The artist and his image. The concept of genius in the French Enlightenment.

Eduardo Cardoso Braga

There is a relationship between an aesthetic theory and the image of the artist. Every aesthetic generates an image of an artist. And every artist image is based on an aesthetic. We can observe in academic discussions about aesthetics and philosophy of a growing concern with the concept of genius. There are numerous studies focusing mainly on the issue in its first phase of development in England and in its final phase and the apex break in German Idealism. However, in its intermediate stage, represented by the French Enlightenment concept of genius has not had the same intensity in the researches. Certainly the concept of genius reached its climax with the Genielehre German aesthetic philosophy of Hamann, Herder, Lessing and Goethe. His Germanic origins can be clearly located in Kant. However, this time to understand properly the concept, it is necessary to understand it in its French development, which represents an intermediate stage between the English and the climax Germanic origins.

In the French eighteenth century, the concept of “genius” did not denote a mystical or unknown character, because it embodied in a man or artist. In fact, it designated the man himself, or the greatest virtue of a civilized man. We can understand this issue to verify the presence of two ways to say and understand the concept of genius. In French there are two expressions that, when used correctly, reveal two different conceptions of “genius” “to have the genius” (avoir du génie) and “a genius” or a man of genius (être a geniusan homme de génie).

The term “own genius” meant in the seventeenth century French have the great talent. Thus, there was no significant difference between talent and genius. Voltaire in the article “Génie” in his “Philosophical Dictionary” (Dictionnaire pilosophique) writes: “But ultimately the genius is nothing other than talent.” Of course, there are different ways in which the nature, origin, influence and value of this talent can be defined and evaluated. But “to have the genius” “genius” is seen as primarily something separable from the possessor, something that comes and goes, something like an inspiration. The concept of genius with a talent does not change the position of man in the world.

On the other hand, the form “a genius” (être a genius) inseparably unites the individual and the power, identifying humans with supernatural power. Being a genius means then an extraordinary power embodied in one man which constitutes his own being. It is inextricably connected with his inner nature and its history, and therefore this man provides an unique position among humans.

The transition from the conception of genius as merely a talent for design genius as a single individual was achieved by a specific act of thought. The main character that have shaped this act was Diderot’s thought He was aware of the problem of genius and their typology.

A historic condition that led to the formulation of Diderot’s genius as the uniqueness and creative power was the fact that the old man’s idealized types, such as cortigiano (courtier, IE, refined man, polite, courteous) or honnête homme (man grown , educated and cultured, who knows how to use their reason and common sense), had disappeared and the new and growing social stratum of the bourgeoisie needed to find a typology that would express its ethos.

In the same period a new type began to establish himself in the social hierarchy: the “literary man” (homme de lettres) and “philosopher” (philosophe). During the eighteenth century literati, les gens de lettres, the philosopher-writer, constitutes the first time in history, an independent social stratum and conscious of their values ​​and public life, not only as individuals but also as a group. The editors of the Encyclopédie called themselves as “a literary society” (une Société de gens de letters).

The man of letters, the philosopher appears as a high form of human activity, playing an important role in public life, becoming the spokesman, the youth representative, and revolutionary new ideas and artistic and literary activities.

Already Shaftesburry in his quest for ethical-aesthetic education of man, united the idea of the philosopher and the artist and no doubt his ideas have penetrated the German and French thought. The concept of poet acquires a form of authority, prestige that spanned the nineteenth century.

Another historic condition that favored the positive appreciation of the genius is the disintegration of the art theory of the seventeenth century. This was manifested by the disintegration of aesthetic choice relative to epistemology and the appreciation of feeling and sensitivity. A work of art, no longer be judged by the degree of compliance with traditional standards and rules set, but the degree of pleasure that it can transmit. This aesthetic pleasure is caused, not by rational intellectual structure and simplicity, but the free play of imagination and emotion. Woke up, then a keen interest in the artist’s creative powers and his psychological process of creation. Alongside his own philosophy is to criticize the great rationalist systems of the seventeenth century and early eighteenth centuries. An appreciation of emotion starts against his minor role in rationalistic epistemology that considers the source of error. Literary criticism also reconsiders and values withe imagination and inspiration of the states, positioning itself against the rationalistic epistemology that regarded them as mere ghosts. Its revaluation of inspiration and imagination that drives the phenomenon of genius to a reconsideration.

From its origins the concept of genius is directly linked to the concept of individuality. The aesthetic thought English had already formulated the concept of genius calling the unique to the individual as Shakespeare. This unique and exceptional individual can creates a work of art only through their own talents. The union between the appreciation of individual expression in art and the concept of genius becomes evident. This concept finds its full expression only when the artist can creates their own rules and laws, contempt for all norms, even those established by tradition, or any objectivity that transcends the artist’s choice.

So it was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the art and the artist, now renowned as a genius, became increasingly an essential element of life and cultivated his ideal of happiness.

The image of the artist as genius was in the romantic theories currency to become a stereotype. However, by the above, we can deduct that the concept of genius made wit possible to understand modern art as an autonomous value and aesthetics as a transforming force of consciousness.

DIDEROT, Denis (1765). Diderot on Art I and II. Trans. P. Goodman, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
TOWNSEND, Dabney, “Shaftesbury’s Aesthetic Theory,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 41/2 (1982): 205-213.
VOLTAIRE. Philosophical Dictionary (1752). Edited by Theodore Besterman. London: Penguin Books, 2002.

São Paulo, 06 de Julho de 2011

Prof. Dr. Eduardo Cardoso Braga


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