What’s a genius?

I read a quote recently from departed literary legend John Updike. It read

“Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.”

Interesting what he’s saying there I think – and it runs against what many people might naturally feel. He’s suggesting I suppose that there is nothing ‘special’ about creativity. That it is something which can be accessed by anyone and in many different  settings.

That’s what I think too – but I’m not sure that it is the prevailing mood. There is a belief in society that creativity in the arts is different and that it can be something almost supernatural. That a poet, for example – is someone who wanders around on hillsides with a furrowed brow and a back pocket full of daffodils waiting for inspiration to strike.

It’s true that certain environments help you access your creativity of course, and if hillsides and daffodils do it for you then please be my guest – it’s about creating a state of mind.

The notion that there’s something more to it – something outside of ourselves, can be traced I think to Romanticism. All those brooding Romantic poets with their belief in strong emotion as an aesthetic force. I mean just look at the picture below – need I say more?

That’s Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 – and doesn’t it just sum up the mood?

The whole concept of ‘Genius’ was tied up with this as well. Bach, for example, was not considered a genius during his lifetime. The concept was not in currency in his time. He was considered a master of his craft who, through a combination of talent, and hard work, had achieved wonderful things. Beethoven, by contrast, was a genius. He lived bang in the middle of the Romantic period – so his combination of hard work and talent was given a different name.

6 thoughts on “What’s a genius?”

  1. Thoughtful post. I believe everyone has the ability to be creative, but some people need it more than others. Personally, I don’t know what I’d do without writing as an outlet for self-expression!

    I think the word creativity is for people who don’t really need it. The word is bandied about when you first take up painting/writing/playing music as if it’s somehow extra curricular; something you might do once you’ve done all the essential menial day-to-day tasks. The respective magnum opi from the likes of Keats, Beethoven, Dickens, Da Vinci, goes far beyond creativity

    Perhaps I’ve missed the point, but I believe creativity is the first stage of self-expression. The rest is made up of a great helping of hard work, an unparalleled insight and lashings of luck. It helps to be born in the right era, too!

    1. I agree Tom – it’s also become a word which is used a lot in an office context – but being ‘creative’ in that environment is often synonymous with being effective or productive.

  2. People think all artists are painters slaving away in basements waiting for inspiration. They assume that you’ll never see any fame or money in your life and that your work will only mean something when you’re dead. This might have been true of Van Gogh, who killed himself before his work got notice…but his contemporary Monet did see fame in the later years of his life. I also think modern men like Damien Hirst and Jeffery Koons defy this stereotype.

    Just like people are in love with the idea of the artist dying with out anyone having realized his “genius,” People like to think of the writer toiling away in front of a typewriter praying to his muse…or being a fall down drunk who parties all the time and still somehow manages to spit out a manuscript every now and then. Which is silly, of course.

    In this context I think it is interesting that the root Latin of Genius speaks to a higher self that bestows knowledge. The Genius is something to be communicated with and not a state of grace existing around a lucky few. (though I”m sure the Romans were hesitant to say women had Genius, because you know how they were.)

    1. It’s interesting the way people tend to imagine these extremes. The real truth is mostly different these days – most writers – and I guess other types of artist – are neither starving in garrets nor making millions. They are making next to nothing from writing – but making a living from other jobs.

      1. It’s the same way with visual art…There are only a few people who make multi-millions or even a decent living. Disappointing when you consider that most MFA’s in Visual Art take out insane amount of loans so they can be competitive.

        I am sure it is the same way for English majors…I just didn’t go to school for English and can’t speak to it.

        Though it also annoys me that a lot of people I know got the MFA so they could teach college…and then most of the coveted full-time/tenure jobs go to the people who are making crazy money off of their art.

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