Alfred Hitchcock had his well-coiffed blondes, Orson Welles had his tragic figures of wasted brilliance, Howard Hawks had his quick-witted innuendo-laden battle of the sexes, John Ford had his masculinity code, Kurosawa had his samurai code, Ozu had his families, Bergman had his alienation, Oliver Stone has the Sixties, Stanley Kubrick had his machines, Fellini had his carnivals, Jean Renoir had his theater productions, Scorsese has his tragic violence, Tarantino has his comic violence, Walt Disney had his orphaned princesses who grew up to find a prince, Spielberg has his boys and their toys, Reubens had his fat ladies and so did Auguste Renoir, Cezanne had his fruit, Monet had his gardens, Georgia O’Keefe had her flowers, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec had their whores, Rembrandt had his tradesmen, Picasso had his weird faces and so did Modigliani, Turner had his sea, El Greco had his elongated bodies, Velazquez had his little girls, Kandinsky had his shapes, Mondrian had his primary colors, Caravaggio had his darkness, Jackson Pollack had his squiggly lines, Van Gogh had his enhanced colors, Goya had his grotesques, Michelangelo had his writhing bodies, Verdi had his fathers and daughters, Wagner had his women who die to redeem their haunted men, Berlioz had his romantic literature, Schubert had his melodies dedicated to the women whom he loved in secret, Britten had his operas dedicated to the underage boys whom he loved too openly, Bruckner had his Beethoven’s Ninth, Schumann had his dotted rhythms, Bach had his counterpoint, Brahms had his classical forms, Bartok had his folk music, Mahler had the sounds he remembered from his provincial childhood, Rachmaninov had the Dies Irae theme, Charles Ives had his American Hymns, Schoenberg had his musical theories to prove, Stravinsky had music history, Prokofiev had his motor rhythms, Shostakovich had his ambiguously ironic expressions, Dostoevsky had his tortured souls prime to express their deepest anguish to anonymous strangers, Balzac had his money mad social climbers, Shakespeare had his great men undone by a single bad idea, Moliere had his exposures of hypocrisy, Ibsen had his idealists kept down by society, Sondheim has his middle-aged upper-middle-class figures beset by ennui, Proust had his memories, Frost had his New England landscapes, Willa Cather had her prairie hardships, Voltaire had his contempt for belief, Montaigne had himself, Emily Dickinson had her loneliness, Whitman had the mythical properties of America, Rabelais had his vulgarity, Dickens had his street urchins who survived to be taken in by kindly old rich men, James Joyce had his Dublin, Kafka had his persecuted little man, Bob Dylan has his old American folk music, Miles Davis had the contemporary American music of the moment, Randy Newman has the entirety of world history, Bruce Springsteen has his blue collar working class, Neal Young has his pathetic figures, Leonard Cohen has his spiritual seeking, Lennon had his psychedelic experiences, McCartney has his mid-century music halls, Johnny Cash had his machismo, Lieber and Stoller had their badly behaved teenagers, Brian Wilson has the California sun, Smokey Robinson has unrequited love, Van Morrison has requited love, Chuck Berry has/had upending the expectations of older adults, and James Brown had the physical sensations of his body.
You may like or hate the work of many of these figures – I certainly have my preferences – but what can’t be denied is that each of these creators has a specific obsession, an obsession which they sought to capture in work after work – arriving ever closer to some ivory ideal in their head which never leaves them be; and as their audience, you either respond positively to their particular obsession or you respond negatively. I don’t know if possession of a single great subject makes a creator a candidate for the ‘genius’ label, but what I do know is that talent does not have a single subject. Talent is flexible. Talent is talent because it can master things so easily, and talented people can master their subjects because there is so little mental clutter to get in their way. And if a particularly talented person is able to master a single subject, there are usually a dozen more that are within their grasp. But genius is not hard-wired to have easy fluency. A genius’s fluency is not easy, it’s superhuman, and usually confined to a single subject. But whatever extremity of ability the genius possesses within his scope, his brain usually compensates by a severe deficiency of ability in a different area. All the frustration of that mental clutter in every other part of the brain is channeled into developing that one part of the brain which operates with pristine divinity to its maximum potential. In this way, artistic creators are no different from scientific ones. All creation is a process of trial and error, involving endless experimentation until the right formula finally emerges. To immerse oneself in that endlessly boring process requires a bottomless capacity for obsession, fascination, and monomania.
It’s often been observed, perhaps to the point of cliché, that the line between genius and madness is invisible enough to be unrecognizable. In recent years, it’s been more common to poo-pooh such a statement. We see that the successful writer, composer, and painter of today lives a far more ordinary life than his predecessors; contenting himself with regular work hours, a full academic course load at the college or high school where she teaches, and marketing themselves with the same savvy that any realtor would have. A person attracted to older arts like literary fiction, classical music, painting and sculpting, is a different person today than ever before in world history – more easygoing, more flexible, and duller. Meanwhile, the great flights of mania and ego among today’s artistic world are usually to be found on movie and TV lots, in restaurant kitchens, and in the hotel rooms of touring bands. Without the danger that the lid will fall of the id, what is there about artistic creation which compels people’s attention? The difference between the arts in 1913 to the arts in 2013 is as gapingly large as at any hundred year point in human history, but the rules for how art is made which changes the course of history is still the same. And it’s usually made by the same breed of brilliant lunatic as ever before.
I’ve met enough brilliant people in my life to realize that they are, for the most part, not the best adjusted people. I’ve also met enough lunatics to realize that all which seems to separate them from the neuroses of brilliant people is pure luck. I’ve known brilliant people in my thirty-plus years who yielded to lunacy, yet seemed too little different from before; and I’ve known lunatics whom I never thought could do much with their lives who then displayed a heretofore unnoticed, yet unmistakable, capacity for brilliance. From what I can tell, the only separation between true brilliance and true madness is the luck which enables some crazy people to organize their craziness in such a way that they see real things which no one else sees. A genius and a madman perceive things which no one else does, but the genius has the good luck of his perceptions being correct.
It’s entirely possible that great creations can be made by men and women who work from 9 to 5, and then return home to a loving family with no real problems. But it doesn’t seem likely that such a person would trade the stability of a predictable life for the endless pains and sacrifices which must be made for the possibility of creating something greater.