Genius as Circumstance
By Yuval SharonMay 14, 2018
The next issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal is dedicated to Genius as a theme, question, and potential problem. You can become a member and receive the print issue here.
See the table of contents at LARB Quarterly Journal: Genius, No.18
“So What” or “Kind of Blue,” […] they were done in that era, the right hour, the right day, and it happened. It’s over; it’s on the record.
— Miles Davis
I WAS IN the car when the call came: the MacArthur Foundation, requesting a confidential conversation. I was running late for a meeting and had a friend in the passenger seat, so I asked if I could call them back in one hour. I imagined the caller was requesting a recommendation or fact-check for one of their next class of Fellows — after all, they wouldn’t notify recipients of one of the most prestigious awards an artist can receive through a simple phone call … Would they?
An hour later, they proved me wrong. Sitting alone in my car, the group on the other end of the line congratulated me on being named a Fellow. The rest of the conversation was something of a blur, as if I were recovering from a lightning bolt strike. But one thing came through clearly: I had to keep the news top secret until the public announcement, some four weeks later. I could tell only one person of my choosing (my mom, naturally).
Those four weeks of secrecy were surreal. After the initial euphoria of the phone call wore off, I found myself facing an anxiety that friends who are MacArthur Fellows later confessed to sharing: Why does my work in such a niche genre — experimental opera! — merit this generosity? What makes me worthy of such an honor? And most anxiety inducing of all: how do you deal with the “g-word”? In the literature that accompanied all my post-phone call paperwork, I was happy to see the Foundation decline to use the name most journalists ascribe to the fellowship: “the genius grant.” “We avoid using the term ‘genius’ to describe MacArthur Fellows,” according to the Foundation’s FAQs, “because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess.”
The Foundation probably takes pains to say this because so many people find something deeply uncomfortable about the concept of “genius” — its exclusionary implications and air of elitism; a Romanticism that seems out of step with contemporary (let alone everyday) life; the affirmation of canonical standards set by … who exactly? Any person mature enough to strive for self-awareness finds the moniker embarrassing, and only an unstable narcissist could ever self-apply the title without shame.
When classical music is your field, the term “genius” carries another layer of historical baggage. All of us who have dedicated our lives to an art form we see as a vital and fundamental expression of the human soul struggle against the forbidding images of the people who came before us. In classical music, those people were often tortured white men, largely misunderstood and unrecognized until their deaths. This is a mausoleum approach to music that promotes an involuntary social turn toward the reactionary, as every performance of a classic work is accompanied by a lament: “Alas, this masterpiece of a bygone era, when men were great and created like gods, only makes our own time seem all the more fallow.” It’s an attitude we wish were more of a cliché, less of a majority opinion, because the centrality of a concept like “individual genius” makes it all the harder for new voices to take risks, to experiment, and attempt to expand the definition of some of the most hidebound words in the art lexicon: “opera,” “oratorio,” “symphony.”
But I believe there is a way of thinking about genius that could powerfully encapsulate the creative process. It begins by no longer applying the term to individuals. If calling an individual “a genius” sounds pompous and grandiose, describing some thing as “genius” is commonplace. “That was a genius move,” I find myself saying too often for it to actually mean very much. Or, “I wasn’t crazy about the last season of Mad Men, but the final scene was genius.”
Moments, ideas, a single poem in a collection — a work of genius, no matter how individually wrought — is never the product of a single individual. We should stop thinking of genius as an attribute and instead start to think of it as a condition, a circumstance.
This may come across as false humility, but in fact it’s a fundamental aspect of my own creative process. As an opera director, my work is never a solitary act; it is inherently social and dialogic. One aspect of my work is conceptual — imagining the visual and philosophical implications of production choices — but even the best idea would be useless if it were not brilliantly realized by a team of specialists. Another aspect is practical — making and communicating plans down to the minutest level — but the execution of those logistics relies on a faultless chain of doers. Yet another aspect is inspirational — motivating the best possible performance, which is an inherently transitive quality. I could cheerlead until I’m blue in the face, but it won’t do me any good if the performer does not answer the call and rouse their own virtuosity.
In short, my work consists entirely of creating the conditions for genius to flow. I am not in possession of it — it resides in that flow of output, which everyone participates in. “Genius” is the oxygen that those in a shared space breathe in and are transformed by; it allows them to reach their full potential. In this way, “genius” returns to its original Latin meaning of an “attendant spirit.”
I’m currently preparing a production of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin in the theater he built in Bayreuth, Germany, with a working methodology that might be considered highly anti-Wagnerian. Wagner, after all, was the ultimate Capital-G Genius, an autodidact who “did it all himself”: compose the music, write the text, direct the production, and on and on. His concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art,” implies a lone artist as the unifying spirit who builds worlds like a divine being. He created the template for Genius, which has since been used as a model for conductors, composers, directors, and dictators to follow — the vision (illusion?) of a solitary auteur. My team’s working process has been more multi-headed: the sets, costumes, and visual art for the production were actually developed autonomously, before I was even brought on to the project. For some directors, this is an affront to their sovereignty. I say: Why bring on board such brilliant artists only to consider them hired help? My preparations involve responding as much as creating. This is what I mean about genius as a circumstance or a set of conditions. We are not replicating Wagner’s way of working but setting up the conditions for its original genius, its truth and abundance, to flow.
When genius is considered circumstantial, it becomes contingent — precarious, rare, and magical. Nothing becomes predictable: genius is a river, and to ride it, we must build a vessel specific to the circumstances we find it in. For me, this means I will not know if the conditions for Lohengrin truly came together until the production opens this coming summer. All I can do is endeavor to use everything I’ve learned and experienced to perceive how the circumstances are speaking, and to make the passage as favorable as possible. It’s why I call directing my practice, rather than my craft.
But even for artists whose work is not as inherently collaborative as mine, the circumstances around a new creation are always their co-author. What would Hamlet be without the author’s fear of rejection by the unruly, uneducated audience that occupied the stalls? Could Ulysses have come into the world if Dublin never existed? Could The Making of Americans have been written anywhere but in Paris? And how many ingenious works were born not in the spirit of harmony with their surroundings but as a show of defiance against them — acts of protest that revealed new potentiality in a seemingly hopeless situation? Shouldn’t those original circumstances, dire as they may have been, be given some credit for their offspring?
This is genius as the spirit of circumstance — an environment, socially created, not an attribute of an isolated individual. I believe most artists who truly contemplate how and why they create ask themselves the question: “Does the work I do even belong to me?” Here I must think about Ortega y Gasset’s great study, Meditations on Quixote: “The reabsorption of circumstance is the concrete destiny of humanity […] I am myself plus my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I cannot save myself.”
When the four weeks of secrecy about the MacArthur were over, my anxiety gave way under the avalanche of joyous well wishes. Several friends and collaborators, either directly or indirectly connected to the circumstances of the works cited by the selection committee, wrote me to share their baffled reaction of self-pride: “I somehow feel as if I had won it!” Nothing made me happier than hearing this.
I spent part of the day reading about the other Fellows in my class and found myself feeling so inspired by their dedication and accomplishments in fields far removed from my own. The world seemed bigger. This may be where the “genius” moniker is still useful: by calling out examples of how and where the endlessly searching attendant spirit still visits the world. Because anyone, anywhere, can participate in it.
Yuval Sharon founded and serves as artistic director of The Industry in Los Angeles. Sharon conceived, directed, and produced the company’s acclaimed world premieres of Hopscotch, Invisible Cities, and Crescent City. He also devised and directed the company’s two “performance installations”: In C at the Hammer Museum and Nimbus at Walt Disney Concert Hall. He has directed productions of John Cage’s Song Books, Peter Eötvös’s Three Sisters Cunning Little Vixen, originally produced at the Cleveland Orchestra, and original setting of War of the Worlds.
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