What constitutes artistic genius?

Writing buddy Maureen Gross shared an article, “The Appeal of Artists Who Won Fame After Death,” which got me thinking about my scholarly writing regarding who decides what is an important work; namely in my field of detective fiction studies, why are most of the canonical (list of greats) writers male? While the artists mentioned in this article are noteworthy, the designation is too generalized and does not take in particulars of the individual artists or of issues of race, class, gender, and gender identity.

For instance, the article’s author names the photographer Vivian Maier and the painter Vincent Van Gogh, but their material circumstances were very different. Maier worked as a nanny, carer, and housekeeper, becoming destitute in her old age. On the other hand, Van Gogh, though troubled, was supported by his well-to do brother.

And what of two artists who had success during their lifetimes, but were long overlooked until recently: the gender- and norm-bending photographer Frances B. Johnston and Edmonia Lewis, the first black and Native American sculptor to earn international recognition (and now honored on a US Postal stamp)?

Related is the idea of the tendency to think of their being stars (geniuses) of culture, as one of my favorite feminist scholars, Paul Lauter labels the mountaintop theory; great ideas or works are passed down from mountaintop to mountaintop; for example, the concept of civil disobedience as going from Henry David Thoreau to Ghandi to Martin Luther King, Jr.

While not discounting the talents and contributions of these men, history shows that these ideas and work were more communal than we’re lead to believe. For example, there was a community of people in the early 1800s espousing nonviolent resistance, and women like Rosa Parks and Mamie Till Mobley were serious educators and activist for many years, though largely known, respectively, for refusing to give up her seat on a bus or for being the mother of the murdered Emmett Till.

Several factors operate here, including the masculinist nature of our society, the American cult of individualism, and the Romantic ideal of the tortured genius. For example, the popular and scholarly image of Edgar Allan Poe, touted as the father of the short story and father of detective fiction, for a long time was of an unstable, crazed artist, dissipated by alcohol and lust, producing through a drug-induced creativity amid the gothic trappings (candle-lit garret) found in some of his works.  This reputation resulted partly from confusing the author with his stories’ narrators and also from a literary hoax perpetuated by Rufus Griswold, Poe’s literary executor and enemy.

This helped create the modernist myth of the artist: “the agony of the possessed and sensitive genius, mistreated and misunderstood in the market-place of an aggressively materialistic vulgar democracy” (Stuart and Susan Levine, editors of a Poe short story collection). And yet modern writers like Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, who participated in this myth, were actually part of a web or tangled mesh of authors and influences, as mapped out by the scholar Bonnie Kime Scott.

The point is how do we define “genius” when so much creative work partakes of a communal zeitgeist or has been literally shaped by others (Ezra Pound’s major edits of T.S. Eliot’s work, including The Waste Land) or reshaped, even stolen by others (Fitzgerald taking Zelda’s work as his own). A recent NY Times cartoon, “An Illustrated History of Bad Art Friends,” comments on this. In its subtitle it asks, “Is there a line between being inspired by others’ lives and stealing from them?”

Consider also two books I read recently, The Guest List by Lucy Foley and The Last Flight by Julie Clark. Foley, in her afterward, hailed her two editors as true collaborators whose names should be listed on the cover with hers—definitely speaking to the idea of collaborative nature of art, even of writing. In addition, Clark’s book in the Kirkus Review, was described as a “womancentric thriller.” Do reviewers label the books of Tom Clancy or John Grisham as “malecentric thrillers”?

How would you define genius, and do you think definitions are shaped by our societal preconceptions and prejudices? And what do we do when award-winning books, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Art Spiegelman’s Maus are banned from classrooms?

(“The Appeal of Artists Who Won Fame After Death”; Frances B. Johnston; Edmonia Lewis; Paul Lauter; Bonnie Kime Scott’s Tangled Mesh; “An Illustrated History of Bad Art Friends”)

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