In early 2013, German artist Wolfgang Laib (whose Milkstone nourished us briefly back in March 2011) will create a wax room in a little upstairs space of the original Phillips house. Up the stairs from the parlors, through intimate galleries (where works by Lee Gatch, Leo Villareal, and Paul Klee currently hang), up a few more stairs to a landing, you will discover the entrance to a small chamber just before the Main Gallery. Step inside, and you will be enveloped by the comforting scent of beeswax in a room just for you (and maybe one companion), illuminated by the glow of a single bare light bulb. The Laib Wax Room will be the artist’s first site-specific wax room for a museum and the Phillips’s first permanent installation since the Rothko Room (1960). Read more about our news on this major commission in today’s New York Times and Washington Post.
In my book The Genius Decision: The Extraordinary and the Postmodern Condition I raise the question: How does one account for those rare and extraordinary works of art that set themselves apart from others? The experience of extraordinary works of art cannot be explained solely in geographical, cultural, or formal terms. In fact, the extraordinary in art cannot be explained at all. The event of the extraordinary in art remains inexplicable – a mystery that is traditionally described by the notion of genius. Even Sigmund Freud, when confronted with Leonardo da Vinci’s “unanalyzable artistic gift,” admitted to the failure of psychoanalysis in explaining artistic creation: “We should be most glad to give an account of the way in which artistic activity derives from the primal instincts of the mind if it were not just here that our capacities fail us.”
What distinguishes the experience of extraordinary works of art from other experiences is that it succeeds in uniting the shared experience of beauty with a noncommunicable personal experience of the sublime – a division that found its most extensive philosophical treatment in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, first published in 1790. Kant distinguished between a communal, pluralistic judgment of taste, the sensus communis aestheticus (which refers exclusively to the beautiful and is characterized by a universal comunicability without mediation of a concept) and a private, individualistic feeling of the sublime. Within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century aesthetics a fundamental change had taken place that shifted attention from the beautiful to the sublime, changing an originally populist notion of art into cultural elitism.