There is a good argument to be made for retiring the words “genius” and “masterpiece” from critical discourse. They are artifacts of the Romantic religion of art, implying a superior race of demigods who loom above ordinary life. Such terms are rooted in the cult of the male artist—the dishevelled Beethovenian loner who conquers an indifferent world. Above all, these words place an impossible burden on contemporary artists, whose creations are so often found wanting when compared with the masterpieces of the past—not because the talent pool has somehow evaporated but because the best of the present diverges from the past. In a decentered global culture, a few great men can no longer dominate the conversation.This is a kind of stylistic quirk that might be fun to deconstruct. Mind you, I have my little quirks too, among which is my liking to start off in a place very different from my main theme. Don't know what we should call that: the "finessed open" maybe? But Alex Ross' gesture is a rather familiar one that has sometimes been called "virtue signaling." In a social environment where certain ideas are thought to be self-evident, but about which there still seems to be, mysteriously, a controversy, virtue signaling is simply a kind of shibboleth indicating to your fellow travelers that you are on their side, one of the good guys. So let's unpack Mr. Ross' opening gambit and see what lies therein.
The implicit claim is that what we are reading is in fact "critical discourse" which, these days at least, prefers to eschew the terms "genius" and "masterpiece". Yes, they were terms that came into currency in the late 18th century and were used frequently during the 19th and part of the 20th century. My feeling about them is not that they imply a "superior race of demigods" --please!-- but that this was part of the changing nature and function of the fine arts as they came more and more to fulfill a role in the identity of the middle class and less and less were just an ornament to the aristocracy. In the ancien regime, the important person was the patron, the nobleman, who commissioned the work. If the work was truly masterful, as so many of them were, then this just redounded to the glory of the patron, as it should. But as the middle class began more and more to be the widely diffused patrons of art, the idea of the genius of the creator became a crucial selling point and hence a central theme of aesthetics. This "superior race of demigods" phrase is just a clumsy way of sneering at the people who wrote masterpieces in the 19th century and as such is hardly "critical discourse" but mere regurgitation of an ideological talking point.
Dragging in the misandrist "male artist" smear is just more of the same. Poor Beethoven, who has to bear the responsibility for so much historic badness! Sadly, the creations of contemporary artists are so often found wanting in exactly the same way that the creations of most of the composers contemporary with Bach and Beethoven are found wanting compared to theirs. No news there.
Now what could Ross possibly mean by "the best of the present diverges from the past?" All I can deduce from that is that what someone like Steve Reich (or, sure, Kate Soper) is doing is different from what Bach or Beethoven were doing. Yeah, sure, ok. I kinda knew that already.
For his final genuflection, Mr. Ross tosses in a couple of standard ideological planks: "decentered global culture" which likely means little more than culture these days is no longer centered on Paris and New York (and isn't that an ironic observation by the music critic for the New Yorker?) and one last weak uppercut to the chin of "a few great men".
If I were unkind, and I am, I would characterize this typical example of Ross' prose as semi-clever smoke and mirrors concealing a rather vacuous ideological stance. Doesn't anyone else ever notice this?
For an envoi let's pick something by Beethoven that goes against the "dishevelled loner" meme and shows rather his genius for whimsy and humor. This is the Piano Sonata op. 31 no. 3 in E flat major played by Daniel Barenboim: