Once the past is gone and buried, people seem to look on it as quaint. But whenever I look into the past I always end up thinking, 'these people are insane!' Abraham Lincoln grew up in a log cabin and had almost no education, and yet went on to be not just President of the United States, but arguably the best President ever! Where are the Lincolns of today?
As insane as that is, I find insanity of the past strongest in the arts. The level of insanity to even be an artist is pretty high, but these old guys took art to crazy levels of virtuosity. It's hard for me to envision how they kept it up.
I first began to think this way about music. I became very interested in Baroque music around the age of 12. That interest has not wavered since. The commitment and obsession that these Baroque greats had to music is almost incomprehensible. Despite the fact that Bach's toccatas are today heard as Halloween music, the mere sound of the harpsichord conjures up pictures of ridiculous, effeminate antiquity to the casual ear, and Vivaldi is used as elevator music, the fact remains--these guys wrote amazing music. And lots of it. Plus they were alive at a time when many elements of musical thought we take for granted were still new or being developed. So, they were all innovators as well as top notch artists. Most of them were virtuosos on an instrument, too. Bach was a great organist, and harpsichordist and a pretty decent violinist. Vivaldi was one of the greatest violinists of his time. The level of obsession, daring, and formal solidity they possessed made them great artists for all time. If you've ever seen the film Amadeus, one thing I think that is portrayed quite well is the passion and obsession that these composers possessed, which was requisite to their greatness. That film is in many ways a reenactment of this 'insanity of the past' concept.
In visual art, even the most jaded person's jaw drops when they see a Jan Van Eyck. There are a lot of those jaded types in the visual arts. But few people can walk by such a superhuman achievement casually. A little history only adds to the awe. Van Eyck was active in the first half of the 1400's when oil painting was still a toddler. Yet, he has never been equaled as a painter of detailed, hyper-realist textures. His cloth and wood and glass have verisimilitude that is still at the apex of the medium, technically. That's insane.
Fast-forward past many other great achievements to the Hudson river school. Thomas Cole had a student named Fredric Edwin Church. Personally, I'm not his biggest fan--his aesthetic is too maudlin for me, his paintings too clogged with detail. But to look at his paintings is to understand the insanity of the Hudson River School. His finished paintings are huge, caked with an almost blinding amount of detail. His foliage is rendered without editing, every leaf is there and in sharp focus. His only tool to recreate such accurate details from nature were his own observation and his pencil and oil sketches. To today's viewer his sketches may be more appealing than his finished works, which can seem contrived, pretentious and decorative. The sketches have an amazing accuracy to them. Done with great speed, from nature, they take on a visceral quality of that nature. Taking a massive amount of detail, and forming it into a cohesive view of a real location is extremely difficult and Church seems to do it effortlessly. Only seems. He was insane and his effort is a benchmark for any serious artist.
The past is full of this kind of craziness. I don't know if people were more bored back then, art was more valued, or if people were exposed to too much lead and thus insane. Of course history filters out mediocrity, presenting only the great visions. But, I keep finding a brotherhood with these past artists and the level they were willing to take things to. I feel that some of that energy is missing today. At very least people, on average, don't seem to have the respect for the insanity that has occurred in the past and the value it has in the present. The past is not quaint, it's crazy stuff!