The Mystery of Genius

Genius is misunderstood.  In Milos Forman’s engrossing 1984 biopic Amadeus, Mozart is portrayed as an artistic prodigy whose precocity is matched by his vacuity.  His talent may befit his name—Amadeus means “Beloved of God”—but his musical brilliance is a mystery, a divine gift oddly bequeathed to a man who temperamentally resembles a spoiled child.

Contrasting the infantile wunderkind is Antonio Salieri, the court musician to the Hapsburg emperor Joseph II.  Amadeus’ Salieri is everything that the young Mozart is not: refined and thoughtful.  His work is highly esteemed, unlike that of his hated rival, whose own renown wanes during his lifetime until he is virtually forgotten.  The great Salieri will not be buried in an unmarked grave like the forsaken Mozart.  And yet his talent is not a divine gift.  Salieri is, as he acknowledges, “the Patron Saint of mediocrity.”

Amadeus is a brilliant film with superb acting and staging, well-deserving of its critical acclaim.  One reviewer called it “arguably the best motion picture ever made about the process of creation and the creator.”   But this is mistaken.  The film, however engrossing, rests on a false premise: that Mozart’s sublime music—among mankind’s most enduring achievements—could emerge from a boorish frat boy.

Hollywood’s insight into genius, which is to say, no insight whatsoever, parallels conventional wisdom that super-achievers are fundamentally inexplicable.  But is that really the case?  Are we to conclude, like Salieri, that only God’s hand can explain the likes of Mozart?

Malcolm Gladwell, popularizer of all things science, takes an admirable stab at debunking the notion of genius-as-divine-gift in Outliers.  Such seemingly blessed souls are not blessed at all, he says; rather, they are talented individuals who work tirelessly to hone their skills.  He cites Mozart as an example, pointing out that the musician, though undeniably precocious, did not start composing his own work until he was 21 (Amadeus’ father, also a musician, likely authored his son’s early work).  Rigorous practice and luck were critical to Mozart’s success, bearing out Thomas Edison’s quip that genius is “one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.”

Gladwell is quick to point out that determination and some luck alone do not assure monumental achievement—or any achievement whatsoever.  Force of will alone is insufficient.  Some innate talent or gift is necessary.  (A pygmy will not likely become the next Michael Jordan regardless of how many hours he practices his jump shot).  But the adage that practice makes perfect contains more than a kernel of truth.  The young Amadeus, absent his work ethic, would not have raised his skill level to the point where he was able to compose in his prolific career 41 symphonies and four of the greatest operas.  Mozart might have simply been a Salieri, just as Salieri, denied inherent talent (we suppose), was destined to remain a Salieri despite his efforts to be a Mozart.

While much about what makes a genius a genius still may be unknown, the insight of Gladwell and others notwithstanding, the notion that art conveying great feeling, such as Mozart’s magnificent work, could miraculously emerge from a petulant man-child begs belief.  This is different from saying that artistic creativity can only derive from the morally upright and ethically pure.  Clearly it does not.  The great Renaissance painter Caravaggio was a murderer whose rotten exploits earned him a Papal death warrant, Paul Gauguin callously left his wife and five children to pursue his creative passions, and Richard Wagner was a vicious anti-Semite, to name a few examples.  Yet undoubtedly all had enormous emotional depth, their flaws notwithstanding.

But all this leaves unanswered yet another mystery of genius: why are there so few Mozarts in our modern society when musical instruction is widespread, or such a dearth of Caravaggios when church patronage is not required to try one’s hand as a painter?  Supreme talent should flourish given the abundance of opportunity.  But it doesn’t.  What explains this odd paradox?  Perhaps no explanation is needed, as indeed there are many geniuses in the arts.

To see Damien Hirst’s installation featuring a shark floating in formaldehyde or hear Philip Glass’ minimalist compositions is to know that virtuosity is no relic of the past.  Only Hirst, Glass and others similarly feted by critics are not artistic geniuses, but rather marketing geniuses of the highest order able to sell the emperor invisible clothing.  Who could call them Patron Saints of Mediocrity?  Not Amadeus’ Salieri.  He recognized genius when he saw it.

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