Research Essay — Genius Artist

The Genius Artist or
the Artist Genius?

In the TED Talks internet video “Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity”, newly-acclaimed author Gilbert brings up the concept from the ancient Romans of an extrinsic “genius” that provides the “greatness” to an artist’s work — a spiritual outsider who infuses the human’s art with symbolism.  Is this a viable scientific theory 21 centuries later?  Can struggling artists, specifically writers, use this concept to create insightful works of art?

Discussing Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious in “Analytical Psychology and Literary Criticism”, Marie-Louise von Franz describes an “unconscious dynamism” (von Franz, 119) that can take over an artist to portray deep psychological aspects of being human — the more freedom this force is given, the more symbolically “dreamlike” an artists’ work becomes. (von Franz, 120)

Charlotte Brontë believed that whether or not an artist’s work is well-received by the human world, the artist deserves neither praise nor blame — they are merely a tool of this greater force.  Introducing “Wuthering Heights“, the only novel written by her younger sister, Emily, before her young death, Charlotte notes:

As for you — the nominal artist — your share in it has been to work passively under dictates you neither delivered nor could question — that would not be uttered at your prayer, nor suppressed nor changed at your caprice. (von Franz, 120)

This is not merely the immodesty of a great writer — many artists feel their work is often over-rated and, like Gilbert after 20 years of toil, express surprise when a particular work receives high praise while previous, tortuously slaved-on work was largely under-rated.  In a recent television interview, actor Johnny Depp said he did not think he was a great “Adonis” star — maybe a great clown “hiding behind many masks”.  He looks at the same “mugg” in the mirror every morning & it still needs to be shaved.  Michaelangelo believed it was not his talent creating great works of art — he simply “borrowed it”.  These great artists are suggesting there is a pairing that occurs whenever “great” works of art are created.

Two.  One plus one equals two.  A pair.  A non-prime number but quite important as a “cardinal” number nonetheless — it could be said to represent “balance” as seen in ying/yang & good/evil & work/play & new/old & male/female & . . .  There can be found innumerable instances of two in our human world — in most cases involved in a complex existence whereby each depends on the other in order to exist but, as exact opposites, conflict between them is inevitable — “a love/hate relationship”.  Results of our collective unconscious process.

Writers from our earliest history have had trouble defining this duality.  In “Genius and Genius” C.S. Lewis discusses the Genius of Edmund Spenser’s symbolic allegory The Faerie Queene. (Lewis, 191)  He discusses the confusion between Genius A, the god-like creator, and Genius B, the more human self.  It gets even more complicated because the human-type Genius is composed of two parts:  good and evil [Genius B-I and Genius B-II].  Lewis concludes that Spenser morphed Genius A into his mostly Genius B guardian — so, even this classic, often-quoted, example of the artistic genius is muddy in its presentation.

Gilbert notes that it is only after the Renaissance of the 17th century that creative artists were referred to as “being a genius” — prior to that great artists were described as “having a genius” — something unknown,  borrowed for a short time. (Gilbert, 08:18)  In “Kubrick’s Odyssey:  Myth, Technology, Gnosis“, Philip Kuberski says Kubrick “would rely on the capacity of the unconscious mind to respond to symbols and the conscious mind to turn those responses into a powerful experience”. (Kuberski, 52)  This suggests that great artists are “using a genius” and it is the knowledge of how to use “it” that is the talent or skill.

As an often-struggling middle-of-the-night writer, I know it is the human emotion of fear that fuels this battle.  As Gilbert succinctly put it, “Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to work your whole life at this craft and nothing’s ever going to come of it and you’re going to die on a scrap heap of broken dreams with your mouth filled with bitter ash of failure?” (Gilbert, 01:44)  From a psychological viewpoint, von Franz brings up an intriguing concept in that “even mere trash sometimes contains interesting symbolic motifs which point to unconscious collective processes”. (von Franz, 121)  And in “A Way of Writing“, William Stafford suggests writers not worry about the mechanics of writing and says “I must get into action and not let anything stop me, or even slow me much.” (Stafford, 616)  Simply let go and let the words flow.  Do not let fear stop the rush of words.

The creative artist must allow the unconscious genius to flow through in their writing.  But keeping in mind the balance of two, the pragmatic “grammar-correct” writer must ensure there is a conscious quality to the whole sea of their work.  Allow the spiritual Genius A to express the collective unconscious.  Leave the human Genius B-I and B-II to battle over the copyediting.

Works Cited

Gilbert, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity, TED Talks [internet video].  TED:  February 2009.

Kuberski, Philip.  Kubrick’s “Odyssey”:  Myth, Technology, Gnosis, Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 3, pp 51-73.  Arizona Board of Regents:  Autumn 2008.  Project MUSE.

Lewis, C.S.  Genius and Genius, The Review of English Studies, Vol. 12, No. 46, pp 189-94.  Oxford University Press:  April 1936.

Stafford, William.  A Way of Writing, Field.  Oberlin College:  1970.

von Franz, Marie-Louise.  Analytical Psychology and Literary Criticism, New Literary History, Vol. 12 No. 1, Psychology and Literature:  Some Contemporary Directions, pp. 199-26.  Johns Hopkins University:  Autumn 1980.



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