Why Doesn’t Anyone Believe in Genius Anymore?

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 5 2012 11:32 PM

You Are Not a Switch

Recreativity and the modern dismissal of genius.

Recreativity.

Illustration by Laura Terry.

Some years ago I visited the Tate Modern in London with my young son. Then aged 5, he had lately been drawing pictures of a fantastical nature, so as we approached the threshold of a Surrealism retrospective, I suggested that he might want to check these paintings out. “It’s really weird, this stuff,” I said, giving it the hard sell. “And you might get some good ideas.” He just flashed me a disapproving look: “That would be copying.”

This incident sprang to mind recently when making my way through a spate of recent books, articles, and blog posts celebrating the practice of artistic theft. In stark contrast to my 5-year-old’s seemingly instinctive aversion to mimesis, an emerging movement of critics, theorists, writers, and artists argue that techniques of appropriation and quotation are inherent to the creative process. Not only are the concepts of originality and innovation obsolete, they’ve always been myths. Let’s call this movement recreativity.

The most high-profile proponents of recreativity are Jonathan Lethem and David Shields. Both published manifestos—“The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” and Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, respectively—that put into practice what they preach by being assembled almost entirely out of quotations. Earlier this summer another acclaimed novelist, Tom McCarthy, entered the fray with the e-book Transmission and The Individual Remix. Academia has produced book-length interventions such as Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing and Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying, while art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud has brought a fresh twist to old debates about appropriation and the ready-made with his concept of postproduction art.  

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Many of these polemics make allusions to DJ culture in their titles: Mark Amerika’s remixthebook, Kirby Ferguson’s video essays and website Everything Is A Remix, Arram Sinnreich’s Mashed Up. Remixing and mashups are familiar—indeed, somewhat tired—notions in dance culture, but in critical circles they enjoy modish currency because they seem to capture something essential about the cut-and-paste sensibility fostered by digital culture. Likewise, the Internet’s gigantic archive of image, sound, text, and design has encouraged a view of the artist as primarily a curator, someone whose principal modes of operation involve recontextualization and connection-making. 

As a neutral description of the current state of the art in many fields, this would be fine. But recreativists don’t just champion these practices, they make grand claims about the essentially recycled nature of all art. In Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling, authors Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola quote the DJ Matt Black’s assertion that “humans are just sampling machines ... that’s how we learn to paint and make music.” In an opinion piece for NPR, Alva Noë discussed contemporary anxieties about plagiarism in a cut-and-paste era and defended quotation as an artistic practice. But instead of stopping there, he also asserted that “sampling is nothing new, not in art, and not in life ... Evolution, whether in biology, or in technology and culture, is never anything other than a redeployment of old means in new circumstances.* We use the old to make the new and the new is always old.” Much the same idea crops up in Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, a sort of self-help manual for modern creatives. Kleon moves quickly from “every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas” to insisting that “you are the sum of your influences” and that “you’re a remix of your mom and dad.”

Recreativity has many proponents and represents a wide spectrum of opinion. Still, it’s striking how easily some of these critics and theorists glide from relatively sensible talk about the role of appropriation and allusion in art to sweeping claims of an ontological or biological nature. They seem so confident. How they can be certain that nobody has ever just come up with some totally new idea, ex nihilo? The remixed nature of everything (not new) under the sun has become an article of faith. Impossible to prove, these assertions tell us way more about our current horizons of thought and our cultural predicament than they do about the nature of creativity or the history of art.   

In Steal Like an Artist, Kleon approvingly cites Jonathan Lethem’s claim that “when people call something ‘original,’ nine out of ten times they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.” That’s just one of many widely cited maxims on the recreativity circuit. Others include “We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants” and that hardy perennial, “Talent borrows, genius steals,” attributed to a wide array of poets and painters. 

The emphasis of that particular proverbial truism has shifted, though. It used to be a way of celebrating the artfulness of the genius, who takes something and makes it his or her own, effectively erasing its origin and turning it into another facet of his or her glittering originality. This contrasts with the timid craftsman—the merely talented—who never quite makes you forget the source and ultimately achieves glitter only by association. But nowadays the rhetorical purpose of “genius steals” is decidedly different: It’s meant to make us feel more skeptical about the very idea of the genius, who allegedly pilfers his ideas from elsewhere, just like anybody else.

It’s certainly true that the concept of genius, as famously formulated in Edward Young’s 1759 Conjectures on Original Composition, is unfashionable nowadays. It’s been chipped away from multiple angles by scholars keen to stress the role of context and the influence of contemporary peers, so that what appears to be an individual breakthrough is really the outcome of collective processes. Today we reject as dated and middlebrow the Romantic idea of the visionary artist gushing forth inspiration from deep within or from some transcendent plane of mystery.  That myth is explicitly targeted by recreativity maven Marjorie Perloff in her book Unoriginal Genius, which recasts writing as “moving information.” Other recreativity proponents characterize the artist or writer as a filter, a sort of “search engine endowed with consciousness” (to modernize Baudelaire’s trope of the artist as a sentient kaleidoscope drifting dazed through the metropolis).

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