Genius and Master
Just posted a thought on a friend’s Facebook post that I think I’d like to expand on here. The friend was talking (basically) about how he was annoyed that the fans of a certain person insisted that person was a genius when my friend saw that person’s output as largely just okay. I wrote:
Calling someone you’re a fan of a “genius” is mostly just second-order complimenting of one’s self (because you have the good taste to be a fan of a genius, you see). Most of the people I’m fans of are not geniuses, they’re just really really good at what they do, and because they are, they sometimes make great and/or enduring art.
And I think that’s true. “Genius,” in the context of creativity, is bandied around a lot and is typically used as shorthand for “that person/group I like who does stuff I really like and which for some reason I have incorporated into my self-identity.” There’s also often but not always a whiff of “and they do something I don’t know how to do myself” in there. In short, “genius” means “people who are highly skilled and super-talented in their creative field, who produce high quality material that speaks to me ineffably.”
I think being one of those people is nice work if you can get it, but I don’t think it equates to being a “genius.” I think to be a creative genius (very incompletely, here) is to bring something new(ish)* to a culture, and to have it affect enough people that it is incorporated into the culture, and (this is the really unfair part) to have enough people notice that you have done it to be remembered for it. If you’re doing genius-level stuff and it’s all stuffed in a drawer and it never gets out, you’re going to miss out on being a creative genius, sorry.
So genius is both rare — it’s difficult to bring something new to the creative table — and a lot of it is down to luck and the fortunes of history, i.e., whether someone finds your work and celebrates it. Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh count as two geniuses whose stock rose well after their death; in my own field Philip K. Dick was celebrated in the small circle of science fiction while he was alive but only ascended in the culture after death. Not everyone gets to be the Beatles, and see in their lifetimes how their creative genius changed the world.
Most creative people aren’t in my opinion geniuses, since it seems to me that genius has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time, and failing that, at least having the right people find out about you when you’re dead. Which is to say, things that are completely out of one’s control and with a large element of luck involved. So much of genius has nothing to do with native ability and/or acquired skill. And in being recognized as a genius, it helps to get in early, before all the ground has been broken (or alternately, there when a field is in crisis, and everything is up for grabs).
But — and this is an important conjunction — this doesn’t mean that creative folks who aren’t geniuses aren’t making good art, or great art. They very often are, because the one element of genius they have some control over — craft — is something they work on, and they keep working on, hopefully through their careers. In point of fact I think there’s an argument to make that much of the work of non-geniuses is as good as or even exceeds the quality of the work of “geniuses,” who, while their reputation benefited from being the first to explore a field or technique, also (and necessarily) didn’t have the same fluidity or experience with the subject as others who came later and worked with it longer and incorporated it at a much earlier stage into their creativity.
So again: Not very many creative people should be called a genius, which is to my mind a highly contingent title, and one’s ascendance to the title might not even be settled in one’s lifetime. But certainly quite a lot of creative people should be acknowledged as masters of their field, and of their craft. “Master” is about the things you can control — your skill and the work you put into it — and it’s something that others can concretely argue for by pointing to the quality of one’s work in itself.
Examples! you say. Okay, let’s take, oh, I don’t know, film director Ron Howard. Is Ron Howard a genius? I think history is going to come down on the “probably not” side of that one — there’s very little in his canon of work that’s groundbreaking or startlingly innovative or so influential that you can see its mark in other filmed works. Is Ron Howard a master? Yup — leaving aside the Oscars he picked up for A Beautiful Mind, one can easily pick out the very good and near great work he’s done (my trio: Parenthood, Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon) and point to his reputation for no-nonsense competence — there’s a reason LucasFilm had him parachute into the Han Solo film. Howard may not be a genius, but when Apollo 13 or Parenthood shows up on cable, I stop skipping and start watching. He’s really good at what he does, and some of his work is legitimately classic. He deserves the honors and accolades that have come his way. He’s a master.
As I note above, I think people who are fans of a creative person want to label that person a genius, not just because it’s complimentary to the artist (no one dislikes being called a genius) but because it speaks well to their own taste. I’m not going to stop anyone from using the word, or tsk-tsk that hard when they do. But for myself I think its worth it to say that not everyone’s a genius, and it’s not an insult in itself to say someone’s not one. And also for myself, I’m more likely to call someone whose creative work I admire a “master.” In many ways, I consider that to be the higher compliment. You can become a genius by circumstance. Becoming a master takes work.
*Let me suggest “new” here can mean either something wholly new, and often springing from an advance in creative technology of some sort, or something that is an unexpected synthesis of existing forms.