“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.”
Last week I began considering the pervasive genius myth and some of its ramifications. I postulated that a central aspect of our conception of the genius is in its removal from our quotidian experience, and that this distancing leads to two negative consequences: 1) our thinking that geniuses invariably lived in a different time and place has helped lead to an ossification of the classical orchestral repertoire, and 2) our belief that the products of the geniuses are exceptional absolves us of our responsibility to grapple with the issues raised by their work; because we are by definition unable to truly understand their arcane elements, we don’t need to make an effort to do so. Thus, as David St. Hubbins of the fictional band Spinal Tap most famously stated, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh, clever.”
Another troubling aspect of the genius myth is that in application it invariably buttresses the status quo. In a world in which the default “composer” is white and male and in which other flavors of artists find their works shunted into sub-categories, we tend to reserve the center of the canon for those who most closely resemble the creators of the past. Indeed, the 2009 Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory states that the “concept [of genius] is tied to gender and power in ways that cause problems for women,” and goes on to argue that “Romantic, Victorian and Modernist artists claimed that only ‘geniuses’ produced ‘great art’ and that only a man could be a ‘genius.’ However, in practice they defined ‘great art’ in contrast with the art of women and others who were labeled ‘inferior.’” This practice continues even today in much criticism.
In the music world, I think that the main way to stand against the racist and sexist applications of the term “genius” is to remember that some of the best art being created today was composed by people who are not white and male. We should ask ourselves why we’re neglecting to mention Saariaho, Gubaidulina, and Neuwirth in a discussion of the greatest European composers working today. Or if we’re considering orchestral music composed in the U.S., can we fully represent the range of excellence found in contemporary composers while neglecting Chen Yi, Jennifer Higdon, Shulamit Ran, Tan Dun, Joan Tower, Augusta Read Thomas, and Olly Wilson (just to pull a few names out of a hat)? Aren’t we doing ourselves a disservice when we write on American opera without mention of Anthony Davis and Deborah Drattell?
I’m not arguing for a watering down of standards or for us to have quotas. But with so much amazing music being created by so many different types of people, we should stop ourselves before producing yet another white male composer festival. Why would we blithely neglect to program music that might represent the unique concerns of more than 50% of our potential audience members? Why not question our choices in order to consider if the music we’re programming is indeed the best music out there. We might realize that we simply forgot about that composer who writes music that we adore but who we haven’t thought about in a while because they aren’t considered one of the usual suspects. Rob Deemer’s “A Helpful List” might be a good place to start looking if you need ideas for composer’s names.
By doing so, we will hopefully be able to re-define the idea of “genius,” working towards a connotation that’s more appropriate for our contemporary society. Until then, I suggest retiring the term entirely and casting about more broadly to find the best music currently being created.