On Modern Art, Mediocrity and the Stories We Tell Ourselves about Genius
I’ve always enjoyed Picasso’s line drawings and I’ve had a print of his pig in my home for many years. My affinity for these pieces has something to do with the ability to convey the singularity and specificity of being with a single line. The line is a bit whimsical and the drawings have both a lightness and an essentialness to them. A few years ago my young niece came over to visit and was taken aback by the pig print. “Why do you have that framed? I mean I could draw that,” she remarked.
In the book Hunch, Bernadette Jiwa says that:
When it comes to thinking and talking about winning ideas, culturally we have two distinct and opposing narratives:
Anyone could have done it” and, paradoxically, “Only they could have done it.” Good ideas are often either dismissed as obvious or, as author Charles Leadbeater says, destined only to be had by “special people in special places” — often as elite institutions and start-up incubators facilitated by PhDs, whiteboards, angel investors, or a stash of colored Post-its.
The last time you called something brilliant, what story were you telling yourself about its origin?
A sense of relief accompanies the belief that genius is found over there or by those people. Similarly, Jiwa notes that creative works are “devalued by the phrase ‘I could have done that myself,’ as if brilliance is reserved for something we don’t believe we ourselves could do.”
This othering of genius renders us free of the responsibility of pursuing greatness while also pandering to the universal, lurking fears of one’s own insufficiency, inferiority and ordinariness. This is an effective mechanism for maintaining the status quo and stiff arming innovation. And, conveniently, it leaves us quite comfortably off the hook for much of anything.
My senior year of high school I took a studio art class and I will always remember the teacher’s quick retort to any student who upon viewing Rothko might claim that even she could paint some colored squares on a canvas: “But you didn’t.”
Mr. Wooten had a point. You didn’t do it, Rothko did it.
Genius is found in the doing — through action and creation and presentation — or as Jiwa says, “discovery is ignited by behavior.” Those that unearth brilliance are those who have the courage to begin.
So then, the question becomes how might you begin?