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Why We Should Stop Calling Every Artist A “Genius”

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I’ve been trying to get rid of the word “genius” from my vocabulary. It hasn’t been easy. After all, as a society, we love the idea of genius. How else do we reward these creative persons, tastemakers of our generation? The term “genius,” which was once bestowed to individuals truly exemplary at their craft, has transitioned into a phrase more commonly associated with anyone who does anything that we could not do ourselves. The increasing ubiquitousness of the phrase, however, is not the problem.

I’m not here to tell you that Jay-Z has not earned your praise. Nor am I arguing that reaching Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour benchmark is all it takes to be a genius. What I’m arguing is more controversial: Genius is a misconception, and it’s a threat to artists and the artistic enterprise as a whole.

When I was growing up, I enjoyed writing – I wrote things from poems to short stories to fan fiction in composition notebooks. I characterize the span of seven years, roughly between the ages of seven and fourteen, to be a time of great discovery. I wasn’t concerned about where my writing stood in comparison to others. I read the “greats” and, as any smart writer would, learned from them. Then, at the age of fifteen, I entered an institution—a selective enrollment high school — that practically destroyed this period of uninhibited discovery in one swift, fell swoop.

In my literature classes, the word “genius” became a staple of everyday discussion. Virginia Woolf is a genius. Vladimir Nabokov is a genius. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Keats, Wordworth. All geniuses. In our study of them, what we lacked in examination, we more than made up for in reverence. These literary geniuses were on a plane of existence made inaccessible to us, modern-day writers. How could we dare even think we could reach their heights? More importantly, how could we even begin to understand their process?

What happened, naturally, is that we didn’t understand their process. We received a final product – a book, a poem, an essay – and we assumed this creative output came from a place unreachable by us non-geniuses. Even when presented with evidence that our untouchable geniuses struggled — T.S. Eliot’s heavily marked manuscripts for The Wasteland a popular one — we didn’t bat an eyelash.

Then, it grew. That seed of doubt. I don’t know exactly when it planted itself—perhaps if my brain were to be dissected and the tree trunks counted, it might be eighteen — I became incapable of truly believing that I was a writer. I studied my marked-up essays from my writing courses and concluded that “genius” was not in my future. I graduated high school with more than half-baked ideas about literature. I gained a crippling self-doubt that occasionally still bares its teeth.

As I entered a second institution — Yale — this doubt nearly consumed me. I studied the Western Canon with the numb understanding that I was not merely in the shadow of the greatest minds the world has ever known—that, at least, might have been comforting—but that I was absolutely invisible and insignificant in their legacy. All of my work written in this period of my life can be characterized as self-conscious and derivative. I blamed this on the ethers. Why were they open to some but not me? And if I was not chosen, how cruel was it that at one point in my life, I actually enjoyed writing for its own sake?

When I finally decided to study painting rather than writing, I thought, perhaps, that the pressure of being a literary genius would finally go away. What I discovered, however, was even better. My study of art was heavily rooted in praxis. Suddenly, the discussion in the room didn’t focus on how “genius” a work was, but rather, the questions: “How was it made?” “What materials were used?” We pinned up our work in The Pit and had it critiqued and questioned by our classmates. The mystery of the artmaking process, at least as it pertained to my classmates, lifted.

In the dying light of my dorm room, I watched, entranced, as Jackson Pollock explained his splatter paintings in archive footage uploaded to Youtube. The following day, I made my way to the Yale University Art Gallery, on the second floor, where the venerable No. 13 (Pollock, 1950) was hung on a wall all to itself, as if to announce: “You are a speck of dust.” I must have stood there for an hour. I could have made it two, if it hadn’t been for the cramp in my legs.

I felt slapped by the universe.

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