When someone is described as a genius, what does it suggest to us? First thoughts would be that person has high level intelligence and insight, is capable of ‘off the wall’ inventiveness and originality. Or it may be an incredibly consummate, almost supernaturally early, developed skill, like those child prodigies we hear about. It may be a gift from God, or it may be the tortured genius, an isolated figure of exceptional creative powers suffering for his art. Or it may be the conceived link between genius and madness.
Here is a basic definition which fits with our first thoughts:
‘Exceptional intellectual or creative power, or natural ability, with consummate skill in a particular area of activity.’ With a glittering trail of synonyms we are familiar with: brilliance, wisdom, gift, talent, flair, virtuosity, a mastermind… And within the hallowed halls which the geniuses roam in, cloaked in their robes of address, we have figures such as Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Galileo, Albert Einstein, Shakespeare, Darwin, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Tolstoy, and we can’t leave Gandhi out. So we see them in connection with science, philosophy, literature and art. But here’s the thing. As a woman, I have to honestly admit that when I think of a genius I automatically think of a man. It’s a male artist genius like Durer, or a great scientist, like Einstein, or a philosopher like Buddha, or in our modern day, Steven Hawking or the late Nelson Mandela. So I thought I’d look at why this is. What have I, as a woman, picked up from the collective unconscious that operates, and has operated within our inherited psyche for centuries, that makes me associate genius with being male?
Well, I came across some clues to address this when I was studying art history. As an artist myself, I was relieved that the studies were looking at the social, and cultural creation of art, the context of its production, rather than the former art connoisseurship methods which were first developed within art appreciation circles and the first academies of art in the early Renaissance period. An art connoisseur ‘is a person who is especially competent to pass critical judgments in the arts, particularly one of the fine arts, or in matters of taste’ (Dictionary.com), and in the art trade, connoisseurship remains a pretty crucial skill in the identification of individual artist’s works, when documentary evidence is lacking.
But in my studies we were encouraged to think of art production in a much wider context, and as a practising artist I wasn’t interested in placing artists on marble pedestals or calling them innate geniuses, I was interested in their techniques, why they painted the way they did, for example, what did the development of perspective really meant to them, what they painted, and for whom, and how they related to the cultural milieu and its requirements. So I was most comfortable with the late Medieval master craftsmen/artisans and their guilds to early Renaissance stages, before later artists entered the male preserve of the art academies, and then catapulted to fame in the connoisseur-based history books, in what is termed ‘the changing status of the artist’. And I found my own ‘geniuses’ to admire, who weren’t classed as exalted in art history circles, but who are amazing to me…such as Carlo Crivelli, for his rich use of colour and incredible detail, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the illustrations of Arthur Rackham.
But getting back to the point, in my studies the feminist art historians looked at the origins of the word genius, and I pricked up my ears. Here was some information which explained why genius is perhaps more attributable to males. Entering the Renaissance period, art became classed as one of the Liberal Arts, which placed it on a higher level than mere manual skill, and only men studied the liberal arts. Scholars insisted art also required innate talent, and they used the term ingegno or igenium, meaning ingenuity, to get their message across. And so enters the origins of the concept of genius into our art history, which feminists argue has been set up by a patriarchal society to be a traditionally male preserve. And the reason might be found in looking at the origins of the actual word:
In the Roman religion the genius (plural geniī) is the individual instance of a general divine nature that is present in every individual person, place, or thing. Much like a guardian angel , the genius would follow each man from the hour of his birth until the day he died. For women it was the Juno spirit that would accompany each of them.
But it was the male ‘magic power’ genius that held the meaning here over time, in the context of what we are looking at, not Juno for women, which denoted domestic reproductive power. And you can see where the idea of a genie in a bottle came from: a genie being a spirit of Arabian folklore traditionally imprisoned in a bottle or oil lamp capable of granting wishes when summoned -a kind of guardian spirit.
And so, with what is termed the changing status of the artist, the myth of the Great Artist was eventually born, using the ‘golden nugget’ theory of genius, where the person is god-like, bearing within his person since birth a mysterious essence which will always work its way out, come what may. If women possessed it, then it would come out too, despite the social constraints that they were refused admission to the academies, that the main social force upon them was to marry and have children, with no time, like their husband, to devote to their vocation, unless…their father was an artisan and he was happy for his daughter to learn the art under his tutelege, such as in the interesting case of Artemisia Gentileschi, who was indeed refused entry to the academy. The term of genius became widely established during the Romantic period at the end of the 1700s, and by this time it was very much attributed to men who had made their mark is a specialised field.
But what about today? Well, here is another definition:
‘A genius is a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creative productivity, universality in genres or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of new advances in a domain of knowledge. Despite the presence of scholars in many subjects throughout history, many geniuses have shown high achievements in only a single kind of activity. There is no scientifically precise definition of genius, and the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate, although psychologists are converging on a definition that emphasizes creativity and eminent achievement’.
So there is some contention now, and new definitions may be being sought, and that brings me to something I found on Ralph Waldo Emerson and his alterative concept of genius in his essay on Self Reliance:
‘To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men (or women) —that is genius…’
‘A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages’
I like this vey much and I think we should find our own genius within ourselves, quietly, no fuss and if genius exists at all, then for me it has to be in the natural world, however it came into being.
I also tend to agree with this little ditty from Thomas Edison, who plugged away with his experiments until he got his golden nugget:
Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration
And Einstein is quoted as saying:
‘The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits’
So fact, or social construct? You decide.
I hope you’ve found this interesting, it’s being brewing for a while now. So I’ve got it out of my system and thank you for reading. Comments most welcome.
And here’s a link to an interesting article on defining genius from Psychology Today, if you can stand any more!
(all images courtesy of pixabay)