QofR: The creative genius

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

On 24th November, we had a session with Dr Simon Hobbs, a lecturer at Portsmouth, on the research journey and the myth of the creative genius.

Simon talked us through his career as a researcher, from his PhD and consequent monograph – Cultivating Extreme Art Cinema: Text, Paratext and Home Video Culture – to his more recent work, which has diverged into a new subject area looking at collecting, thrift culture and car boot sales. Particularly interesting was Simon’s explanation of his research process – how he gathers information and stores his notes, writes preliminary drafts and plans for areas of interest. It’s really unusual to hear explicit details of an individual’s process, and there are definitely elements that I want to employ in my own notetaking practice.

I was also interested to see that in his monograph, Simon uses paratextual theory and applies it to film studies. I plan on emailing him to ask whether paratextual theory is a common framework within his field, or whether he deliberately took Genette’s theories of book production that I discussed in a previous blog, and if so, how he went about doing this.

A large part of the session was spent discussing and deconstructing the popular image of the ‘creative genius.’ Below is a screenshot taken from the Padlet, which gives our suggestions of popular portrayals of the creative genius figure.

Some key ideas themes that came out of our discussions include:

  • Creativity and the mad, bad or sad – often delicacy of mind or personal weakness is seen as integral to creativity. Real-life creatives like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and Van Gogh all have biographical tragedies that are key to public interest and often given priority over their work.

  • Weirdness or eccentricity – creative geniuses are portrayed as e-centric - they live outside the circle of normal society - and are often obsessive or single-minded. Simon gave the example of Alan Turing in the Imitation Game; other examples could include Frankenstein or Dr Jekyll.

  • Creativity and commerce – something that is key to portrayals of creativity is wealth/poverty. Whether the creative is patronised, makes money from their work, or supports themselves through an alternative career. In popular depictions their financial circumstances are either purposefully ignored (their wealth may taint their genius) or pushed to the forefront (starving artist in a garret).

  • Forever young – a premature death seemed often to be key to prolonged popular interest. Genius is often defined characterised by precociousness and brevity – a good example was Almay’s inclusion of Freddie Mercury. While Mercury holds legendary status, the rest of the band’s members have grown older and become humanised.

These stereotypes held true for all fields of creativity – from sportsman through to writer, artist, musician and scientist.

In a lucky coincidence, I recently read Christopher Frayling’s essay ‘Research in Art and Design’, which includes a really interesting discussion of popular portrayals of different types of practitioners. Like Bruce Archer, Frayling focuses on the scientist, the artist and the designer.

Impetuous, anti-rational, inward looking.

The artist stereotype is always expressing, never constructing. They are ‘impetuous, anti-rational and inward looking,’ and seem to find it impossible to semantically explain their work. Instead the work itself is seen as a pure outpouring of their internal frustrations, or, as Frayling states, ‘the artist, by definition, is someone who works in an expressive idiom, rather than a cognitive one, and for whom the great project is an extension of personal development.’

Frayling argues that this image is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t allow for the fact ‘that art happens in a social, technical and cultural world.’ Art is not created in a vacuum. Secondly, it does not account for those artists whose cognitive processes were key to their work, for example the anatomical drawings of Stubbs, or Constable’s scientific observations of cloud formations.

Doing is designing.

The designer in popular portrayals is either a ‘pipe-smoking boffin who rolls up his sleeves (always his, incidentally) and gets down to some good, honest hands-on experimentation,’ or ‘a solitary style warrior who knows his way around the inner-city jungle, and who believes in an aesthetic of salvage or junk.’

Again, there is little or no cognitive process, their status as designer is either founded on aesthetic intuition – ‘taste’ – or hair-brained, give-it-a-go-and-see-what-happens experimentation. Neither portrayal leaves a space for process, for conscious use of semiotics, for the academic learning that underpins complex engineering, or for the audience research that informs design.

Lunatics, or alcoholics, or psychopaths.

Frayling posits there are two distinct variations on the popular depiction of a scientist. Firstly, the one based on a true-life research scientist, who ‘is orderly… has conjectures and hypotheses and sets above proving or disproving them according to a set of orderly procedures. His subject exists outside himself.’ This scientist is ‘unbelievably humanitarian’ and a martyr to his (again, usually his) research. The other, the more ubiquitous fictional scientist, is a manic lunatic. An image so pervasive that ‘it’s estimated that mad scientists or their creators have been villains of 31% of all horror or fantasy movies worldwide, that scientific or psychiatric research has produced 40% of the threats in all horror and fantasy movies – and – by contrast – that scientists have only been the heroes of 11% of horror movies.’

What all three popular portrayals have in common is their elitism, founded on the suggestion that genius is formed from a bubbling mixture of tacit knowledge and frenetic inspiration. To explain the process behind the genius would be like meeting the Wizard of Oz - genius is not genius if it can be clearly communicated and reproduced. Weirdly then, it is directly opposition to the fundaments of research. This depiction of genius invokes an insidious imposter syndrome for many creatives. To sit at a desk from 9-5, to commit to hours of research, collaboration and tentative ideas is hardly the stuff of Hollywood budgets, but is very much the truth of creative process.

A really great counterpoint to these fictionalised tropes is the Netflix documentary series Abstract – each episode focuses on an expert practitioner working in a different creative field, from costume design, to illustration to set design. Although these figures are at the top of their game, they are also hugely relatable – they have families; feel the need to eat three meals a day; they worry they aren’t good enough but are also proud of their work; and most of all, they work hard and consistently.

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