The Genius Myth, Part Two

The Genius Myth, Part Two

“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.”

Albert Einstein

GeniusLast 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.

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3 thoughts on “The Genius Myth, Part Two

  1. David Brighton

    To retire the word and deny that Mozart was a genius because he was a white male is wrong. The enemy is not the music-loving community. They’re generally not a racist, sexist bunch. The enemy is the lack of support for classical musicians in the capitalist world in general. More support would result in more geniuses of every race and gender/ orientation. Modern people value the wrong things.

  2. Smooke

    Dear David,

    I’m not sure how you get that I’m denying “that Mozart was a genius because he was a white male” from my two articles. I’m postulating that the very idea of calling him a genius functions as a shortcut for saying that we cannot possibly understand the true greatness of his music and therefore does it a disservice. I also am saying that by anointing a limited number of old composers with the label genius that we are ossifying an outdated repertoire. Finally, I’m pointing out that this outdated repertoire does little to represent society as a whole.

    I appreciate your taking the time to comment.


  3. j107

    I think the difficulty with the term in the arts (these days) is the fact that it implies some sort of underlying standard practice that no longer really exists. That’s why it’s still widespread in other fields like the maths and sciences, where the rigid standards of internal consistency and consistency with nature make sophistication according to those standards more obvious and easier to evaluate. The fit has never been as snug in the arts, but when we call Bach a genius it’s because he wrote incredibly intricate and interesting music within the limited framework of eighteenth-century counterpoint, which serves as a kind of yardstick. You could say the same about a number of other composers, but these days the trend is to work according to your own inner yardstick (which I guess as an idea had its infancy in Beethoven but is all pervasive now). Indeed, it feels like every article about a new composer posted on NMB makes a big to-do about how the composer is confounding multiple yardsticks (ex. ‘Jane Doe mixes the influence of 12-tone music with her childhood exposure to Welsh folk tunes and teenage exposure to Australian hip-hop’).

    So maybe the concept of ‘genius’ is inapplicable today not because composers today are not as intelligent or artistic, but because it begs the question of ‘genius in reference to what?’ The most obvious (to me) modern example of a kind of conceptual framework in which to judge musical genius is the framework of mid-20th-century serialism and its later expressions, but this is a comparatively weak framework because of how ridiculously open it is (to say a work is ‘serialist’ is to say almost nothing about it, whereas to say a work is an early eighteenth-century fugue is to say a heck of a lot about it).

    Yet, just because the concept may be inapplicable today doesn’t mean it’s inapplicable in the case of past composers. Mozart was a genius, and saying that does not function as “a shortcut for saying that we cannot possibly understand the true greatness of his music.” It functions as a shortcut for saying that within the relatively narrow limits of compositional practice in his day, his work displays significantly more depth and sophistication than most of his contemporaries, and is worth looking at and delving into precisely because perceiving those qualities can be tremendously satisfying. To deny the label of genius where it’s clearly applicable just because contemporary composers are inconvenienced by its casual use and shallow glorification in the media is, I think, a cheap way out of that problem.


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