Monday, June 18, 2007

Geniuses on the brain

Obviously I’ve been thinking too much. Anyway, Terry alerted me to a podcast lecture by Malcolm Gladwell (under New Yorker Conference in iTunes podcasts), where Gladwell distinguishes between two types of “geniuses.” The first “old-fashioned” kind isolates himself (he’s comparing two specific men) and works on something until he has that “Eureka!” moment, while the new style “genius” plugs away on a problem by drawing on the work of many other thinkers like himself. In discussing both cases, Gladwell falls back on the theory that it takes 10,000 hours (or three hours a day for ten years) to become a “master” of something, anything, and talks about the value of persistence and observation.

I wonder what happens when we apply these templates to the making of art and so-called “genius” artists? In his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, David W. Galenson (who I found out about through an article by Gladwell) makes a distinction between those artists who have the big flash of innovation early in life, and those whose best work comes after working for many years. Rauschenberg would be an example of the former, while Serra might embody the latter. Matisse, for sure.

I feel our culture, to its detriment, cultivates the myth of the individual genius and overlooks the true roots of art and innovation. Artists such as Picasso and Pollock didn’t work in a vacuum, but were very involved with others who were working on and sharing similar ideas. Pollock was even married to one.

It was Emerson’s belief that the seeds of genius are in all of us, and it’s a matter of being brave enough to speak our truth. In his essay, Self-Reliance, he says:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction and it shall be universal sense; for always the inmost becomes the outmost--and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

I give more credit to persistence and passion—and the support of a milieu—than innate talent. One thing I’ve observed in teaching, is that sometimes those who show the most natural ability early on later fall by the wayside. I think this is because they become accustomed to easy success so when the going gets tough, which it often does if they’re going to make the leap into something great, they don’t have the psychological “muscles” it takes to push it to the next level. However, for those of us for whom it never came easy, each step just looks like the one before it.

And then there was the graduate student who said to me during a critique, “It probably would have been better if I’d worked on it longer.”

No comments: