The politics of genius

Exactly what is genius? This question unexpectedly arose at a recent art exhibition in the regional town of Bathurst when the invited guest, writer Tara Moss, asserted that the title ‘genius’ is only ever bequeathed upon male artists.

There is truth in this claim. Moss elaborated that such a label is evocative of pipe-smoking white men who are drawn to the canvas, with the intent of producing masterful artworks.

Ultimately her argument led to a debate on the value of art. Picasso’s Women of Algiers sold for a record sum of $179 million, whereas one of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings garnered a comparatively minimal $44.4 million. In fact, the most expensive paintings in history are all done by men.

The economic divide between the sexes is strikingly resonant. Moss intimated that unlike Picasso, O’Keefe’s art is not deemed genius enough to reach the higher echelons of the market.

But surely the question of genius is not an economic concern? Or is it? We certainly live in a world where economics is central in all areas of life, including art.

Genius is a tantalisingly vague concept. And yet its historical association with dead white males such as Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein, and in contemporary times, with Steve Jobs and the still very much alive Stephen Hawking, suggests its distinctly masculine character.

Originally a Latin verb, genius is associated with the activity of bringing something into being. Women’s bodies are capable of sustaining and birthing life, which could be considered an act of genius in ushering new beings into the world – surely this form of creation is something to be admired, too?

Genius cannot be reduced to biology alone. However, in the world of identity, biology matters because questions of sex and gender are always anchored within the very earthy and material realities of our bodies, as well as in their symbolic representations.

Traditionally, in operating as mediators through which artists make their mark upon the world, women’s bodies have been stripped of identity. As a soft, malleable flesh, they have been the models for countless paintings, nudes and sculptures.

Then there was Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who infamously claimed that he painted with his penis – another extreme evocation of the bodily origins of identity and the power of masculinity.

Romanticism has influenced our understanding of genius. Indeed the cliché of the isolated artist-poet who is distinguished from the common fray because of his extraordinary talents can be attributed to the thought and writings of Coleridge and Wordsworth.

During the Romantic period, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein was originally published anonymously, perhaps because a woman was considered incapable of displaying such an astonishing talent?

At her Bathurst appearance, Moss also made the brave claim that the exhibiting artist, Rosemary Valadon, is worthy of the title ‘genius’. Local artist Karen Golland questioned the assertion, suggesting that female artists should not strive to be geniuses as this imposes upon them a male standard.

The exhibition at Bathurst’s regional gallery was mainly devoted to the paintings of Valadon, whose art meditates upon women’s place and identity. Her subversive images of femme fatales holding guns overturns conventional depictions of women as passive subjects: their weapons are not the real threat, but rather their confident gazes that defy the onlooker by looking straight back.

Valadon’s aesthetic is keenly aware of how women’s bodies have traditionally operated as muses or forms of inspiration but never as autonomous beings. The exhibition was not just a celebration of her work, but also of her sharp insight into the difficulty of working in a field overwhelmingly dominated by men.

The question of the place and importance of women in public life, including the worlds of art, politics and literature, is still rife with contradictions. Feminism has always struggled to carve out a space for women in which to dwell and thrive as publicly acknowledged intelligent subjects.

Part of this difficulty can be attributed the duality of a politics whereby a woman’s place is characteristically defined in relation to a man’s, which means that she is destined to remain locked within his shadow.

Perhaps as a way of extricating one’s self from the entrapments of this binary is to temporarily marvel at the power of the art object itself – works that exist independently of their creators. Such independence is the final stage of a process that for many is personal and intimate.

For women artists leading busy public and domestic lives, such a sustained engagement can be difficult. Virginia Woolf’s famous essay A Room of One’s Own discusses the need for women to have a private sphere in which to create, write and think. Privacy is crucial to the development of an imaginative consciousness that enables the production of exceptional works.

Rosemary Valadon has a room of her own at Hill End where she lives and works. Her paintings are good enough to speak for themselves: astonishingly brilliant portraits that evoke a form of genius unmoored by the limits of identity politics.


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Suzie Gibson

Dr Suzie Gibson is a Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University. She has published widely in distinguished national and international journals that cover the fields of literature, philosophy film and television. Her research is informed by her knowledge of nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century literature, continental philosophy and feminism. She is a regular contributor to a number of online and offline publications including both peer reviewed and non-peer reviewed publications such as Screen Education, The Queensland Review, The Conversation, Performing ArtsHub and Overland Literary Journal. She has also written a number of important book chapters on popular culture figures, including James Bond and Batman in order to explain complex philosophical concepts through these iconic characters. Trained in literary and critical theory, she has published extensively on a variety of textual forms, including traditional and experimental literature and philosophy.

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    1. Not sure what you’re arguing. I would say that Trump embraces a public identity that is deeply indebted to right wing politics. Can’t see the relevance of your comment as it applies to this article…

      1. Sorry for the obscurantism. Guess I was suggesting the notion of genius is more a deprecatory joke these days, rather than, as in the past, an accolade hung on the necks of dead white males, and usually of a scientific bent, as a signal achievement for being attendant spirits at the birth of something new – individual paradigm shifters and all that sort of bullcrap.

  1. Great piece, Suzie. Even Wordsworth had help in the form of his sister Dorothy’s Grasmere journals, from which he took some lines, and she kept him fed and clean … his notion of the isolated genius was very much a fiction!

  2. Good point Jess. Sounds like Wordsworth needed to learn to reference his sources! And yes hermit-artist is such a romantic fiction. Thanks for your great comment.

  3. “genius” is strongly linked to “valuable” – a cheap work of genius couldn’t exist. In this, it is like all the art that can sell – e.g. Booker prizes. the Nobel Prize for literature seems to be aloof from this crass commercialism in as much as the committee will call for “uncommercial” authors to win and their type of work to be promoted. (For instance, no US citizen has won it since Below(?) because their writing’s all commercial rot.

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