Maybe It's Time To Retire The Word 'Genius'

Upon the announcement of the 2016 MacArthur Fellows, let's examine the language we use to celebrate their brilliance.

On Thursday, 23 brilliant humans were officially elevated to the category of “genius” after being chosen as MacArthur Fellows by the /"}}">John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The $625,000 fellowship, which dates back to 1981, is often referred to as the “Genius Grant,” placing a great honor on its recipients ― if, perhaps, an outdated one. 

Who has history unanimously declared “genius” among us? From a cursory Google search: Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci certainly seemed to have earned themselves the distinction. Wolfgang Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla and Steve Jobs are also popular nominees for the prestigious accolade. A quick perusal of Twitter shows Bill Murray and Seth Meyers have also received some recent nods. 

Notice anything strange about this roundup of genius minds, past and present? They represent a wide array of subjects, from the arts to the sciences. They’ve lived in various places and times from the 15th century to present day. And yet, there remains this nagging feeling that something is off.

Perhaps it’s because, in the words of artist activist collective the Guerrilla Girls, the word genius just rings “so pale, so male, so stale!”

The word “genius” is derived from the Latin root “gignere,” meaning “beget.” Its original meaning ― referring to an attendant spirit present from one’s birth, an innate ability or an inclination ― evolved to describe exceptional natural ability around the 17th century.

However, as feminist theorist Linda Nochlin explains in great detail in her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” the modern idea of genius emerged alongside illustrious male icons like Vincent van Gogh, Eugène Delacroix, and Gustave Courbet. These great men were believed to possess some unifying, “atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded” within them. That mysterious force was ― it was decided ― genius. 

Women, historically, were rarely blessed with the same recognition of excellence, and so, it was assumed that genius eluded them. As Nochlin explains: “If women had the golden nugget of artistic genius then it would reveal itself. But it has never revealed itself. Q.E.D. Women do not have the golden nugget of artistic genius.”

The Guerilla Girls have previously taken issue with words like masterpiece (made by a master or “a man having control or authority,”) and seminal (an adjective that can be used for denoting semen). So, following the MacArthur Foundation announcement last year, we reached out to the collective to hear their thoughts on “genius.” 

Guerrilla Girl Kathe Kollwitz (yes, it’s a pseudonym) explained in an email with The Huffington Post how she believes the word “genius” promotes an outdated model of greatness ― particularly, the myth of the white male genius. Certainly, not only white men are capable of genius. (Last year’s crop of MacArthur Fellows, for example, featured nine women and eight people of color. This year there are 12 women to the 11 men chosen.) And yet the word itself conjures visions of men in poofy collars ― or hipster glasses, depending on the era. 

Not only does the word genius imply a certain kind of disposition, Kollwitz explained, it also carves an idea of greatness that is singular, exclusive and elusive.

“Genius plays into that tired idea of an art world Olympics where a few are chosen and everyone else is a failure and deserves to be forgotten,” she said, speaking specifically of the term’s meaning when attributed to artists. “We all know history is a richer story than arguing over who’s No. 1, 2 or 3. That kind of thinking should be saved for football. Believing in geniuses gives billionaire art collectors an excuse to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at works by white men. For the same price they could buy an entire museum full of art by great artists who aren’t white and male.”

We are, of course, still living in an age where only 2 percent of the most expensive artists at auction are women, and their work is still priced astronomically lower than their male counterparts. (Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1” sold for a quarter of the amount of Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger.”) Similarly, black artists are significantly underrepresented and undervalued in museum, gallery and auction spaces.

Rather appropriately, this year’s MacArthur Fellows list includes art historian and curator Kellie Jones, whose research and writing deepens the understanding of black artists and aesthetic movements throughout the history of art. There’s also writer Maggie Nelson, whose work combines the philosophical and personal to explore issues of queerness, beauty, art and womanhood. 

Poet Claudia Rankine generates a language for the unending tension and grief faced by 21st century African-Americans. Artist and writer Lauren Redniss enmeshes word and image in stunning handmade books, which she crafts from start to finish. Beadwork artist Joyce J. Scott communicates the pains of racism and sexism into expressive, figurative forms. Video artist Mary Reid Kelley creates playful black-and-white videos examining women’s conditions throughout history. 

Certainly, these influential makers are worthy of the “genius” certification. But does the term truly fit? Instead of the word “seminal,” the Guerrilla Girls suggest “germinal” ― which privileges more collaborative notions of creativity and productivity above the singular vision of pioneering originality. Instead of “master” or “masterpiece” they propose “massa” and “massa’s piece” ― thus recognizing the word’s inextricable ties to slavery. 

Maybe, it’s time that we begin to think of “genius” as another term due for an overhaul. Maybe not because the term is offensive, but because it’s time to make a bit more room for the many people ― including women and people of color ― clamoring for space and money in the worlds of art and science. 

As Guerrilla Girl Georgia O’Keeffe (also a pseudonym) expressed in an interview published in 1995’s Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls: “The tendency to reduce the art of an era to a few ‘geniuses’ and their masterpieces is myopic. It has been a huge mistake. There are many, many significant artists. We’re not going to forget Rembrandt and Michelangelo. We just want to move them over to make room for the rest of us!”

The MacArthur Foundation itself also offers a caveat regarding the designation of “genius,” acknowledging that their selected fellows embody a larger array of qualities than can be adequately encapsulated by the single term. 

“We avoid using the term ‘genius’ to describe MacArthur Fellows because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess. The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches.”

What word might we use instead of genius, to communicate someone who is not only exceptionally brilliant but collaborative, creative, and yes, imperfect? People whose successes are built upon the inspiration of others before them, the guidance of their mentors, the needs of their community, the assistance and criticism of their peers? 

Suggestions from my coworkers include virtuoso, phenom, talent and vagenius (whose power the English dictionary may not yet be able to hold.) There’s no easy answer, but perhaps the lack of gut responses indicates the need to do more work.

As Kollwitz said: “Tagging their grantees ‘geniuses’ roots the MacArthur in the past, not the future.”



MacArthur Fellows 2014