The Infrastructure of Genius
Behind every radical breakthrough is someone trying hold back change (or what ABBA and Adam Smith have in common)
In the last year or so a few geniuses have left the building: Hilary Mantel, Cormac McCarthy, Martin Amis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Burt Bacharach, Tom Verlaine. Opinions differ on all of these but each of them was a highly distinctive, stubbornly individual voice with an outsized influence on their field. It’s not clear who their successors are. We are in what Erik Hoel half-jokingly calls a bit of a “genius downturn”. Hoel points out that there should far more geniuses now than in the past, given the massive extension of education and literacy, and the falling of barriers to female talent. But as others have argued, if anything the opposite is true.
One reason might be the relative lack of golden ages or, more prosaically, “scenes”: particular times and places in which a network of practitioners operate in competition and collaboration with each other. Ancient Athens for philosophy; fifteenth century Florence for art, Elizabethan London for plays; nineteenth century Vienna for classical music; 1920s Paris for everything; 1940s New York for jazz; late 1970s New York for punk, new wave and hip hop. We might extend the concept to non-artistic domains, too, and include Silicon Valley in the 1980s or early 2000s.
I can’t think of many scenes that are flourishing right now, which may account for the shortage of geniuses. Scenes are the soil in which geniuses sprout and flourish. Of course, some geniuses really are solitary; Isaac Newton did not go down to the alehouse to quaff beers and talk celestial mechanics. But more often, genius is a social phenomenon. Brian Eno coined the term “scenius” to describe an ecology of artists, entrepreneurs and thinkers from which brilliant individuals are spawned.
I’m interested in what makes a particular place and moment susceptible to scenius. It might be a random efflorescence; an accident of time, people, and place. It might have deep-rooted economic causes. Athens became more intellectually advanced than Sparta or anywhere else partly because trade made it richer and busier; Florentine artists benefited from the surplus of the banking industry. It might be a rebellion of the artists against the culture’s gatekeepers: Parisian Impressionism emerged when young painters, dissatisfied with the strictures of the Academy, hooked up with a network of gallery-owners, dealers, and critics outside of the official system.
In fact I’m sure it’s all of these things, but here I want to focus on the institutional underpinnings of a scene, that’s to say its infrastructure - and in particular, the role of school.
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