The word “genius” is bandied about a lot these days. It seems that whenever someone dies, somebody calls that person a Genius. This is especially true in the world of popular music, but is certainly not limited to it. Whether it’s a rock musician who sets himself apart from his peers by his actions or an artist that specializes in painting big orange squares, the word “genius” often shows up.
The dictionary (remember those?) says a genius is “one of exceptional intelligence or ability in a specific or general way.” Or words to that affect. Well, that covers a rather broad range. There are some historical figures that we consider geniuses that would probably get no argument from anyone. Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare (if he REALLY wrote all those plays), Einstein, and the list goes on. What makes these individuals geniuses? To my way of thinking (and I am certainly no expert in the field) they changed their art or science in profound ways. In many ways, these aforementioned individuals (and others of their ilk) not only changed their art, but changed the world.
That being said, what about all the other truly talented and creative people in the world, past and present, that are not normally associated with the term “genius?” There are numerous composers who wrote wonderful pieces of music that we don’t hear referred to as “geniuses,” yet every one of them had moments in their careers that set them apart from their peers, and wrote music that is still performed and recorded to this day. At the same time, there are numerous talented individuals who, often after dying, are proclaimed geniuses by their loyal followers.
You may recall (and I’m flattered if you do) a piece I wrote for this same vehicle concerning the comparison between pop and classical music. In that missive, I mentioned how, when told that most pop musicians will, in the next one hundred years or more, be relegated to the dustbins of music history, while Bach, Beethoven, etc, will still be performed, recorded, and studied. It is a statement that will certainly raise the ire of certain people (my brother took particular umbrage with it). Well, what I’m about to say will probably raise ire with a lot of other people, and maybe some of the same people, but here it goes: When an artist we admire passes away, we like to think of him or her as a genius, because it makes us feel better about our own sensibilities and taste. Let’s face it—we all would like to think that the people we admire are geniuses. The reality is, there are a lot of truly talented people in the world who are not necessarily geniuses. For example, would you consider Roger Federer a genius? He’s won more major titles than any tennis player in history. He’s won more Wimbledon titles than any other male player. He will certainly go down in history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest player in his sport, yet I have not hear the word “genius” associated with him.
Perhaps we should consider someone else. Albert Einstein is universally considered one of the greatest geniuses in history, yet all of his major discoveries were made when he was a relatively young man (Photoelectric Effect, Theory of Relativity). The next 35 years or so of his life were spent trying in vain to discover the Unified Field Theory (the Theory of everything). When Max Planck introduced the world to Quantum Theory (for which he won a Nobel Prize), Einstein said of it “God does not play dice with the world.”
So, you may ask, as well you should, just what the heck is he getting at? Well, I suppose that if I am getting at anything, it’s that one doesn’t have to be a genius to be exceptional at what he or she does. Steven King has written more books than most can count, and I have never heard him referred to as a genius, whereas Thomas Pynchon has written very few by comparison and is considered one of the great literary geniuses of the 20th century. I have to admit, I have tried to read “Gravity’s Rainbow at least 5 times and can never get past page 150. Clearly, I’m not a genius. I suppose my point is, let’s just enjoy the art and science of those we like, and let the moniker of “genius” be left to the historians.