Lately we’ve been talking a lot about themes of genius, collaboration and art for an upcoming project we’re working on. Throughout our days, we hear them used abundantly that sometimes we have a hard time thinking about those ideas in their historical sense, and how they have come to mean what they mean today. So, with a little research and digital digging, we found a few developments over the last couple millenia that we think make for a good read. Here’s a bit of history behind what we know as ‘creativity’ and ‘genius....’
Greeks and Romans
The Greeks used to believe that genius was never the result of superior intellect, imagination, talent or skill of any kind. They believed that creativity was imparted to humans by other-worldly beings, also called ‘Daemons.’ After the Greeks came and went, the Romans took the word and came up with a new word for them, ‘Genius.’ In her 2009 TED Talk, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the freakishly-successful novel Eat. Pray. Love) explains that the Romans didn’t believe that a genius was a kind of incredibly talented individual, but a “magical, divine entity who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artists’ studio....and would literally come out of the walls to invisibly assist the artist and shape the outcome of that work.” As you might guess, this philosophy worked well because it destroyed any trace of narcissism that an artist might develop from the successfulness of his work, but also didn’t hold him responsible if it didn’t turned out well.
Shakespeare and Da Vinci produced works that we still celebrate today. Mark Rose, a University of California Santa Barbara English professor, notes that Romeo and Juliet is really just “an episode-by-episode dramatization of a poem by Arthur Brooke.” During this time, we saw many artists borrow themes, scenes and concepts from other artists and reinterpret them to align with their own direction. While they never copied word-for-word or design-for-design, they did borrow heavily from other sources.
The first copyright law is established, and the idea of the artist is changed forever. During this era, authors were considered to be the legal owners of their work and sole originators of creative material. The age of Enlightenment gave rise to the concept of rationalism, in which the public shed supernatural ideas of other-worldly geniuses or spirits inhabiting artists’ studios and sparking inspiration.
With the rise of recording technology and photography that could capture the very essence of famous individuals and distribute them en masse, the idea of the individual as genius became ubiquitous as we know it today. However, as Joshua Wolf Shenk summarizes in a recent NY Times Opinion article, “Freud developed psychoanalysis in a heated exchange with the physician Wilhelm Fliess...even Einstein, for all his solitude, worked out the theory of relativity in conversation with the engineer Michele Besso.” Though creative individuals will still always be the initiators and directors of material, they rarely produce such work away from other creatives. When we are faced with a project, we often draw inspiration from the stories that our clients tell us about their companies, their history and where they want to go. In our refurbished, twentieth century factory-made-business-incubator we get the chance to interact with thirty five other entrepreneurs and creative types to listen to how they are solving problems in the world today.
While the limelight feels pretty good most of the time, it’s imperative to remember who, and what, helped us get there.