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What has become of genius?

By Andrew Robinson

In the early 21st century, talent appears to be on the increase, genius on the decrease. More scientists, writers, composers, and artists than ever before earn a living from their creative output. During the 20th century, performance standards and records continually improved in all fields—from music and singing to chess and sports. But where is the Darwin or the Einstein, the Mozart or the Beethoven, the Chekhov or the Shaw, the Cézanne or the Picasso or the Cartier-Bresson of today? In the cinema, the youngest of the arts, there is a growing feeling that the giants—directors such as Charles Chaplin, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Jean Renoir, and Orson Welles—have departed the scene, leaving behind the merely talented. Even in popular music, genius of the quality of Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix, seems to be a thing of the past. Of course, it may be that the geniuses of our time have yet to be recognized—a process that can take many decades after the death of a genius—but sadly this seems unlikely, at least to me.

In saying this, I know I am in danger of falling into a mindset mentioned by the great 19th-century South American explorer and polymath Alexander von Humboldt, ‘the Albert Einstein of his day’ (writes a recent biographer), in volume two of his five-volume survey Cosmos. ‘Weak minds complacently believe that in their own age humanity has reached the culminating point of intellectual progress,’ wrote Humboldt in the middle of the century, ‘forgetting that by the internal connection existing among all the natural phenomena, in proportion as we advance, the field to be traversed acquires additional extension, and that it is bounded by a horizon which incessantly recedes before the eyes of the inquirer.’ Humboldt was right. But his explorer’s image surely also implies that as knowledge continues to advance, an individual will have the time to investigate a smaller and smaller proportion of the horizon with each passing generation, because the field will continually expand. So, if ‘genius’ requires breadth of knowledge, a synoptic vision—as it seems to—then it would appear to become harder to achieve as knowledge advances.

The ever-increasing professionalization and specialisation of education and domains, especially in the sciences, is undeniable. The breadth of experience that feeds genius is harder to achieve today than in the 19th century, if not downright impossible. Had Darwin been required to do a PhD in the biology of barnacles, and then joined a university life sciences department, it is difficult to imagine his having the varied experiences and exposure to different disciplines that led to his discovery of natural selection. If the teenaged Van Gogh had gone straight to an art academy in Paris, instead of spending years working for an art dealer, trying to become a pastor, and self-tutoring himself in art while dwelling among poor Dutch peasants, would we have his late efflorescence of great painting?

A second reason for the diminution of genius appears to be the ever-increasing commercialisation of the arts, manifested in the cult of celebrity. True originality takes time—at least ten years, as I show in my book Sudden Genius?—to come to fruition; and the results may well take further time to find their audience and market. Few beginning artists, or scientists, will be fortunate enough to enjoy financial support, like Darwin and Van Gogh, over such an extended period. It is much less challenging, and more remunerative, to make a career by producing imitative, sensational, or repetitious work, like Andy Warhol, or any number of professional scientists who, as Einstein remarked, ‘take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes when the drilling is easy.’

Thirdly, if less obviously, our expectations of modern genius have become more sophisticated and discriminating since the time of the 19th-century Romantic movement, partly as a result of 20th-century advances in psychology and psychiatry. The ‘long hair, great black hats, capes, and cloaks’ of the bona-fide Victorian hero, ironically mentioned by Virginia Woolf, are now period pieces, concealing psychological complexes more than genius.

There is also the anti-elitist Zeitgeist to consider. Genius is an idea that invites attack by scientific sceptics and cultural levellers. In 1986, the psychologist Robert Weisberg published a short and readable book with the title Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius: What You, Mozart, Einstein, and Picasso Have in Common. Perhaps the second subtitle was chosen by the hopeful publisher (who reprinted the book in 1993), rather than the author. At any rate, it encapsulates a widespread desire to vaunt genius whilst simultaneously cutting it down to normal size. A cartoon strip published in Scientific American during the centenary of Einstein’s 1905 breakthroughs parodied this paradox with a sketch of a book called The Einstein Diet captioned: ‘What did this mega-genius eat? Read this book and unlock Albert’s diet secrets.’ A snip at $84.99.

Genius is not a myth, and it is worthy of our aspirations. But it comes at a cost to the individual—expressed in the ten-year rule—that most of us are unable or unwilling to pay. There are no short-cuts to becoming a genius. The breakthroughs achieved by geniuses did not involve magic or miracles. They were the work of human grit, not the product of superhuman grace. From this truth about genius we can surely derive both strength and stimulus for our own life and work—if we sincerely desire to.

Andrew Robinson was Literary Editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement from 1994-2006. His latest book is Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs. He has written many other books including biographies of Albert Einstein, the film director Satyajit Ray, the writer Rabindranath Tagore, and the archaeologist Michael Ventris. He is also the author of Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction, and his Very Short Introduction to Genius is forthcoming in Spring 2011. You can read his previous OUPblog post here.

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  3. Chris Kohler

    Anyone looking for signs of latter-day genius should not discount the work of Michael Jackson. Controversial, yes, but a textbook example of human grit, achievement and also superhuman grace. Rather than citing a musician like Jimi Hendrix, who did only one thing really well and then cut short his future, I suggest a hard look at Jackson, who did so many things really well, changed popular culture, created trends and most of the music industry now living, and managed to inspire an entire planet to try and heal itself. Recommend you read Professor Joseph Vogel’s fine book “Michael Jackson: The Man in the Music”, any blog post by Dr. Willa Stillwater on “Dancing with the Elephant”, and this blog: http://kohlerchris.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/michael-jackson-the-serendipitous-genius-part-1/

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