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Do we confuse assholery with creative genius?

John William Waterhouse, “Echo and Narcissus” (1903)

One of my 2015 resolutions is that I’m going to try my best to avoid unprofessional jerks who behave with unchecked entitlement because they’re both mean and intelligent. (Good luck, me!) We all know these people, whether they’re a narcissistic artist friend or cantankerous colleague. They require an inordinate amount of attention and patience, are easily provoked, willing to offend, and almost always young and male.

Maybe one reason why people are willing to tolerate these characters is because their behavior feels like a hangover from the old modernist myth that artists and writers are tortured societal outliers whose bad manners are a symptom of their genius. And people do tolerate them on all levels. For example, I had a recent conversation with an editor colleague that went like this:

Me: I like X’s writing sometimes, but I would never want to work with him because he’s so unpredictable and mean.
Editor: Yeah I know, but he’s a GENIUS, so it’s different.
Me: Really? I mean, he’s a pretty good writer, but how does is it “different”?
Editor: Of course he’s that good. He’s like the Rain Man of art criticism. We’re lucky to get to publish him.
Me: Okay, bye!

Okay, maybe I’m slightly exaggerating with the Rain Man comment. And the ending. But you know what I’m getting at. Why do we give this behavior a pass? These aren’t fully formed thoughts, but I would argue that it has something to do with both the cultural fetishizing of mental illnesses like Asperger’s (“don’t mind him, he’s weird but genius!”), and narcissistic personality disorder (after all, the art world is built out of hyperconfident personalities).

Further, as someone who is both a curator and a writer, I’m treated differently depending on which capacity I’m working in. When I work as a curator, I’m treated as the “responsible party” while artists are allowed (and even expected) to throw demanding tantrums. When I work as a writer, I’m treated as the creative one, and can get away with infinitely more assholery (no, I generally do not take advantage of this!) since my editor is expected to be the administrative “responsible” middleman. But since I’m the same person no matter what I’m doing, I try to treat all tasks with a common amount of professionalism and respect. So why do expectations placed on me vary so much when I’m in productive, rather than administrative roles?

What are your thoughts?


What blog…

I call it “post-bro”. As in, behavior that attracts attention (even negative) is socially rewarded. Before, ‘bro’ attitudes consisted of machismo behavior; today, it comes across as entitlement (to behave and treat others as we feel that we are entitled to) and an inability to recognize the self in others. Does not only apply to men. I wouldn’t call it “assholery”, necessarily, especially we (editors, curators) give these people permission to behave as such. Unfortunate, mostly because we seek talent > humility. I still think it is a product of an evolved masculinity. But yes, it is insufferable.

Also: As a whole arts-sector, can we please stop using the word “genius?” Unless this is a discussion of Mensa or if we’re just being cynical a-holes, ourselves…really.


Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

I totally agree that we should axe the idea of creative genius as a whole. I also wonder why the idea still has such currency in both popular culture and more niche art discourse. Rather than understanding that intelligence exists on a spectrum, the idea of the genius seems to bifurcate our understanding of intelligence into “regular” and “genius,” where most people fall into the “regular” category, and a select few–who are often dangerously mythologized–fall into the genius category. But falling into the genius category also seems to mean that you’re so otherworldly that you’re too wrapped up solving math problems to worry yourself with social conventions and bourgeois manners. I think we create and hold on to these categories to better understand and accept ourselves in relation to intelligence; i.e. “He figured out how to crack Enigma but he can’t carry a normal conversation about something as normal as lunch.” (That was the basic plot to “The Imitation Game,” the biopic about Alan Turing that just came out.)

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I really believe cynicism has something to do with this mindset. I think its linked in some way to maintaining a critical thought process, which artists have to have, this perhaps can develop through sheer comfort and one might slide into a more cynical less constructive perspective on things.

To add to the point of the myth that you mentioned above:

[quote=“karenarchey, post:1, topic:904”]
artists and writers are tortured societal outliers whose bad manners are a symptom of their genius.
[/quote] This in a way makes me find some connection with Jacques Perriault’s theory on technology, more specifically the “Diligence Effect”. I feel this almost highlights our own human design, alienated toward these figures we have so far valorised.

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Wow. Writing about Benedict Cumberbatch and The Imitation Game, Christian Caryl over at the New York Review of Books took the words out of my mouth:

To anyone trying to turn [Turing’s] story into a movie, the choice seems clear: either you embrace the richness of Turing as a character and trust the audience to follow you there, or you simply capitulate, by reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius. The latter, I’m afraid, is the path chosen by director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore in The Imitation Game, their new, multiplex-friendly rendering of the story. In their version, Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) conforms to the familiar stereotype of the otherworldly nerd: he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t even understand an invitation to lunch. This places him at odds not only with the other codebreakers in his unit, but also, equally predictably, positions him as a natural rebel.

Just to make sure we get the point, his recruitment to the British wartime codebreaking organization at Bletchley Park is rendered as a ridiculous confrontation with Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance, of Game of Thrones fame), the Royal Navy officer then in charge of British signals intelligence: “How the bloody hell are you supposed to decrypt German communications if you don’t, oh, I don’t know, speak German?” thunders Denniston. “I’m quite excellent at crossword puzzles,” responds Turing.

On various occasions throughout the film, Denniston tries to fire Turing or have him arrested for espionage, which is resisted by those who have belatedly recognized his redemptive brilliance. “If you fire Alan, you’ll have to fire me, too,” says one of his (formerly hostile) coworkers. There’s no question that the real-life Turing was decidedly eccentric, and that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. As his biographers vividly relate, though, he could also be a wonderfully engaging character when he felt like it, notably popular with children and thoroughly charming to anyone for whom he developed a fondness.

You can read Caryl’s think piece here.

In my experience, the (relative) rarity of women exhibiting this behavior has to do with the far-more-rigidly enforced socialization of our gender. We are taught to be polite; men are not. Whether a man is a genius or not, he often can get away with being an asshole. Women who act in such a way, even when they are so-called geniuses, are perceived as antisocial ball breakers. In addition, let me point out that this same constellation of behaviors is what ‘holds women back’ in places like the tech world: as Deborah Tannen put it so many years ago, women try to find a place to relate to others when talking or working with someone; men are generally trying to assert their alpha status (pissing on the fire hydrant to delineate their territory). These are gross generalizations, but the kind of assertion of genius you talk about strikes me as often being another manifestation of jockeying for position, conscious or not.

This is a really interesting topic. The lone genius is a very powerful idea across disciplines. And then coupled with macho behavior… Look out! I just wanted to point out a couple of other recent discussions of artistic genius if people hadn’t seen them (if not its confluence with male assholeness). A recent Atlantic article predicts the whole death of this model but was disappointing because it treats art as an undifferentiated product which is silly and doesn’t take the next logical step and contemplate what a new wave of technologically enabled collaboration might really look like. Also this Elizabeth Gilbert TED Talk. No, I know, I just referenced a TED Talk. It’s worth a look though because she questions the whole of idea of art ‘genius’ as forever associated with suffering and destructiveness.

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