It’s sixty years since the publication of the paper in Nature revealing the double-helix structure of DNA, surely the most important scientific breakthrough of the last century. That work by Watson, Crick and several others had the sense of genius, ranking with other scientific discoveries such as the elucidation of atomic structure and the periodic table.
These and other strokes of genius were inspired by a special free expression of each natural subject. Firstly, this involved some idea about nature that came from the human senses, the soul, the gut. Only then was it presented as widely relevant human knowledge. It provoked a wow response from different kinds of people.
Some works of art also have this ingredient, what has been called “spirit”. Rembrandt showed it in his self-portraits, but it was absent in the work of his Dutch contemporaries. Pourbus’s portraits, for example, were formal and remote from anything real in Dutch society. Just compare
The novelist George Eliot recognised genius in writing when it “deals with life in its highest complexity. If it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram, it becomes the most offensive of all”. That is no fault of these artists, just that they couldn’t reveal themselves with sufficient awareness of the whole, the pain and the dirt and the difficulties of real life. The work of great scientists needs the same awareness of relevance and plurality.
(thanks to AC Danto. What Art is. Yale UP, 2013)