Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

What Are Our Artistic Geniuses Doing Today?

Last week we spent an hour each evening watching the episodes of Bishop Barron's video series Catholicism, The Pivotal Players, which featured an episode each on St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed John Henry Newman, Chesterton, and Michelangelo. (If you're curious to give it a try, the episodes are still free online through tomorrow, Thursday May 23rd, at the link above.)

I should probably write a review of the series, but this isn't it. What has me thinking about it at the moment was the last episode, focused on Michelangelo and the religious art of the high Renaissance. Michelangelo grew up in an Caprese, a small town about 100km from Florence. Florence at that time was what today would be considered a small city, with perhaps 100,000 people. That means that Renaissance Florence had a population about twice the size of my small Ohio city of Delaware, Ohio and about on a par with modern day cities you've probably heard little of as major cultural centers: Peoria, Illinois; Provo, Utah; College Station, Texas; etc.

One could say that Michelangelo was a unique genius, one of those one-in-a-billion people whose existence in any given city was so unlikely that where he appeared is a matter of random chance. But while he was one of the most brilliant artists of his time and place, he was hardly the only great Florentine artists of the era. Even the second and third tier artists of Renaissance Florence would stand head and shoulders above the artists of major arts centers today, much less the artistic community of Peoria.

Why did the cities of the Renaissance, seemingly small cities by moderns standards, produce such amazing artists compared to our much larger modern population centers?

Surely some of the responsibility has to do with the structure of the artistic communities themselves. The way in which master sculptors and painters kept studios of apprentices and trained them from a young age in the work of their craft must surely have resulted in people whose native talent received much more training than is often the case now.

Further, commissioning art (and durable art which has come down to us over 500+ years) was a major way for the wealthy to express their power and success in the Renaissance. This meant that there was sufficient money being funneled into those master artists' studios to maintain them and their apprentices.

And thinking of those apprentices and master artists: If someone had the ability to learn to become a great artist in Renaissance Florence, he had a pretty good way to rise in the world, at a time when few people had such opportunities. Perhaps it's significant that today there are many other ways for an incredibly gifted, hard working, and ambitious person to make a mark in the world than by producing art.

Often we think of genius as being focused on one thing. And certainly, a given person is often gifted in a given direction. But might the eye, sense of space, willingness to study, etc. which made Michelangelo a brilliant artist enable a modern person with the same talents able to become a brilliant engineer or surgeon or any number of other things? Perhaps our modern Michelangelos and Da Vincis are scattered out across any number of fields to which people can train their abilities in order to achieve success and lasting effects.

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