What is Genius?


In his essay, “On Genius,” Lethe Bashar (the founder of Escape into Life) questions “the way in which we talk about artists and their work”. He concludes, “What we think of as a writer’s unique and individual gifts . . . are really the effervescence of language itself.” He goes on to say: “This is a language that is common to all, a language that resonates with large numbers of people.”

At this point one might object that many works of literature, deemed great by those who presume to judge, are quite inaccessible to the general reader. This may be because the cultural gap is too great, as in the case of Chaucer or Shakespeare, or because the writer has gone off on a mad literary rampage, like James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake.

Bashar believes the attribution of genius to an individual artist is misleading, because the artist has merely accessed some kind of universal experience that triggers admiration in the reader or viewer of the work. Consequently, it is these exalted states that the artist has stumbled on, through diligent practice, that are being admired, not some special quality in the artist called “genius”.

Against this point of view, one can cite many works of acknowledged genius that are not immediately accessible to the reader or viewer. For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy is probably a crashing bore for the average reader of today. The immediate appeal of a painting, as opposed to a text, is another factor. The great painter is in the enviable position of being able to overwhelm the spectator, or may prefer not to. How can we compare a small work by Paul Klee with the Sistine Chapel ceiling?


Scherzo with Thirteen (Das Scherzo mit der Dreizehn),
Paul Klee

Outside the arts, a work of genius may be inaccessible to all but the professional audience; for example, Godel’s Theorem or Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s conjecture. The artist, mathematician, scientist or philosopher, working at the edge of comprehensibility has a very small audience indeed. The issue of unlocking a special kind of communication for a wide audience is not the case here.

The other fields where inspiration is paramount are mysticism and religion. One does not say that St. Paul, for instance, was a genius, rather that he was divinely inspired by the grace of God. This is hardly different from the hackneyed idea that great poets are inspired by some muse or other: usually some teenage beauty who has spurned their love, as was Dante’s lucky fate.

Great technical ability, like that possessed by Alexander Pope or Milton produced amazing works that few could emulate, and which deserve the attribution of genius if only for their assiduous labor. But some would prefer the more sloppy but inspired work of William Blake. Thomas Edison’s definition of genius as ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration is relevant here.

A great work of science or art has wide scope. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Darwin’s theory of Evolution had profound social ramifications both for those who understand these theories and those who remain ignorant. This is not the case for literature, where Proust’s Swann’s Way could disappear from the library shelves with little notice. Similarly, if the Mona Lisa or Guernica were shoved in the basement the impact would be limited to the few elitists who give a damn.

So, there are two issues: what defines a work of genius, and how can we recognize it without the relevant background and training.

Let’s use the following as our working definition of genius:

a person of exceptional intellectual or artistic ability, whether innate or cultivated, who has created unique and seminal works accepted as such by his or her peers or well-informed critics of their art or science

Many great works of art present problems to the audience because the new ideas they embody have been won with great difficulty by their creators, who then have the additional task of making them accessible to their audience. This is clearly the case with many philosophical, mathematical or scientific works, which are aimed at a small audience of peers who are capable of understanding the work. This was certainly the case with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which required some 25 years to gain acceptance.

Another hallmark of a great work is its density or complexity. This means that some paintings or books don’t yield up their bounty all at once but offer artistic satisfaction at many levels to different audiences. For example, a nice Matisse print on the wall of the average household will provide aesthetic pleasure at a purely sensory level that most can enjoy, just from its impact, brightness and clarity, combined in a harmonious way.


La Musique, Henri Matisse

Genius, then, is the ability to create complex and interesting works that provide enduring satisfaction, often to a wide audience over a long period of time but often only to a select few capable of appreciating them. The question as to the means of producing such works can probably only be addressed to the genius herself. One factor is the possession of very high intelligence, although a goodish intellect will do for many a great painter, like Gauguin or Van Gogh. Given sufficient intelligence and acquired skills, excellent works are likely to result but not works that can safely be described as the products of genius.

When we see a bird or a butterfly passing by, we may be pleased for a moment, but then turn our attention to something else. But when we see a large, exotic species with brightly coloured wings, we hasten to point it out and prolong the experience. Nature produces the rare and remarkable as well as the dull and uninteresting to the human eye. The skilled artist draws on these barely understood rules of aesthetics to produce paintings of beauty. In the case of the word, matters are not so simple, but we might assume that our brains prefer not only a harmonious complexity in construction of literary works but attach singular importance to them. Human perception and cognition is one of the most complex of phenomena and it is not surprising that the human individual seeks out new and exciting experiences. The so-called geniuses are those who can best satisfy this need.

Works of enormous poetic skill, like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost, I suspect, are rarely read thoroughly outside of universities. As works of acknowledged genius, they combine almost perfect forms of expression with a magnificent synthesis of the philosophical and religious thought of past ages. A quote from Paradise Lost will suffice to test the idea that a tiny fragment displays the qualities of genius to the general reader, perhaps because it is both strange and inspiring.

Forthwith up to the clouds
With him I flew, and underneath beheld
The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide
And various: wond’ring at my flight and change
To this high exaltation.
– PL 5.86-90

Most of us can draw up a list of geniuses, which would most likely include: Euclid, Plato, Homer, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Kant, Newton, Marx, and hundreds more in diverse fields of philosophy and the arts. The question posed is what distinguishes them from the rest of us, including those who possess extraordinary talents of the second degree. Not only were acknowledged geniuses masters of their arts, they were usually creative innovators who extended the scope of their chosen field and also radically altered it.

In philosophy and mathematics it is difficult for the layperson to understand the works produced by genius, let alone evaluate their worth. For example, the thoughts of Steven Hawking or the theorems of Andrew Wiles are way beyond the abilities of the average person to understand. The genius who has a major impact on society may be obscure, like Alan Turing, or better known like Von Neumann, but achieve only minimal popular acclaim.

The case of sensory artists is rather different, music, painting and the theatrical arts offer more immediate and accessible satisfactions, and are consequently more open to controversy about who is a genius and who is not. As in other areas, the non-specialist bows down to the opinion of critics as to who is a good or bad artist. This sheepish process places much responsibility on critics and leads to a cultivation of the virtues manifested by the artists they extol. To illustrate this, I would like to use the example of the naïve artist, LeDouanier Rousseau, whose finest works are best described by the adjective “sublime”.


The Sleeping Gypsy, Henri Rousseau

The dreamlike and mysterious symbolism of The Sleeping Gypsy is the pictorial equivalent of poetry. Even though the artist has strived and failed to produce a realistic representation, along the lines of Bouguereau or Lord Leighton, the result is a work of startling and enduring beauty. This was not a one off fluke. In the Snake Charmer, below, it is we who are charmed and seduced by the apparently clumsy efforts of a rank amateur.


Snake Charmer, Henri Rousseau

The masterly design and the subtle control of tone and colour spring from the countless thousands of choices made by the artist, guided by his unique je ne sais quoi, which we choose to call “genius”. The result is an ineffable beauty that only this unique individual could have produced. An enduring characteristic of such works is that we do not easily tire of them because they have been drawn from a deep well of inspiration that goes on giving to those sensitive enough to appreciate them.

TTcutTony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes. Other abiding interests include political and social philosophy, with occasional forays into logic and the foundations of mathematics.

9 responses to “What is Genius?”

  1. […] What is Genius? . . . . Tony Thomas examines the question of genius in the arts and science. […]

  2. […] find two excellent art essays, a poetry and illustration double feature, and a musical blend. What is Genius? . . . . Tony Thomas examines the question of genius in the arts and […]

  3. BJFortier says:

    If Rousseau would have left out the gypsy in The Sleeping Gypsy and kept only the lion, the moon, and the jug, that would have been much more memorable. Clutter is never a sign of genius. And, “relevant background and training” is clutter.

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chip Schwartz: @escapeintolife What is genius? http://www.escapeintolife.com/essays/what-is-genius/

  5. Paul Archer says:

    ejoyed time spent on your words
    peterborough, on, canada

  6. anothermiltonista says:

    “Aloft, incumbent on the dusky air” is not in the original text by Milton, or at the very least not in mine.
    Lines 86-89 of book 5 read solely:
    “Forthwith up to the clouds
    With him I flew, and underneath beheld
    The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide
    And various (…)”

  7. lethe says:

    It seems the writer was being cheeky. When I asked him about it, he said it was a “private joke”. I've deleted the first line from Book One, and left the original section from Book Five.

    My apologies. Thanks for calling us on it.

  8. lethe says:

    It seems the writer was being cheeky. When I asked him about it, he said it was a “private joke”. I've deleted the first line from Book One, and left the original section from Book Five.

    My apologies. Thanks for calling us on it.

  9. Ray Vison says:

    that's rubbish

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