Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.
This week, we’re looking at terms that have to do with artists themselves. Most of these words will be ones that actual practicing contemporary artists think are off-limits. So buckle up for a sacrilegious week!
Terms of Art #32:
Definition: A genius is someone who has exceptional natural talent or aptitude for something. Many examples of people lauded as “geniuses” are artistic, like Mozart or Shakespeare or Michelangelo.
On an older (Enlightenment, Kant-era) picture of genius, the person of genius is basically unaware of what they are doing. They can’t explain it, but they create stuff that’s extraordinarily good, maybe even with extraordinary regularity.
This is related to an even older picture of artistic inspiration: Ancient Greek muses (goddesses of the arts). On some views, the muses literally speak through people. Artists are possessed, mere mouthpieces for their divine words. And that’s only if you’re lucky!
So for a long time, there’s been a connection between the idea of genius and a kind of insanity – or at least lack of self-control and self-possession.The idea of genius as innate talent persists. And it’s still connected with mental illness or compulsion (the “mad genius”).* We tend to think of geniuses as fundamentally different from “normal” people (who can only reach certain heights), rather than as fundamentally “normal” people who are just really good at something, maybe even because they worked really hard to be.
Also, unsurprisingly, “geniuses” are generally white men of the dominant socio-economic class of the time. Eye roll.
Why artists think it’s a dirty word:
Artists nowadays often reject this view of artistry. Why? Because it’s false.
Being a great artist does not require you to be a tortured soul or a special kind of creature, and indeed that myth that has been quite damaging for many people. (Many artists have found that they’re much more productive when they’re not depressed and agonized, and many artists actually live happy, healthy lives.)
This isn’t to say that talent plays no role or doesn’t exist (although its role has been exaggerated in a bunch of ways). But “genius” is just a super weird concept with a super weird history.
Not to be confused with:
1) genus – a group, classificatory category
2) genie – a magical creature that grants wishes; like “genius,” probably a fiction (but etymologically related!)