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Art and Genius and Art and Celebrity.

Art and Genius and Art and Celebrity.
14 June 2016 0 Comment

(Rome, 1545) One afternoon Vasari brought a famous visitor to meet Titian, who art was known far and wide and who had just arrived in Rome and was accommodated in rooms in the Belvedere in the Vatican. Michelangelo was seventy years old and had focused most recently on architecture and did not at this stage of his life feel the need to bother with other people. He had nonetheless made time to go and see Titian, and the two men who had  almost certainly met during Michelangelo’s brief sojourn in Venice in 1529, greeted each other warmly. Barely able to control his joy, it was Vasari who understood better than anybody else that he was in the company or artistic Gods whose work would change the course of western art.

Over there was Michelangelo whose art was rooted in drawing but fundamentally sculptural in character, expressed a perfection that nature itself was scarcely able to emulate; a cantankerous individualist who slept in his work clothes and didn’t feel the need to explain himself to anybody. Over here was Titian, the Venetian, fifteen years younger than Michelangelo; a worldly diplomat of an artist, sensualist in essence, if not always in practice whose pleasant manner had been noted even by Michelangelo, whom Michelangelo acknowledged as a painter from his mother’s womb.

Vasari, a fine artist in his own right, pursued an idea that gave birth to art celebrity in his epoch-making book “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” (first published in 1550) whose words have many art historians today muttering their discomfort, preferring to focus on the errors of his text. Often failing to see or understand Vasari’s gift of writing about art and artists not as an academic formulae but as a gifted story teller in the tradition of Boccaccio. Vasari brings his characters to life as people with a sense of the biblical in the Hebraic tradition; as such he sees Michelangelo as a godlike messiah who restores art to its divine perfection. It’s true that Vasari, like most artists I know today, had his prejudices particularly when it came to Venetian art; on Tintoretto he wrote, “His sketches are so crude that his pencil strokes show more force than judgment and seem to have been made by chance.” However he understand genius in other artists and the enduring qualities of genius when he wrote,  “Leonardo da Vinci was a man of regal spirit and tremendous breadth of mind; and his name became so famous that not only was he esteemed during his lifetime, but his reputation endured and became even greater after his death.” The first true celebrity or hero in art was recognised by Vasari and written about in the tradition of Homer or Dante where the humanity of the man and his life’s work is described and celebrated.

(Today) We live in a time where there are more artists at work than ever before in human history. Very few will achieve recognition or fame that will last the passage of time. Art has become a commercial commodity that relies on the same marketing strategies that were born to sell cars and refrigerators. In this modern world of artistic noise, it’s the curators and art dealers who decide who is the next artistic celebrity as they “pick” over a sea of disposable and quickly forgotten artwork in their relentless search for the newest artistic god!

Vasari would be mystified if not incensed by the world of art today that in part he created, struggling with the idea of art that mostly amuses in its brief existence on the stage of international fame and celebrity. He would probably agree with that modern day wordsmith and art critic Robert Hughes who wrote,  “So much of art – not all of it thank god, but a lot of it – has just become a kind of cruddy game for the self-aggrandisement of the rich and the ignorant, it is a kind of bad but useful business.” No, Vasari never saw art as a business; it always represented a much higher, intellectual calling which in his writing opened up a time in history when art educated and inspired great things.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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