Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone



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:


the eccentric genius lives on in 1980s Val Kilmer

Pronunciation: JEEN-yuhs

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.


I mean even her eyes look possessed… must be the muses [source]

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.

*Notable quotable: “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” Widely attributed to Aristotle with – as far as I can tell – little evidence (you can thank Seneca for that one).

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!)


  1. It’s too quick to say that artists generally reject the notion of ‘genius.’ It’s true that to say that some greatness is down to ‘genius’ is basically to to offer no explanation at all, to throw one’s hands up in awe and defeat – but there are plenty of extremely hard-working, talented, serious artists in the world, yet there’re only a handful of people in the history of art who’re comparable to say Bach, Shakespeare, Picasso. Are we to think that these guys just worked more? Worked more than artists I know who dedicate every waking moment to art without coming within a light-year of these guys?

    • I get what you’re saying, but why not just think those people are *very* talented? Or that they were lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and socially and historically positioned to have a long-lasting legacy? I mean there are lots of people who fall somewhere on the spectrum between no-name artists and Bach. To reiterate, I’m just denying this weird “genius” concept as someone who’s fundamentally different from the rest of us mere mortals. I’m not denying that such a thing as talent exists (although I do think its role is way overblown).

      • Well first I don’t think that ‘talent’ is any more explanatory than ‘genius.’ After all, to be a talented artist isn’t reducible to any specific skills. So I don’t think I’d disagree with you then geniuses are just very talented people, but on the other hand I don’t think that would help you chip away at the cult of genius. (Or ‘talent’ *is* reducible to other specific skills, and then it doesn’t get us any closer to ‘genius.’)

        Second, I don’t think that Bach can be explained away by positing that he was just at the right place at the right time, first because there were plenty of other composers contemporaneous with him, and second because his music isn’t good because of how it fits into some specific moment in music history. He’s not great because of some musical innovation or synthesised some disparate traditions, stuff that could only be done when he did it. Rather, he’s great because he’s just great! (I throw my hands up in the air in awe and defeat.)

        The ‘geniuses are a creature apart from us’ idea comes from this failure of comprehension, and until someone bridges that gap I’m gonna keep on thinking, against every egalitarian and naturalist instinct in me, that they’re angels sent from God.

    • P.S. I opened my first comment with an empirical claim about what artists think and then immediately switched to a philosophical point. OOPS. Where that first sentence was meant to go is: I know a good few people in classical music, and they’re not anti-geniuses. And classical composers indeed genuinely do hole up in a room for months on end to write their big orchestral masterpieces, just like the fables tell us artists do. I was actually pretty shocked to hear this but there you have it. Now there’s obviously lots of points to be made about how isolated they *really* are, but artists in classical music certainly *take* themselves to be isolated.

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