradiate every separate person with rapture and meaning. I’d love to hear your list; post a comment or send me an e-mail. Then think about who on your list might matter to your grandchildren’s grandchildren, and why.
It may well be that the kinds of artists hallowed as timeless will change, because media, technology, and art forms have changed. We revere the composers of 200 years ago because there’s no record of the performers and because written music can always be interpreted anew. Once sound and moving images could be captured — and ultimately live on in the museum of the Internet — the ground rules shifted.
Or did they? The Beatles will always be a matter of historical import to future generations, but will anyone actually listen to their music? (No one under 30 listens to it now if their parents haven’t done the spadework.) Will the lush sonic mindscapes and Hamlet-like anxieties of a rapper like Kendrick Lamar translate over the decades and centuries? Here’s a terrifying thought: Will future listeners better appreciate the artistry embedded in the outrageous braggadocio of Kanye West? I know some very articulate college students who think so.
Or will — and this is far more likely — our grandchildren’s grandchildren take what they need from artists who are undervalued now, if we even know they exist? Maybe what we call “timeless” is merely old stuff that serves the needs of a specific here and now. I’d like to think there will be museum exhibits of Hokusai in 200 years, provided we haven’t blown ourselves up by then. And with luck people will still be reading Knausgaard and Proust. But it’s just as possible that some brilliant, unknown online adept, mulching his or her life into art on Instagram or Tumblr or a blog in the Internet hinterlands will be one of the ones of whom they’ll say: This is everything now — why didn’t anyone see it then?