Fumbling in a greasy till

Google image search the phrase "creative genius" and, other than some stock images and clip art, you'll find a picture of Steve Jobs.  In fact, you have to scroll deep--very deep--on the page before you see an image of an actual artist, musician or poet (in this case, Picasso).  

There's no way to know for sure, of course, but my hunch is that this would not have been the case 40-50 years ago.  Had you asked the average person-on-the street in 1963 to name a creative genius, you likely would have heard the name of a painter or a poet.  Today it's Jobs, Gates, maybe Zuckerberg.

Or let's pose this little thought experiment.  The English poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote verse of astonishing creativity.  As a Jesuit priest during the Victorian Era, he struggled against his artistic inclinations and battled depression.  He also died young and never intended his work to survive him. A few friends and fellow poets recognized his genius, however, and posthumously kept his poems alive.  In other words, his creative output came a hair's breadth from being lost forever.

Now let's suppose Hopkins' poems had been forgotten until 2013, when we rediscovered a trunk full of his manuscripts.  Would we recognize his startling creative voice?  There are no doubt a host of factors that cause a poet's literary stock to rise or sink, but over time genius does tend to will out.  I have to believe that we would recognize the genius on those few fading yellow pages.

Now let's suppose Steve Jobs' consumer products never found a market.  No one bought them.  They never sold.  Would anyone call him a genius if they ran across a notebook of his failed product ideas 100 years from now?  Isn't his status as a "creative genius" unavoidably tied to his financial success?  Hopkins died a failure.  Had Jobs done so, would he even rate a Wikipedia entry?   So one man's creativity is primarily derived from the work itself; the other's from the financial success of marketing and selling the work.  

When our representative analogic concept of creativity--something once associated with artists--has become a merchant of popular consumer electronics, something really has changed.  In September 1913 Yeats disdainfully metonymized merchants as fingers "fumbling in a greasy till."   One hundred years later their creative genius is lionized in TED talks.

Of course the definition of "artist" or "art" has always been slippery.  The Greeks called art techne, a rather pedestrian term that simply implied know-how when it came to making things (pots, plays, poems). Poesis literally means "to make."  In an ancient sense, then, Jobs was a poet.  He certainly knew how to make things that people like.  But at least since the Romantic Era, we've tended to define an artist as a solitary figure struggling against popular convention to produce art for art's sake.  Indeed, the failure of an artist during his or her lifetime has even been seen as the sine qua non of genius. One thinks of a Van Gogh or a Kafka.

Our notion of artists is changing once more.  They are no longer Cezannes, Woolfs or Hart Cranes.  They're more likely to be Facebook millionaires or the merchants of cheap, mass-produced gadgets pieced together in Asian sweatshops. 

Romantic Ireland is dead indeed.


Alan Peel said…
Ouch. I think this is a bit black and white, but there is definitely a grain of truth. I don't think you have to stick to the present, though. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have lionized capitalists who "make it." And the reason that great art often went unrecognized at the time of its creation is that everyone else valued other things/prioritized/etc. Also recall that there is a significant class issue here: the only people who had time and money to appreciate the best art were patrons, i.e., the rich. What the engineers and designers in this modern age get is _mass_ recognition when they succeed. Jobs was in no way an artist that moves people in the way a Beethoven or Joni Mitchell or Picasso or Banksy moves/challenges people, but the creative boundary between design and art is still a fuzzy one.
Professor Quest said…
Fair enough. Admittedly, it's a somewhat tendentious post. Still, I wonder to what extent a Steve Jobs would have been in the public consciousness as a creative genius if his products hadn't sold or been extremely well marketed. Would he simply have been another Philo T. Farnsworth, the now nearly forgotten inventor of television? Farnsworth was talented and creative. In his own way, he changed society as much as Jobs, but he died in poverty in a trailer park. Indeed, any number of artistic geniuses have died in similar down-and-out situations, but they are recognized today for their works. Would Jobs be had he not been a winner? Is Farnsworth? I don't know. Something about our attitude toward what constitutes a creative genius has changed. Not sure what that means.

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