The Genius Myth, Part One
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Dear Reader, indulge me, if you will, in a little experiment. I’d like for you to please imagine a genius, someone named “Smarty.” Picture Smarty on an average day. What does Smarty look like? In what field does Smarty work? In what era does Smarty live?
Chances are that your genius was someone removed from your quotidian experience. If you’re a composer, you probably imagined a scientist from the early 20th century. If you’re a scientist you likely pictured a musician from the 19th century or earlier. Chances are fairly good that you imagined a white male with disheveled hair, unless, of course, your mental image of genius derives from the Road Runner cartoons in which Wile E. Coyote had business cards printed identifying his occupation solely as “Genius.”
If you Google the phrase “contemporary composer genius” your results will include pages devoted to Benjamin Britten, César Cui (?!), John Cage, Bach, Mozart, and other dead composers, with Philip Glass holding down the fort as the only living representative one finds among those determined by Google’s algorithm to be the most relevant. Obviously, this idea of the dead white composer-genius is outdated, at best. Yet it remains pervasive and, as this notion is applied to contemporary music, it remains problematic and unhelpful. I would like to propose shelving the very idea of the genius composer.
When 19th-century composers looked to Beethoven as the embodiment of the musical ideal, they were arguing for the contemporary currency of his rapidly aging compositions. They felt that Beethoven’s music deserved a continuing place in the repertoire, a newly developing notion, since concerts had previously been filled with the newest possible sounds. Their refusal to let the music of Beethoven fade into obscurity—and their revival of earlier composers—led to the development of the concept of a standard repertoire, focused on music of the past instead of the present. This 19th-century vision of the orchestral repertoire remains in place as we move well into the 21st century, and Beethoven’s visage has ossified as the Platonic ideal of the composer-genius.
We love the idea of the genius, of the Promethean figure descended from on high to bring knowledge to humanity. This Übermensch stands apart from the masses, pulling them forcibly into a future that they can neither understand nor appreciate. We embrace this notion because on the one hand it allows us to imagine ourselves as being among the limited numbers of initiates who can be trusted with the arcana, while on the other hand simultaneously absolving us of our responsibility in the matter—it’s not our fault that we can’t follow the meaning behind the music because we can’t all be geniuses.
When we can’t understand the basic elements of the discussion, we also can’t discern the distinction between the sublime revolutionaries and the ridiculous charlatans. In this sense, the label of “genius” can function as a way to dismiss art that we don’t understand. We’re saying that we cannot be expected to comprehend the art that makes us uncomfortable or that stretches beyond our immediate ability to analyze its constituent elements. And if we have no way to enter into a dialogue with these creations, then we cannot be held responsible for the relative value of the work. Therefore when I describe an artist as a genius, I’m telling you that I don’t understand the art and that I believe you won’t either.
This link between the idea of genius and our inability to comprehend the genesis of their creations is why our initial vision of the personification of the genius was someone removed from our daily existence. When you’re a scientist, you understand the work that goes into designing and then carrying out experiments. You have an intuitive sense of the road that one needs to travel to gain the sorts of skills necessary in order to be responsible for a leap in our understanding of the world around us. Similarly, when you’re a composer, you know how much training you’ve undertaken in order to master the ability to conceive of new sounds. When a new theorem or treatment of harmony arises, those working within the field have the tools necessary to assess the resulting work. Of course, even these experts will disagree as to the relative value of these new concepts, but they also will have a basis for considering them as coming from our human understanding instead of springing fully formed from the brain of a god.
I hope that we can emphasize the humanity of those creators who push the limits of our understanding. By doing so, I believe that we will be more inclined to grapple with those issues that push the limits of our mental capacities.