Debate: is there such a thing as artistic genius?

Rosanna McLaughlin and Richard Cork

Published 27 March 2020

You have it or you don’t have it, right? Well, maybe. Our writers weigh up whether genius is innate or nonsense – but the final word lies with you. Cast your vote below.

  • No...

    Says editor and writer Rosanna McLaughlin. It is a myth that preserves white male privilege, and gets in the way of true artistic discernment.

    Welcome to The Genius Myth. You know how it goes – the spirit of artistic greatness descends upon an ordinary Joe, setting him on a path to glory with nothing but original talent and the libido of a wild stallion to help him on his way.

    Full of holes and intellectually torpid, ‘genius’ is culture’s flat tyre. For one thing, there’s usually a cheque from an obliging relative on Mr Masterpiece’s desk. And if there’s a woman in the bed, chances are she’s two decades younger than him and significantly poorer. As for individual brilliance, culture is not produced in a vacuum. What of the many hands and minds who aid the artist’s development? The family, teachers, peers, assistants, patrons; the makers of those West African masks he bought at auction and has been copying since? I use the word ‘he’ advisedly. As Linda Nochlin argued in her 1971 essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, it’s a no-brainer that those granted the right to education, the vote, and legal control over their finances and bodies have historically excelled in their fields. Genius is a moniker intimately entwined with white male privilege.

  • My biggest beef with genius? It gets in the way of art.

    Rosanna McLaughlin

  • Dressing up structural inequality in the garb of destiny is never a good look. Nor is being an apologist for sordid goings-on. Genius has a rap sheet that could keep #MeToo lawyers in business for centuries. Pablo Picasso referred to women as “doormats”. Paul Gauguin had sex with underage girls. When Jackson Pollock killed himself drink-driving, his passenger, Edith Metzger died too. Don’t get me wrong: impeccable morals are no prerequisite for making meaningful cultural contributions. The problem is, genius invites us to treat tawdry biographical details as part of the folklore of greatness – often at the expense of someone less powerful.

    Rather than attempt to democratise a compromised idea, I say ditch it altogether. My biggest beef with genius? It gets in the way of art. The great irony of a mythology of awesome intelligence is the stupefying effect it has on culture. Take the current trend among museums to treat any mediocre early sketch, doodle on a beermat, or prosaic diary entry as if it were a holy relic – simply because it has touched the hand of the ‘special one’. When we immerse ourselves in personality cults we put our faculties out to pasture. Yet in its best moments art has the capacity to sharpen minds, deepen emotions, spark debate. Let us retire the phoney idols and get back to using our senses.

  • Yes...

    Argues art critic and curator Richard Cork, drawing on his personal experiences of encountering the heights of artistic endeavour.

    It is true that the words ‘artistic genius’ might sound overblown to many people now. Understandably, they recoil from the idea of worshipping artists like deities. No artist is beyond criticism. They are all human, with their inevitable failings. And they certainly should not be encouraged to think of themselves as irreproachable stars who never produce inferior work.

    At the same time, though, I would argue that outstanding practitioners still deserve to be regarded with a sense of wonder, and I am convinced that ‘artistic genius’ is a valid way of defining totally outstanding talent. We need a way to describe artists whose works completely transcend expectations. As an 18-year-old, I encountered the emblematic artist genius, Picasso, while he had lunch in the old harbour at Cannes. Unbelievably, he was the first artist I had ever met. After talking to him, I drew his portrait in my sketchbook, and he then drew my face on the same page, with astounding swiftness, wit and certitude. As the RA show Picasso and Paper testifies, the act of drawing lay at the centre of his achievements. When I look at Picasso’s eloquent command of line, the words ‘artistic genius’ spring to mind, summing up his ability to bestow a revelatory barrier-breaking experience.

  • ‘Artistic genius’ is a valid way of defining totally outstanding talent.

    Richard Cork

  • One always knows when one comes across such genius, and it is often a surprise. I first experienced its life-changing power in 1960 when, at the age of 13, I discovered the Wallace Collection. It was as if I had chanced upon secret territory known only to the most adventurous initiates. In the grand upstairs room, my adolescent vision was ambushed by images far more overwhelming than any I had seen before. I gazed in awe at Velázquez, Rubens, Poussin and Titian. They were profoundly stirring, amounting to an epiphany – a sense in me that humans might, on occasion, create works which surpass the social and cultural forces shaping their authors. 

    Blanched and anxious, Rembrandt’s son Titus gazed out at me from a mass of curly hair. As an embattled teenager myself, I identified with the sadness in his dark, defensive eyes; his defiant ability to survive on the surface of this canvas moved me deeply. I can even recall the feeling that Rembrandt somehow feared for his son’s life, and defined the impending extinction of the short-lived Titus in the broken, vulnerable quality of his brushmarks. It was this painting that ensured my capitulation to the cult of artistic genius.

  • Rosanna McLaughlin is an editor at The White Review and author of Double-Tracking (Carcanet). Richard Cork is an art critic, curator and broadcaster. He is author of Face to Face: Interviews with Artists (Tate Publishing).

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