Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Myth of Genius

"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."
-Albert Einstein

Let's think about this for a moment. What do we mean by genius? Someone who consistently creates objects or ideas of sheer brilliance in great flashes of inspiration or skill, or someone who works doggedly at something, making multiple mistakes and iterations to eventually arrive at a successful outcome? Presumably the former. But who fits the bill? Nobody, absolutely no one.

Everything of substance which we use, read, see or listen to, which has been wrought by the hand of woman or man, either sits firmly atop a mountain of forgotten or concealed failures, or has been encircled and elevated by culture and history to such a degree that it is invested with an almost sacred aura. 

But what about Mozart you may ask? Well, if he'd stood before he crawled, or ran before he walked (metaphorically that is!) I would probably have to agree with you, but that doesn't appear to have been the case.

Certainly there have been, and continue to be, individuals with prodigious talents, but it is only through the deft concealment of support, determination, hard work, frustration and a plethora of failures, that anyone might be seen to be a genius. And it is thus that there appear to be no contemporary geniuses despite the fact that by all probability, there should be significantly more than ever.
 History has a canny knack of casting a soft veil over the many toils and disappointments in the lives of our heroes and in so doing it gently polishes their lustrous portraits whilst our own more contemporary representations either sit in dusky corners or reveal their countenances in high-definition with every lurid pixel an embarrassing imperfection.
“The myth of the artistic genius serves to de-socialise the production of art, to disguise the facts of privilege and convention which regulate access to training and advancement. A product of a classed and gender-divided society, this idea of the artist is a veil for the inequalities which sustain its elites.” – Griselda Pollock
But this is great news - not because the idea of genius has turned out to be a fabrication and a delusion, but because now the peak of the mountain is clearer for us all to see and since it’s a mountain of our own making, it should be even easier to climb. So, let's just make sure that each failure is a genuine and dogged attempt to succeed. Then fail, fail, fail again.
"If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward." -Thomas Alva Edison

Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg (Rocky Peak of the Red Pass) © J.Hamlyn

Griselda Pollock in R. Parker & G. Pollock (1987). "Framing Feminism". pp. 84-85
Gleick, J (1992). Genius, The life and science of Richard Feynman. New York: Vintage Books.
Imaginary Boundaries blog (specifically this post).

<iframe src="//;byline=0&amp;portrait=0&amp;badge=0&amp;color=ff9933" width="500" height="281" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe> <p><a href="">The Long Game Part 2: the missing chapter</a> from <a href="">Delve</a> on <a href="">Vimeo</a>.</p>


Vivian Oblivion said...

"Fail. Fail again. Fail better." --Samuel Beckett

When I can't squeeze out my 3 "Elbow (writing) exercises" per day, I wear a shirt on which these invaluable words are drawn.

Wayne said...


Nice post. I love that Parker/Pollock quote. Attempts to "de-socialise the production of art" persist, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, unfortunately. I feel honored that you chose to riff on something I posted.

Thank you for your kind words about my writing, by the way. I'm happy to have "discovered" your work as well.

Wayne (from Imaginary Boundaries)

Tamsin said...

I read something the other day about most people being prepared to have a go at doing an excellent job of something, but most of us not being prepared to do a bad job. The writer's point was that such perfectionist thinking stops us from stepping off the edge of the cliff into one of our unknowns. Whereas if we can accept that we'll probably be crap we can get going on something new...

J. Hamlyn said...

Really interested to see that article Tamsin if you can remember where you read it.

Anonymous said...

"Learn to fail, or fail to learn" is a popular motto in Positive Psychology. There's a guy called Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught "the most popular course at Harvard" (I think it was Harvard .. ), a Positive Psychology course, and he banged on about this during one of his lectures. Gave the example of Edison and his many failures before reaching the lightbulb.

What then, is the function of "genius"? When, and why do we use the term? What uses does it have?

J. Hamlyn said...


Good question. I'm not so sure it does have a use other than to mystify the achievement of excellence. However, I must admit that I do often use the term myself to describe “works of genius” but this is usually to describe something that appears to have arisen out of nowhere and , of course, on reflection (or investigation) I know (or find out) that this is never the case.

Tamsin said...

I'm afraid what I was reading wasn't an academic article and you would be horrified at its title...

Anonymous said...

Schopenhauer would disagree with you: -

See "The Schopenhauerian genius"

J. Hamlyn said...


Small wonder - look at his first major teacher! Notice though that Schopenhauer's definition of genius is significantly different to the one which I'm criticising - for him genius was the ability of artists and art to distance us from the domination of the Will.

J. Hamlyn said...

"Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.” -Nietzsche "Human, all too human"

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