Reynolds' Genius in Captivity

With Sir Joshua Reynolds leading the dominant opinion on art and poetic genius, Blake faced an idea of genius in bondage. Reynolds’ idea of genius is one of definite limits, one whose purpose lies solely in the perfection of the natural world and the communication of physical experience. Art and genius are to be learned within the confines of a rigid system. While he appeals to the artist to “captivate the imagination” rather than “amuse mankind with the minute neatness of his imitations,” he also limits the artist’s imaginative space to that of the Ideal Beauty. All art should then be in pursuit of this singular ideal, not the invention of something new.

Yet with one standard of beauty, is the artist really captivating the imagination or merely entertaining? The true imagination is infinite and is not bound to recapitulate earthly experience. Reynolds’ kind of imagination instead leads only to an expanded dull round. While horizons seem to open for a moment at the initial sight of the Ideal Beauty, the constrained painter and his viewer soon settle into a new monotony of chasing the artistic status quo.

These accepted limitations thrust the artist and his audience into a willing bondage. At the time of Israel’s delivery, the nation’s captivity had grown into more than physical enslavement but a kind of mental bondage that made the people reluctant to resist their captors. Slavery had become so comfortable, that the frightening uncertainty of freedom made the Israelites long to return to captivity almost immediately after Moses led them away. In the same way, the viewer and Reynolds’ artist become complacent with a kind of art that only perfects known experience. Subjecting imagination to structure and reason suffocates what new ideas dare peak through.

It is, therefore, uncomfortable for the public to accept Blake’s assertion that art depends on the newly imagined, ideas that rise from the innate being of the artist rather than his physical surroundings. Blake spurs the individual on to a form of spiritual war against the Reynolds ideology to reclaim the eternal self of the imagination. Blake’s genius calls for action and calls for the viewer to likewise be a creator.

Like much of Blake’s work, his idea of genius began to flourish after his own lifetime, and years later he was affirmed by the unlikely figure of Albert Einstein. While Reynolds applied the principles of reason to art in order to constrain it, Einstein oppositely applied Blake’s unlimited genius to reason and to life. Genius lies in each individual’s capacity to create. Genius cannot then be contrived by following a set of rules or learned by experience but is part of the innate capacity of man. The challenge is to engage it.