Why We Need to Stop Referring to Creative Artists as Geniuses
    • THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2016

    • Posted by: Kirsten Spruch

    What if a musician put out a stellar debut album and everyone loved it? What if everyone loved it so much, that they put so much pressure on the artist to live up to that album and follow up with something even better? That artist's creativity might become paralyzed by the expectations or worse, they might want to never create again. There's no doubt we're wearing out the idea of it, after crowning musicians, dancers, painters, dogs, and even terrible people with the term (Fun fact: In 1938, TIME Magazine featured Adolf Hitler as "Man of the Year" for his "evil genius"). For some examples of geniuses, you got your classics: Beethoven, Bach, Albert Einstein, etc... Identifying modern geniuses, though, tends to feel a bit more subjective. Heck, some people even refer to Kanye West as a musical genius, so really, what even is the criteria, and is it flattering at this point?

    Genius Was Originally Affiliated with Religion

    Let's take a sec to backtrack to the history behind the term "genius." The definition in Roman religion is "the individual instance of a general divine nature that is present in every individual person, place, or thing." In historian Darrin M. McMahon's Divine Fury: A History of Genius, he confirms that the term came to fruition as a religious idea, "From its earliest origins, [Genius] was a religious notion." He looked to Einstein, "the quintessential modern genius," who questioned it in that light, "I want to know how God created the world." Think about it... We associated genius with so much power that we thought it was created by GOD... Something so thunderous and authoritative couldn't possibly be created by mere humans, yet everyone wanted to possess it. It wasn't necessarily the person that was a genius, but they had a genius, like a separate energy. And this also goes hand in hand with creativity - in Ancient Greece people believed that creativity came to people as a spirit. If you created something incredible, you couldn't take all of the credit for it - someone had to have helped you. Don't be a narcissist, now.

    Other People Define Genius

    This may sound pretty vague and confusing, but it was better put by McMahon, "We are the ones who pay homage and obeisance. In a very real sense, the creator of genius is us." This is called social construction, where people choose to label geniuses. The geniuses never set out to call themselves that. For example, let's go back to when Frank Ocean released Channel Orange (before you go and say "no one considers Ocean to be a genius," know that I asked Google if he was a genius and this, this, and this popped up). Some critics referred to that album as an instant classic, but do you think Ocean was thinking about that when he released it? Nope. I'm not invalidating his clear talent, but it's something we decided to label him as ourselves. He never set out to become an enormous overnight sensation. When a musician puts out a great album, people either treat them like they're never going to put out anything quite as good again or their expectations run unattainably high.

    Genius Comes in Waves

    "Genius was a flash of light, but its brilliance served to illuminate the dark mystery that surrounded and set it apart," McMahon observed. Creativity and genius comes in mere flashes, when one moment you have something and the next moment you're left with nothing. Sometimes songwriters will say that a particular song wrote itself, or a dancer's body can be taken over for a few moments to make something brilliant. It's scary how fragile and fleeting creativity is, and then when you're labeled as a genius on top of it, the pressure squashes down your confidence just a little bit more. One of my favorite examples of this is the Ted Talk, "Your Elusive Creative Genius," presented by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert.



    In the middle of the lecture, Gilbert tells us about the great story that poet Ruth Stone told her. When Stone was working on a farm in Virginia as a kid, she would "feel and hear" a poem coming at her through the wind, shaking the ground. When it would come at her, she knew that she had to "run like hell" to the house and get to a piece of paper fast enough to write it down before it escapes her. In addition to that, she also referred to the time she had the chance to interview Tom Waits. "One day he was driving on the freeway in Los Angeles - and this is when it all changed for him - all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody and he wants it. But he has no way to get it, he doesn't have paper, he doesn't have a pencil... So he starts to feel all of that anxiety rise in him, 'I'm gonna lose this thing and I'm going to be haunted by this song forever,' and then he stopped overthinking and did something completely novel. He just looked up at the sky and said 'Excuse me, can you not see that I'm driving?'"

    It's unclear why genius was even created in the first place, but making it something that people should strive for is nothing but a method for creative doom.
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