The Art of Genius

Genius is nothing more than the carrying of idle thoughts to their farthest conclusion. How many people, before Darwin, had pondered the origin of species?

Only one person dared to see the inquiry to its absolute end.

How many wondered about the relationship between time, space, and energy?

Only Einstein spent his life running after peculiar notions and questions no one seemed to answer.

Emerson once said,

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Every human, being a possessor and product of the most complex object in the Universe, the brain, is capable of ingenuity and innovation. What is rarer than curiosity and invention is the force of will and passionate nonconformity that allows the seeds of genius to be grown into great works and discoveries.

How many ideas have passed through your mind, been left unnurtured, only to be presented later on as the product of someone else’s mind, perhaps to great public esteem and profit?

I hesitate to call the required impetus to action confidence because I doubt confidence in his own genius was Einstein’s or anyone else’s primary motivator. I think rather than being full of aggressive gusto or rebellion, most great thinkers simply ignore the doubting voices that might put halt to their explorations.

Leonardo Da Vinci did not resent his detractors or plot their downfall. More likely he was so busy with his own interests and endeavors that few of the doubters even appeared on his periphery.

To be a genius is to pursue with great energy that which interests you most, and arouses in you an industriousness and competency beyond that of your average capability.

It is not a magical voice in the head or the soul, guiding the hand of a select group and leading them constantly to truth and beauty.

Myth of the Tortured Artist

The “tortured artist” is one our society’s most toxic cultural archetypes. Not only because it puts forth an unsustainable identity framework for creative achievement, but because that framework isn’t effective for making great creative work possible. 

It is true that abnormally creative individuals are more likely to suffer from dramatic swings in emotion. But to assume that those swings are what makes creativity possible takes away from an artist’s authentic merit.

The tortured artist idea is simply another offshoot of that even more prevalent conception of creativity; that great works are produced in an unconscious, unwilled flash of brilliance, rather than over large amounts of time wherein a huge amount of competency within a medium is established.

The 20th century hosted an abundance of great talent, doomed to die at a young age. These culture heroes fell victim to the modern phenomenon of extreme and quickly cultivated fame, as well as a superabundance of powerful and unstudied drugs. In honoring them, it is important to separate their mistakes from their masterpieces and acknowledge that the lifestyle that destroyed them is not whatsoever what made them great.

In a perverse way, these assumptions actually make producing great works seem easier than it actually is. No one can sustain a flash of brilliance, or a period of profound depression over the amount of time it takes to become a great painter or novelist, or even to produce a single significant work. Most of the time in front of the canvas or blank page will be spent in mind state similar to that of a competent machinist or woodworker. The good work will come from long periods of deep focus and deliberate will. Such periods are not sustainable if one is depressed or manic.

Turbulent emotional spikes will perhaps give you a day of good work, but they will rob you of a lifetime of steady progress and production.

The proof is written in the historical record. With few exceptions, we see that minor talents are usually manic, drug addicted, and obsessed with a conception of creativity that relies on divine inspiration.

On the other hand, we see that the Shakespeares and Da Vincis of the world are highly industrious and of sober mind. This is not to say they were not emotional or sometimes divinely inspired; it is to say that such artists merely ornamented their creative lives with such extremes, and built the rest upon a solid framework of discipline and measured devotion.