How To Have (Not Be) Genius

Delighted to see that Damien Hirst has greeted criticism of his first painting exhibition in London (“embarrassing”green lake/ “shockingly bad” / Francis Bacon meets Adrian Mole”) with characteristic artistic chutzpah — and interested to note his thoughts on creative genius.

As well as giving Hirst's work a kicking , much of the criticism of this exhibition has centred on the bad boy of British art having paid  £250,000 to hang his paintings at The Wallace Collection, alongside the likes of Rembrandt and Titian.  How dare he?  What an audacious, egotistical misuse of his not-very-hard earned cash. Is he trying to say he is a genius of the order of Rembrandt?

Er no, says Hirst, in a frank interview with The Guardian, because he doesn't think Rembrandt was a genius.  Oh and by the way, neither was anyone else. “I don't believe in genius.  I believe in freedom.  I think anyone can do it.  Anyone can be like Rembrandt.”  It's a matter of practice, he insists.

Hirst is now being vilified for this take on the ancient inspiration-versus-perspiration debate — especially as for a decade or more he did very little real artistic practice and, by his own admission, came close to destroying himself with drink and drugs and destroying his gifts by selling out.

“I could have just churned out the spot and spin paintings forever and laughed all the way to the bank,” he says now of that time.  But he didn't.  He got clean and retired to Devon to take up painting again, an effort he had abandoned aged 16 because it hadn't come easy enough: “I secretly thought I would have been Rembrandt by then.”

Now, humbled by his artistic  urge to try again, he affirms: “There's no way back for me.  I've just got to barrel on through.”  He knows he's not as good as Rembrandt – yet – but he's going to keep practicing and get better.

I found myself admiring this — a first for me with Hirst. (Never was a fan of his formaldehydes, spots, spins or diamond encrusted skulls — or, indeed, of his money obsession).

I also found myself astounded once again by the deep attachment commentators and critics still have  to the notion of  inspiration as something that arrives to rest on the shoulder of a chosen few, who must work fast and furious because it might take off at any second never to return.

Creators generally take a different view.

It was the inventor Tomas Edison who coined the famous phrase about genius being one part inspiration to ninety-nine parts perspiration.  To him, a “genius” was “a talented person who has done all of his or her homework”.

Picasso agreed:  “Inspiration exists,” the great master insisted, “but it has to find us working.”

Mark McGuinness of Lateral Action has examined  the biogs of creators as disparate as Michelangelo, Kurt Cobain,  Charles Darwin and Shakespeare, among others, and found their ostensibly effortless “genius” was actually supported by hard work, practice of craft skills, effective business and artistic models and independent, even eccentric thinking — and habits.

Like McGuinness, I'm drawn to Elizabeth Gilbert‘s notion of having, not being, a genius.  See the video of her TED talk where she discusses the topic here.

“As soon as we talk about someone being a genius instead of having a genius, we are neglecting the art in favour of the artist,” he says.  “And we start to lose sight of how creativity actually happens”.


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