Saturday, November 21, 2009

On Genius

Rene Margritte, Clairvoyance (Self-Portrait)

Reading the New York Times Book Review, one frequently comes across assertions like:
But looking at her writing from this perspective misses the most interesting part: her sentences. No one writing in English today produces anything quite like them. Take, for example, the following passage, early in the novel, in which the principal narrator, an authorial stand-in named Mimi, looks east from the track around the Central Park (or, properly speaking, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) Reservoir.

“Windows high above Fifth Avenue flashed the bronze setting of the sun. I will never understand how that brilliant display, mostly blocked by the apartment houses on Central Park West, leaps the reservoir’s expanse. And do not care to understand, demanding magic from this forbidden journey, though the simple refraction of light at end of day may be grammar-school science.”(1)
The reviewer has chosen a specimen, if you will, in order to demonstrate the author's genius. This hardly seems offensive to most of us; this is the critic's job, to make statements like that. But this morning, whether it was because I hadn't slept the night before or because something had finally occurred to me, I found myself questioning the way in which we--I do it too--talk about artists and their work.

Specifically, their finest work.

We read, "No one writing in English today produces anything quite like them." And then, a passage that illustrates the reviewer's claim.

The passage is beautiful; I was certainly moved by it. But let me challenge you to another point of view, a point of view which is provisional and openly philosophical . . .

What we think of as a writer's unique and individual gifts, those sparkling sentences that critics extol--in my present understanding--are really the effervescence of language itself.

What I mean to say by that is, art in poetry or prose is language in its purest, most accessible, most fluid form, nearly on a separate wavelength. It's on a wavelength most of us can hear, just not all of the time. When we hear it, our hearts swoon, our minds expand.

This is a language that is common to all, a language that resonates with large numbers of people. My immediate reaction, like the critic of the New York Times Book Review, is to elevate the artist who created these lines, to point to the individual. But there is something behind this reaction that bothers me.

It seems we like to pick out the gifted as if they were our own shiny fruit. We like to exclaim, "Ah, this is genius!" It gratifies us to make these declarations, and it somehow serves us.

A critic will point to a work of art, or a beautiful sentence, as if it were possible to isolate perfection--to sever the part from the whole, the text from the context. I am doubtful of this ability to zero in on transcendence.

I believe the magical passage, the stunning work of art, is not the watermark of individual genius, but instead the reflection of a higher state of mind. The artwork is evidence of some journey. Art criticism flattens the journey, however, by making it into a vacation. Now it's as if the artist went on a vacation and brought us back a souvenir. We grab for the souvenir at our first chance because it really is magnificent to have such a beautiful thing in our hands. Blinded by the act of possession, having stamped our names across the material object, we see no further--

In this mode of appreciating art, the furthest I can see is not far enough. Fixated on the individual and her gifts, I lose sight of the deeper meaning or beauty in the work of art. By reducing art to the individual, and setting a spotlight on the hand that wrought perfection, I mistakenly short-circuit the whole enterprise of art.

The author's passages, or the artist's brushstrokes, should be signaling the opposite reaction. Art is a universal language, not an individual one. What if we approached the appreciation of art from the other side, from the side closest to the collective "we"? Do we even have a universal language to praise art? Or is our criticism and praise decidedly individualistic?

Furthermore, all art is in flux, even after its creation. This makes it hard to pin down exact marks of genius; evidence for genius seems to move around a lot and vacillate. After all, the concept "art" is in our minds.

In sum, there is no permanent, eternal art. Art wavers between a radiant work of genius, an emblem of culture, a historical artifact, and a hundred other possibilities. Art can be or mean almost anything, as recent -isms have shown. Culture will continue to see it differently as it passes through the kaleidoscope of history.

Artists have in fact done themselves a great disservice by allowing others to praise their works. (I expect you to disagree with me here.) But, suspend disbelief for a moment, what if we attributed an author's sparkling sentences to a state of mind rather than an individual person?

What if we looked upon great works of art, looking beyond the individual creator, and toward something common to all--the underlying language that makes this art so moving in the first place.

Prior to these insights, I trumpeted individualism. I trumpeted individualism because I felt a strong sense of being an individual myself, and I felt a strong sense of being able to identify other individuals. I saw the enterprise of art as essentially individualistic. The artist works alone, the works are understood alone. Art is the conversation between two individuals, one real and one imaginary (the author's ideal reader, or artist's ideal viewer).

But now I'm coming to believe that individualism in art is not what makes it special. Individualism is the coat an artist sheds over time, growing closer to the patterns of her art as she moves further and further away from her individual sense of self. And those moments of greatness, the superb execution, exists outside of the artist. What we point to when we declare, "What genius!" is the second space the artist has created between herself and her work, the plane onto which the universal occurs. Exquisite sentences arise here, but so do many other things, such as wisdom and love and a profound synthesis of mankind and nature.

Could it be that the beauty we perceive in art is not the mark of an individual genius, but instead evidence of a higher consciousness, evidence of a God I don't believe in, or simply the invisible rails between two people who have never met?

What is Genius on Escape Into Life

More Essays by the author at Escape into Life



count-01 said...

Way back in my undergraduate days, I took a design class. Nothing special about it, really, except that a few students produced projects that stepped into the realm of "art" and the professor felt he had to say something about it.

He waxed into a soliloquy of about ten minutes, which was both poetical and succinct, but boiled down to: the value of art, is that it creates the ability to share a feeling between the artist and the observer. That, sometimes only for a moment, that passion that the artist felt in chipping marble or brushing pigment onto a canvas or a wall, is publicly available to anyone willing to look. Sunsets are like that; truly great books share that quality as well: all you have to do is open yourself to observing them and you share the privilege that is no particular privilege, because it simply waits for anyone to wander by, a waterfall by the side of a road well or poorly traveled.

Genius creates art, yes, but art itself is created by those sharing in the genius.

Mark Kerstetter said...

"As none by traveling over known lands can find out the unknown, so from already acquired knowledge man could not acquire more; therefore an universal poetic genius exists." -William Blake

"In giving explanations, I already have to use language full-blown (not some sort of preparatory, provisional one)...A philosophical problem has the form: "I don't know my way about" the leaves everything as it is." -Wittgenstein

I have long thought that the primary act of art is to have eyes OPEN, then to engage in acts which help others to see. And when they do see, we all see the One Thing together.

But let us have the simple pleasure of thanking those who help us to do this. I reach for Wittgenstein over and over, call him the good doctor because he helps me see. And even a blogger can do this. This is why I come back here again and again.

Sinjin said...

At the beginning of this article, I thought it was written about Genius and what defines it. The picture is quite fitting.

However, as I read on, I got a sense that the author doesn't like critics much and is trying to find fault with them.
Alright, let's take that perspective: Too many critics use superlatives, either dashing someone's work to the ground and spitting on them both, or praising someone as if they were a saint or genius. Phrases such as "no one writing today writes like this" is meaningless since everyone has a unique style. Right up there are words like "most" "best" "amazing" "incomparable" etc. which should just be filtered or watered down in one's mind and attributed to the emotions and desires of the reviewer only.
One learns after a while to take these critics with a grain of salt, to average out their ratings, to take a look at something they point out with a neutral mindset, not the one they want you to have.
Therefore, after reading the passage used as an example, I simply thought it had a nice extended metaphor, some insight into the thought process of the narrator, and I felt some curiosity to read some more of this work.
Did I think this was genius? Hardly. But it could be, and if I read the rest I might think so. But if this is the best passage of the novel, I doubt it.

I see the critic as just using this passage to show us some of the author's style in a very limited space, just a small window onto a greater work. But I have to think of this work as stemming from this particular author, if she creates something that is just to my liking, if not perfect for me at this time, then I will remember her as the source from which I can get more.

But should I not individualize this creation, should I view the entire sub-genre or genre or local group of writers as a collective which creates things I love?
I don't think I could, because each artist is slightly different, even if they spend time together, or if they agreed on a set of rules... I would still see each one as a separate unique source. But I might raise my estimation of the collective as a whole, and welcome new authors and artists of that type more readily. But this does not mean that all artists using this language can equally impress or enrapture me, and I can't expect them to. I'll just give them a chance if I can. Another casualty of limited time and attention and energy, I suppose.

"Art is the conversation between two individuals, one real and one imaginary (the author's ideal reader, or artist's ideal viewer)."
I love this line, I feel the same way when I'm creating something; sometimes it is directed at one person, or a few of my friends, or a huge audience... even if the intended audience isn't the one that ends up seeing it, it becomes part of the style and depth of the piece.

"Culture will continue to see it differently as it passes through the kaleidoscope of history."
This is a very astute statement, and I believe it points to the answer that the audience defines the quality and genius of a creation to itself, and so if it means different things to different people all we can do it point them at it and see what reaction they have. I don't see how there could be a universal language to describe, define and quantify how this reaction is caused, but I do believe that with this reaction the audience feels that the artist has tapped into a higher consciousness, perhaps a group mindset, which is the common bond between them all and the artist.

Sylvano said...

The application of the term genius to individuals is valid. Critics, though, will have a number of motivations for attributing genius to those that they review or refer. Not least of which is signaling via the written word - something akin to the masonic handshake - to certain readers the critic has in mind, to engender confidence and to assure them that the critic is in fact 'one of them.'

But that's another story.

Genius exists. And it is individuals who may be described genius.

It is not just a question of superior craftsmanship, either. The example you open the article with is a case in point, where the identification of a set of well crafted words by an author is not a sign of anything other than superior craftsmanship.

Old Bill Shakespeare was a superior craftsman. And I reckon maybe a little lucky as well, when it comes to the survival, dissemination and study of his work,,as well as the alignment to the historical trend in the fashions of the study, teaching and researching of writing.

But Bill is classed a genius, quite rightly, for qualities other than mere superiour craftsmanship.

He had his contemporary audiences enthralled with stories from history that are essentially boring. Just that is genius. ;-)

Brenda said...

A beautiful metaphor.

For art. For a transcendent consciousness that an artist may be a conduit for.

Only you've forgotten the struggle an artist goes through in creating their work. It's never easy. What brings a work of art to life is that passion, buried in the art. The passion of the artist. The realizing of vision isn't exactly either because an artist has to accept that what is portrayed may not be the original vision at all.

On the other hand, do you mean the ineffable universal finds those who are open or who have the physical dexterity to hold a paintbrush/dance over ivory and black keys/moves their bodies like they are wind twirling in the desert and pours the passion of art into them?

I don't agree with you, and yet I am sure you are also right.

And then I wonder about the evolution of art over time. Does the archetypal evolve over time too?

It's too difficult to subtract the maker from the made. The artist from their art.

Though what you've written is beautiful!

Brenda said...

The reason we have minds is so that language can evolve? We have art so that the great living force can evolve? Universalism carries with it so many problems!

TheDarkEngine said...

The idea that art is something separate from the artist was most strongly held by the New Critics, who denied that anything extraneous to the work itself had any importance, especially the artist's intentions ("the intentional fallacy"). Art occurs when a resonance is achieved between the viewer and the work, when meaning (though not necessarily an effable one) attaches to the work. What form this resonance takes and how it is elicited by the work is something the artist has no control over. All that the srtist has is his craft, which can range from clumsy to masterful. In a sense, there are no artists, only craftsmen of various degrees of skill, and art chooses to descend on a work of its own volition.

Rick said...

What Is an Author?

cont.ext said...

I think you are right, that it "gratifies us" to declare genius in the works of artists. Arguably, such declarations also can be, at least sometimes, acts of celebration. We laud human potential to achieve a state of mind capable of communicating concepts with the greatest signal and with the least amount of noise. I think of the sublime inconsequence of a Richard Serra sculpture; the economical prose of an Ernest Hemingway novel; the deceptive simplicity of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" ...

"Hooray, they got there! We knew it could be done."

Often we express our appreciation for an artist's work by claiming that the artist "gets it," or is "dead on" the point. What we are really saying, in these cases, is that the artist gets us. For these statements to be genuine, we must first position ourselves as competent judges of the artist's insight. What better way to do this than to make it about ourselves?

We flatter ourselves that the greatest possible artistic accomplishment is to reach our own understanding on a higher (or deeper) level than it previously has been met. Perhaps this is why the DNA remix of "Tom's Diner" became so popular. For those who didn't apprehend the vision of the a capella version, DNA offers a conventionally metered frame to guide perception.

"Hooray, we proved that we got it!"

It does gratify us to adjudge genius in works of art (through the individual estimation of the reader, listener, reviewer ... ). Of course, the conceit does not prove us wrong.

ownnothing said...

You raise some very interesting, sometimes confusing, points about "genius" in art. The word genius is usually associated with intellect and applies to many areas of human endeavor besides art. Like any genius, the genius artist is distinguished by originality and creativity of thought. And lets not forget, intution and emotions.

It is not the job of a critic to confer "genius" on an artist. To do so is the utmost self aggrondizement on the part of the critic. Ultimately, people and time are the great editors and arbiters of great art. That which has weight, poetry, depth, which seeks understanding of life and seeks the truth, will stand the test of time and always be considered.

Artists are individuals whose work reaches a universal audience by virtue of the fact that artist and audience alike are human and concerned with the same basic, profound questions. What is life? Why are we here? How do we live our lives? How do we confront and deal with death and our mortality? This may be the single most important motivation for an artist to create.

We speak of the great emotional power of art. It is really not enough to be intellectual, or intellectually gifted or superior, to be a great artist, an artist of "genius". A great artist speaks to us on an emotional level as well. There are intellectual truths, and there are emotional truths. The gifted artist has both.

We speak of an artist's work as being transcendent. I think by that we mean the work is based in the individual artist's life experience and expresses the universal experience that we all share and define as life. Art is not "better" or "higher"; it is reflective.

The genius of a great artist is very rare, and very fragile. To possess such a gift imbues its owner with heightened sensitivity and receptivity towards life.
If we put any genius on a pedestal, artist or otherwise, it is because we are thankful that we are not alone in the universe, and that we are alive.

Scott Kahn

Zen said...

I can't help but to remember this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity ( - she is the author of Eat, Pray, Love.

She revives the point of view of what 'genius' is, where we used to think that someone is 'genius', Elizabeth pointed out that back in the days, 'genius' is something that is not individualized.

Through the right state of mind, the genius can flow through the artists work. And I believe this is a better and more accurate point of view

The same pattern can be seen in other field of expertise. An expert programmer can't produce an amazing program by himself. But through him, in the right state of mind, the idea that have been cumulated by that programmer over the years can one day give birth to an absolutely useful and wonderful application that resides in everyone's desktop!

However to let the Art to flow through an individual, the individual must be in such state of mind that he can perform his work without being concious of the execution of the act.

Take for example singing. When we listen to a song sang by a talented singer, we don't listen to the melodic sound. We hear those sounds, but what we're listening instead is the intent behind the song. The message and feeling inscribed into the song. That is what we want to hear.

A talented singer is one that can convey that intent through his/her singing. And if she imbued his/her own emotion during the singing (or, "interpretation") then the piece become a part of her.

I think this is what it means to be a genius. To allow your art to flow through you without corrupting the original intent, and imbuing your personal emotion during the execution/delivery of your work thus making it a part of you.

A very amazingly interesting post, btw.

Brenda said...

For a critic to posit a writer's or an artist's image as reflective of their 'genius' is alright, but to further make the claim of 'genius' for them is, of course, absurd. Lethe, the Magritte is a perfect image for this post!

To use the term 'genius' in this way is only to confer the highest praise that that critic can muster for whatever reasons they have to posit it.

Artistic or literary genius, this beautiful, rich and mysterious honoring, is something conferred by the audiences of the future. We cannot possibly know who the 'geniuses' of our age will be. While the Picassos certainly exist, who can know who the Van Goghs and Emily Dickinsons are? A so-called madman who shot himself in a field? A Victorian recluse who hid behind lace curtains on the upper floor of a house? And yet these tender and brilliant artists represent their eras.

If anything defines 'genius,' in our modern sense of the brilliance of the individual, it is the ripple effect. It's how influential their work becomes. How many try to emulate their talent, and way of expressing emotion, feeling, thought.

And there is no way of knowing who that might be. Blake was a Pre-Raphaelite discovery in a used bookstore 400 years after he'd lived! And yet Blake is now considered one of the giants of the 18-19th centuries.

While there are 'greats' like Shakespeare or Michaelangelo who were very popular in their day and highly regarded, those who are pushing our expression, our questing spirit into new possibilities might only become famous in the centuries ahead.

The question of genius is an impossible question. If we focus on what you are suggesting replace the idea of individual genius, then perhaps we can see you are positing an aesthetics of creativity. Which really is a very big topic.

bellegarde-webb said...

An awesome article. I will discuss it with my painter of husband Denis.. Let you know latter. I think that the sentence
"I believe the magical passage, the stunning work of art, is not the watermark of individual genius, but instead the reflection of a higher state of mind." says it all for me.

smithste said...

We human beings are all waves on the ocean of existence. We're at once individual and yet wholly part of that ocean. We start as ripples and build during our time, finally crashing to shore before blending back to the origin. All individuals carry within them the power of the depths of existence and the complex ever-developing memory of the power within that whole.

An artist's awareness during the transit of his or her individual wave, along with the underlying link to all of the other individual waves, is the basis of art. The artist uses the creative power of being to communicate the larger overview of the shape and dynamic of the surface of that ocean - our time, our 'now'. This image is ever-changing. At any one time it is there and then gone, only captured by the artist's observance and the compulsion to keep it and share it.

So, art is a creative statement about the human condition. Attribution of genius is a statement that looks like it can be pointed to one wave on the ocean, but can it really? We all are part of the process. The connections between the waves are so binding that the ephemeral issue of genius is beside the point. The attribution is a way we try to organize our time here, to make the most of it.

Revel in the experience and be aware of the depth of it. Add to the discourse. Our individual waves move and disappear, but we remain, part of that endless well of existence.

Verdigris said...

Comment by Tony Thomas is here:

Lethe said...

First of all, I want to thank everyone for taking the time to comment on this post. Blogging is not the same as any other form of writing. It is unique; with its own distinctive qualities, and one of these qualities is the possibility for the writing to become imbued with a multitude of voices.

The Blog of Innocence aims to bring together the Many in the One. How it all happens is spontaneous and wildly unpredictable; but it happens, a worthwhile conversation on art and language is created.

When I write these essays I put my every fibre, mind, body, and soul, into them. I share the post with some people, and put it out into the world. Then the universe responds, as it has with this essay. I am so grateful that the universe does in fact respond.

Thank you for making this experience memorable to me.

Thank you!

Lastly, I want to point out Tony Thomas's response to my essay. Tony wrote a complete essay-in-response. Check it out!

Tony's Essay on Genius

DOT said...

My comment is too long to be posted here. I have taken some time to consider the points raised - so please see what I have written on my blog. (This is not a spam comment as Lethe will testify.) x

ClayBarham said...

My daughter (graduate from Pratt) and I wrote a book due out early next year called BUBBLES, BOXES AND INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM where we feature art types re: the title, i.e., those stuck in a bubble of kimited thought and in the box of limits on actions, the propagandists, the realists and the impressionists we point out as more the free minds. We are more in line with Roark's comments to the jury from FOUNTAINHEAD (Rand) as to individualism and art.

Byron said...

I think this article allows and entry-point to access the Purpose of a Genius.
Thoughts and expressions become palpable by way of art. It's my thought that art and the ability to speak "well" are much a like. Speaking "well" translated as ARTICULATION, provides some depth to my observation. Often the best speaker can yield the greatest of support. The best communicators express their intent, purpose and vision with clarity. The resulting effects produce awe, inspiration, hope, faith and affection.

Why then should the merits of a Genius be restricted by selfishness, categorization, stigma, dogma, arrogance, pride and other causative attributes relative to greedy individualism?

Greedy individuals hone their aggrandizement of their "criticisms" and "appreciations" of Genius works. These pursuits of recognition obscure and make hollow the volume of any Genius work created. If the Genius' work is the light-bulb, the the aforementioned are dull, obtrusive lamp-shades.

The ability to share to all, benefit as many as possible is a Genius' intent. Even creations of Genius which are designated as "private" we find the artists' often communicate their intent, desires and more. The art in existence all bear their respective creators "truest" expressions of their thought.

Much as the dictionary bridges vocabulary gaps, the history and familiarity of the artist/Genius will remove the need to confine the art with supposition and grandiosity. Learn the genius and their work will communicate eloquently its meaning and power to the viewer.

I love the arts I am familiar with because of the purpose, intentions and desires of their creators. I enjoy the intangibles of the mind being manifested by an artist. I enjoy the ploys and riddles many use to express their messages. It's my though the complexity of much art is similar to meeting new people. Eating new foods. Learning new trades.

Excellent verbal communication is functionally sound only by gaining insight to those being communicated with. Meeting someone is a complex ritual involving the "need" to know the new person. Without knowing the person, yours and theirs level of communication is quite like the lamp-shade described in a former paragraph.

I digress so much I know. It's a habit of flurrying thoughts and rushed experiences. To say a particular artwork is Genius limits the artist and those who view the work.

All works of art used to communicate and appropriate boding and education is Genius. I like art because I gain another friend when I view art. I like art because as I gain a friend, I gain a new "tether" for this dangling society to hold fast to. There is so much more and so many reasons why. It's safe to conclude here, there will be a need for eternity in someone to be greedy. Without the ability to communicate and appreciate the languages of art, even greed becomes a silly complexity of no real consequence or merit.

Roy said...

Could be the average reviewer is anxious to be the bearer of awesome news--the discoverer of genius-- everybody is hawking something. Even the TV weather person gets that certain gleam in their eye when a big storm is coming.

I agree with your main idea. Genius is the state we sometimes find ourselves (if we're lucky) when the words roll off the tongue and the meanings somehow layer on layer and the reader goes, how did he DO that?? I wish it happened more often--I love reading stuff like that, and I'd probably love writing it, too.

Lethe said...

Roy- Well put. I like how you phrased that.


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