This essay is taken from the current Numéro Berlin Kreativität issue, which can be found in shops or ordered online here.
A genius can see what others don’t and can convey his findings in groundbreaking artistic expressions or extraordinary achievements. What started in the early Romantic period is still valid in our vast postmodern present: We worship those who are able to grasp the raw complexity of this time and throw it back into our faces in the form of creative expression. They suffer from thinking and feeling too much – so, in the end, we all don’t have to.
Text: Lars Hillebrand
In everyday usage, we apply the term “genius” very loosely. It often expresses admiration for artists and their work. We call this book, painting, album or game genius. We might say of an artist we admire that they are a genius. As to the reason why, we may refer to their work as one-of-a-kind or groundbreaking. We often judge art and artists with the terms of genius and originality. We use it when our judgement exceeds our aesthetic expectations.
“Genius” is a term embedded in historical discourses about art and the artist. Following, we shall catch up with the cultural figure of the genius, discuss the history, and try to connect it to our postmodern times and our current perception of art and artists.
The term “genius” can be traced back to the Latin word ingenium, which can be roughly translated to “natural, innate talent.” Talent with which one is born and is used to create extraordinary things in arts and science.
Ingenuity is tied to the idea of newness, the characteristic of creativity, imagination and inventiveness. When you watch children paint, sculpt or draw, you see them being creative and get empowered by the joy of working with materials and ideas. They feel like they are venturing into new territory and also doing something new. It is “new.” But it is only “new” to them. They get to know the feeling of being expressive. Kids experience that expression of oneself isn’t necessarily tied to everyday language. Expression of feelings and the perception of the world surrounding us can be done in the most elaborate way with the medium of the arts. This is one of the coolest notions that has happened in the past one hundred years, because it opened up a whole new range of possibilities and freed the act of being creative from being guided by a specific function. This notion has consequences which are still momentous today.
There are and were artists and artworks which are so innovative that the existing parameters to judge and receive their works were sprung. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jorge Louis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov.
Yes, it is definitely true that a lot of so-called canonical geniuses are male. This, unfortunately, is the result of a confluence of sociopolitical and historical factors which we are in the process of rectifying. But, as we have it, the history and art discourses were predominately discourses held by white, male intellectuals, so the discourse on genius is predominantly about white, male artists. The influential literary critic Harold Bloom made a definitive list of 100 geniuses in the field of writing and literature from the beginning of humankind. Only 8 of the 100 on this list are women. Let that sink in, but let us pursue that in depth another day.
“I am proud of my heart alone, it is the sole source of everything, all our strength, happiness and misery. All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Originals and Individuals
Before looking at present day geniuses, let us recapitulate the history of the concepts of genius and originality. One thing that stuck with me from a beginner’s course on medieval literature at university was the love poetry of the German Middle Ages (Minnesang). As a sensitive student raised on sentimental indie rock and depressive emocore, I could relate to this thing called love, the pain and bliss it sets in motion. To my surprise, my image of a lovesick young knight singing and playing those tunes to that special midnight princess under the silver moonlight in a small, southern German town was crushed as I was told by the lecturer that in the Middle Ages, there was neither a concept of love (as we think of it now) nor an image of the artist (as we think of them now).
The so-called medieval “love” was an integral part of the court society, where the poet (the troubadour) sang or recited those poems in a kind of battle or tournament with other knights to please and give aesthetic joy to the authority (i.e. king, landlord etc.). Love was abstract; no subjective, individual love was shared in those songs and poems. The “artist” was more of a worker, a craftsman who had talents in organizing and structuring the texts and songs according to the strict poetic rules of the Minnesang. The troubadours were not sharing their individual longing or personal experiences. Some argue that the idea of the “person” itself hadn’t even been developed. When it was, it may have been a sacrilege, because it threatened the powers that be. There was no open discourse on the idea of individuality. It would take some centuries until the creative will of the artist realized itself in stylistic originality. This idea was first fully realized in Europe in the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) literary movement between the late 1760s and early 1780s.
That’s when the artist came to be thought of as an “original genius.” The genius of the pre-Romantic Storm and Stress movement can be described as an artist who is capable of being independent as a feeling individual, but also free to ignore the rules and norms of artistic composition of its time. The artist was no longer a slave to tradition and could express himself how he wants. Some people remember the angst-ridden prose of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther from 1774. A book where self-expression was everything. Young Werther wrote about the radical individualism which is the foundation of a genius: “I am proud of my heart alone, it is the sole source of everything, all our strength, happiness and misery. All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own.”
Besides Goethe, the German master thinker Immanuel Kant described the genius in 1790 in his book Critique of Judgment: “Genius is the talent (natural endowment) which gives the rule to art. Since talent, as an innate productive faculty of the artist, belongs itself to nature, we may put it this way: Genius is the innate mental aptitude (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art.” But Kant does not stop here and he radicalizes this thought in favor of the autonomous and original artist: “From this it may be seen that genius (1) is a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given, and not an aptitude in the way of cleverness for what can be learned according to some rule; and that consequently originality must be its primary property.”
This lays the foundation to the idea of a modern artist who is independent, who does not imitate nature, but rather creates it. He sets the rules through his art. The genius sets the rules “as nature.” In the times of the beforementioned Minnesang, this would have been considered blasphemy and heresy.
“From this it may be seen that genius (1) is a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given, and not an aptitude in the way of cleverness for what can be learned according to some rule; and that consequently originality must be its primary property.”
The Postmodern Problem
To this day, this perception of genius sounds about right. It is about rule-breaking and bringing something fresh and new to the table. And, by that, changing the world, influencing generations to come. There are many original works by genius artists. We all can mostly agree on the canonical ones like Picasso, James Joyce and Franz Kafka, who were new and original in their time.
But how can we discuss the idea of genius under the paradigm of postmodernity, the time in which we live? Can it even be discussed? The difficulty of this question lies in postmodern theory’s vehement denial of the concept of originality. Postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida were more philosophers of the ‘trace’ (différance), which question any ‘metaphysical’ originary approach on metaphysics and/or art. This idea is contrary to the idea of a genius. To postmodern theory, a genius is a mystical figure which can easily be deconstructed. The postmodern theory that “everything is text” is a clever idea which made it possible to criticize everything and tear apart any fixed meaning, fixed identity and speculations about originality and ontological origins.
Nothing simply is because everything is changing and change never rests. This idea was quite powerful in its reception in the Western intellectual hemisphere of the 1980s and 90s. Conservative, Western metaphysics were under attack.
The cultural debates that followed focused on aspects like influence and, most of all, on so-called secondary practices. German writer Eckhard Schumacher discussed the relationship of “original” and “copy” in 2004 in Original Kopie. For example, the techniques of sampling found its way into the realms of art criticism. The recycling and re-usage of sounds and song snippets cut out of its original context in hip hop and electronic music was one of the most evident manifestations of the postmodern paradigm in popular culture. It was creating the paradox of making something authentic through a non-authentic approach.
In the novel Look at the Harlequins! from 1974 by Vladimir Nabokov, the author formulates a similar and also (post)modern thought on genius:
“What do you call ‘genius’?”
“Well, seeing things others don’t see. Or rather the invisible links between things.”
This take on genius makes the bridge to thinking about genius today (Is postmodern already a thing of the past?). Today’s genius is able to bring cultural codes, styles and other powerful expressions together in a way that appears new and very out of the box. It seems that there are not too many people who get called genius today.
“What do you call ‘genius’?”
“Well, seeing things others don’t see. Or rather the invisible links between things.”
Before we examine Kanye West and his body of work in relationship to the contemporary concept of genius, let’s take a short look at the “typical personality” of a genius.
How can a genius artist be described? There is no common definition of the genius personality per se. We have to examine biographies and other media. A lot of genius artists are associated with madness. Think Vincent van Gogh.
The work of William Blake was supposedly whispered by ghosts. He spoke of his work as visions. Emily Dickinson completely withdrew herself from social life. Salvador Dali was an eccentric who was known for wetting his bed intentionally and being an exhibitionist.
The creative genius is often described by psychologists as hypersensitive, socially distanced, arrogant and emotionally unstable. There seems to be a connection to creativity and having a bipolar disorder.
On the cover of Kanye West’s 2018 album Ye, the statement “I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome” is written in green letters. In the background, one can see the snowy Rocky Mountains close to where the album was produced and recorded. According to his wife, Kim Kardashian, the photo was a snapshot taken by Kanye with his iPhone on his way to the listening party of said album.
Kanye’s openness about his psychological condition may be one part of his approach to present and market himself as the megalomaniac and genius artist he wants to be regarded as and be admired for. Kanye West wants to be seen as a Gesamtkunstwerk, where the artist and body of work make up a total work of art.
Everybody can watch Kanye West trying and succeeding to be excessively original throughout his career as an artist and, equally important, as an entrepreneur. In Kanye’s career, one can witness probably the most avantgarde marketing strategies an artist has ever done. According to an interview with the BBC, he said: “I’m unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time.”
Kanye’s self-stylization as an artist is wide ranging. He organizes and performs churchlike gospel events, designs and sells houses called ‘YZY SHLTRS’ which resemble buildings from the Star Wars franchise, attributes superpowers to his MAGA hat, jumps on Donald Trump’s lap during a visit to the White House, announced his run for president with a manic rant, and published an album, The Life of Pablo, which is a work in progress.
Kanye West is a self-proclaimed genius. That is a bold move of self-empowerment. He constantly re-designs and re-creates himself to a much higher extent than we have seen from artists like Madonna, Prince or David Bowie. Madonna renewed her artist persona every couple of years. Kayne is the personification of the struggle of the constantly morphing artist persona. He knows no peace. His struggle with himself, his art and the world is real. We watch it unfold in real time on social media.
Kayne West shows us that the hubris of a god complex, radical individuality and suffering does not necessarily contradict each other. I see this as genius because, after all, it is a condensed, elevated expression of what it means to be human.