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Tilt West’s Roundtable, Deconstructing Creative Genius (Photo credit: Whitney Toutenhoofd)

In Consideration Of A More Ordinary Genius

By Marina Eckler, in response to Tilt West’s Roundtable, ​Deconstructing Creative Genius

Several years ago, I interned at a printmaking studio that had been hired to produce prints for a multidisciplinary artist who had recently received a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the Genius Grant. On a hot afternoon, the artist wandered through the print shop in shorts and flip flops. The shop was buzzing with expert printers gathered around a hydraulic relief press they had decided to use to make the prints. The surface she wanted to print from presented unique challenges for the staff, and they all huddled together to troubleshoot how to do it without wrecking the equipment. Through trial and error, the staff had figured out a process, and after twenty minutes or so, the artist gave the green light and left. I pictured her heading off to the beach or wherever it is you can wear flip flops in the city. The prints came out beautifully. In smooth and dense ink, they recorded, directly, a viscerally felt phenomena that suggested other phenomena. They took forever to make, and they tested the limits of the equipment, but they were really wonderful. They were both magical and simple.

When some of these prints arrived at an art space in Denver a decade later, the gallery text contained no mention of the collaboration between the artist and the team who printed the work. As is the custom, their labor fell to the backdrop of support staff along with the frame shop, the moving vans, the museum staff, the writers, the viewers, the society, and the air they breathed.

In the world of fine art printmaking, the end result is a material object, typically a hand printed print, but the author only needs to have produced the concept (and not necessarily the object) to retain authorship. Others may contribute manual labor, but ultimately the work will be signed by an individual artist. A famous example is Alex Katz’s The Green Cap, 1985, which was produced in the laborious medium of Japanese wood block by Shi-un-do Print Shop. The practice of hiding the input of others and elevating the individual artist mirrors a power structure that seems to carry over from the society at large, roughly intact. Swirling around the taxonomy of artists and collaborators looms the quiet presence of copyright law with its mind-numbing attempts at quantifying creative contributions. Being almost entirely monetary in nature, it feels both heavy and meaningless as the words on your to-go cup, “Caution: Contents Hot,” which, reading through to the quiet part, gently reminds us, “If you sue us, we will countersue.”

Genius. It must flow through all of us in some moment, recalling the adage: “Do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.” (Thanks, Eminem.)

Our English word “genius” comes partly from the root gene — “give birth, beget.” We hear in the word its connection to genes, which, at this point in history, we can easily hold in our imaginations as the largely unchanging program of our bodies. We are used to thinking about genius as innate talent, acquired at birth, our birthright. That can land in our conscience with the weight of inevitability and the sting of unequal distribution of talent as a resource. But the history of the word is slightly bigger. According to the Etymological Dictionary Online, the Latin “genius” was a “guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth.” In other words, genius comes to us from a genie, “a ‘tutelary or moral spirit’ who guides and governs an individual through life.” A genie was thought to watch over EACH person — not just the rare birds, but the regular birds too. Through our genes and our genies, our talents are whispered into life. Winding back through the drift of its meaning, maybe genius started out as something more like a regular bird. No one ran for the bird books and binoculars when it landed on our trees. It was JUST A BIRD, who visited everyone, THROUGHOUT LIFE, not always the same bird, and not always the same visit. Genius might come from a place of cheerful negotiation between the nature and nurture of one’s gifts, as with ​Jonathan Van Ness, figure skating prodigy.

In a recent lecture at Colorado College, letterpress printer ​Amos Kennedy spoke about the peculiar relationship between monetary value and scarcity. Rare things like diamonds or gold, he pointed out, cost a lot, while things with dire intrinsic value often have no direct cost at all: air, water, dirt, love. Kennedy works, prolifically, in multiples, which sell for around $25 per print. His prints are alive with the ethos of social justice manifested through brightly colored conversational art and rhythmic overlapping of text, and they are bonded together with kindness, humor, history, playfulness. They resonate with people, and they sell. Under his rubric, his work is both relatively affordable and very valuable. One sense of a creative genius is someone who possesses a rare gift, a distinct individual who is freakishly good at something. There’s no harm in that, necessarily, but clearly there’s more to genius than scarcity.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, an artist whose groundbreaking work included the public performance (as performance art) of manual labor in a museum setting, writes in her Maintenance Art Manifesto, 1969:

Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.

The Death Instinct: separation; individuality; Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path to death — do your own thing; dynamic change.

The Life Instinct: unification; the eternal return; the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species; survival systems and operations; equilibrium.

In bringing her ordinary life and the lives of others into public contemplation, Ukeles brought to the world an important concept: maintenance as a central part of life with the potential to be reframed and revalued as art. Her concept had cultural value. It has served as an important counterpoint to dematerialized conceptual art practices that were emerging at the time, and, perhaps most importantly, it highlighted the gulf between the traditional domestic sphere of women and the public sphere of the art world which, at the time, was almost exclusively male. Sixteen years after the Maintenance Art Manifesto, the Guerilla Girls embarked on their project of pointing out how few female artists were shown at prominent public art spaces.

And/but, there is a paradox here. Ukeles is a professional artist. She coined the phrase Maintenance Art. We are aware of her practice and her idea, partly because she attached her name to it and shaped a career around the boldness of her project. In furtherance of her career as an artist and not as something else, Ukeles produces and gets paid for her work. The same can be said for Amos Kennedy, who presumably also gets paid for his teaching and speaking engagements. If artists waived or redistributed their fees, only independently wealthy people could afford to dedicate their lives to making art, or to any type of institutional critique.​ Without the friction of the producer/consumer relationship, without recognizing and rewarding novel ideas, would such work be made at all? Does public recognition of creative genius create the conditions necessary for talent to emerge in the first place? ​What would killing the concept of genius honestly look like? Would we even want that?

If, for today, your genie made you very, very good at washing dishes, then maybe creative genius is about saying yes to that and valuing it. Wash your dishes. Do it right. In this case, genius could be thought of as something akin to “zeitgeist” or “spirit of the times.” This is the genius of setting out your sail to catch the wind. Although zeitgeist is not etymologically related to genius, the words are semantically similar. If creative genius is understood as something closer to the spirit of the times, maybe that points to a way to hold space for problematic geniuses like Michael Jackson or Louis C.K., talented people who have done things in their personal lives that we don’t like. That way, when our celebrities let us down, we can still experience their talent as something that comes from the culture and belongs to the culture, like Michael Jackson appropriating the moonwalk, as was mentioned at the Tilt West roundtable. Louis C. K. doesn’t own the laughter that resulted from the landing of his jokes. His audience doesn’t get a byline, but his jokes could not have worked without them. And maybe his audience would not have laughed, thereby completing the joke, if there hadn’t been a genie/zeitgeist working through him, warts and all.

Genius. Maybe fandom is as cruel as scapegoating.

Genius. Quit rocketing talented people to the stars where they become weird, and there’s no air for them to breathe, and they drift in space untethered to fact or consequence.

Genius. Quit moving the goal post and using your gatekeeper status to exclude the same people over and over.

Genius. But don’t talk yourself out of a career by being too pure.

Genius. Like, way to go, genius.

Genius. One could try to kill the concept, but not the fact that some people are really amazing at things, and we like to be amazed.

Genius. See how we dance around the quiet polarities of our words like greatness, amazement, talent, beauty, excellence.

Genius. It’s unfair and doesn’t exist, but still you know it when you see it, hear it, wrestle it to the ground, try to understand it, love and/or hate it, breathe it in, say it twenty times until it loses its meaning, then breathe it out all at once, and become it.

Marina Eckler is a painter and multidisciplinary artist based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in painting and printmaking from San Francisco State University and completed her MFA at Maine College of Art in 2013. She teaches printmaking, drawing, and two-dimensional design in the Visual and Performing Arts Department at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Her work has been shown at The Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico, The New York Art Book Fair, The Lab in San Francisco, California, and was the subject of a two-person exhibition at UCCS’s Gallery of Contemporary Art in 2014. Her ongoing performative slideshow and interview project, ​Going Home​, has been staged at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, CA, Unnameable Books in Brooklyn, NY, and as part of the 2017 ArtPop Festival in Colorado Springs. From 2013–2016, she founded and operated Mountain Fold Books, a non-profit bookstore and event space for the arts in Colorado Springs. In her recent project, ​Fin: A Going Away Party​, she orchestrated a farewell event to bid the earth, as we know it, goodbye due to climate change predictions and actualities. An exhibition of her recent work will open in February, 2020 at The Machine Shop in Colorado Springs. Her art deals with issues of time, power, gender, and other mysteries.

Tilt West is a nonprofit org based in Denver. Our mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture for our region and beyond.

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