How we use and abuse the word genius.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 9 2009 3:17 PM

Who Are You Calling Genius?

It's time to retire the term.

(Continued from Page 2)

Ron, There have been only three geniuses in fine art since 1900: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. All art praxis flows from them. Picasso freed artists from perspective and representation; Duchamp made the concept rather than the visual the purpose of art; Warhol merged art with modern culture. In Western Art genius is associated with radical transformation of art-making by one individual artist. Leonardo introduced technology, Michelangelo added naturalism, Caravaggio brought in the beauty of the lower classes, Rembrandt introduced art images to the common home, Manet eliminated the mythological basis of art and reified "street" experience, Monet revolutionized the portrayal of light and Van Gogh did the same for color. Genius is the transformation of collective experience by one individual for the common good. It must be, by definition, the antithesis of evil, although evil may be one of its subjects. Postmodernism precludes genius because it assumes that artistic creation is a constant recycling of previous work, so that someone like David Foster Wallace could not be labeled a genius because modern Western culture denies the role. Postmodernism, indeed, adjudges genius as fundamentally reactionary, because the domination of culture by one individual denies the historical power of the collective. Postmodernism is a deadly vise which restricts creative people from transcending it, yet the challenge of artists and writers today remains to crush the postmodern paradigm. Hasn't yet been done.

Charlie made another interesting point: "It would be better to define 'genius' rather than 'a genius,' as in 'Pynchon has frittered away his genius' or 'Tristram Shandy is a work of genius.' … Genius is what has never quite been done before, quicksilver in the hands of its progenitors."

I have my own strong feelings about the question of genius in literature. I've always felt that if we look at the past century, Nabokov was a game-changer, as the academic phrase has it. Nabokov showed there is a place you can go, a place that the alchemy of words can transport reader and writer to, that no one had gone before. And Nabokov went there, with ease, in Lolita and Pale Fire. So it's hard to call any other writer in the past century a genius of the same order. Which in part accounts for my ambivalence about the decision to publish, against his wishes, an unfinished draft of his last incomplete work, The Original of Laura: No one was more aware than he of when a work of his had reached its zenith of genius. He didn't feel this one had. Perhaps, though, we'll learn some valuable lessons about the degrees of ascent to genius. Is it all or nothing?

I'd say the only work of genius in the past half-century to come close may have been Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. (Gravity's Rainbow was to be his Ulyssesbut turned out to be his Finnegans mistake.)

Maybe genius must give the feeling of effortlessness as well as utter confidence and transcendence. Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow both show the palpable sweaty strain to become encyclopedic works of genius: Always screaming across the sky: "This is a work of genius!"

So who is a living genius? Let's set aside physicists and cosmologists who are all, technically, geniuses (even though every five years they seem to admit they were wrong, as iconic physicist genius Stephen Hawking recently did about essential aspects of his black-hole theory, for instance).

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I asked people around the Slate office who they think qualifies as a living genius and got a remarkable array of nominees. What was fascinating was the variation in number. There were those who would bestow the honor on only one person (Bob Dylan or Werner Herzog), there were those who named two (pairing Steve Reich and Philip Glass), and there were those who named two dozen. How high should we raise the bar? Should we limit it to work in the traditional fine arts, excluding Slate nominees R. Crumb; or Shigeru Miyamoto, the Mario Bros. game designer; or David Chang, the chef at the New York restaurant Momofuku?

Some raised the question of collaborative genius. (Lennon, yes; McCartney, no?) And what about Jobs, Gates, the Google founders, others who have sculpted an entire culture, made it their art forms.

I found myself thinking: I see lots of works of genius but not a landscape crowded with figures of genius. Can one pass through a period of geniuslike inspiration and then return to earth on broken wings, as Joni Mitchell (genius?) wrote about Amelia Earhart (genius?) in the song "Amelia" (genius!).

Maybe this is good. Maybe genius has been, if not democratized, more widelyand thinly distributed, rather than concentrated in the hands of a precious few. Maybe there are more "one-hit wonders," no less wondrous for being so. Maybe it's been "crushed by postmodernism" as Charlie Finch suggests, or undermined by irony (see: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). Maybe we no longer live in the kind of romantic age that created Byron, the template of genius.

Maybe it's time to discard the Byronic caricature and the questions it brings entirely. We don't have to abolish the notion of genius, but we can discard the cult of the genius as person and pour our adulation into the cult of the work.

Farewell, genius.

Got a nomination for a living genius or a contemporary work of genius? Post your submissions in the Fray and we'll append some to this article.

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