Photo by Sebastian Bergmann
On a cold winter’s day shortly before his death, the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti gathered a large sheaf of drawings from his studio and carried them outside. As he stepped through the doorway he caught his breath – first at the frosty Roman air, then at a gust of smoke from a bonfire burning in the yard. Approaching the fire with the breeze at his back, the artist bent over and started feeding it with the drawings – single sheets at first, for fear of choking the flames, then more and more as the blaze took hold, finally dumping the whole pile into the heart of the conflagration. Reaching for a pitchfork, he scooped up stray sheets and scraps, folding them back into the flames.
An outstretched arm shrivelled and blackened before his eyes. A woman with the face of an angel flickered out in an instant. A cathedral facade burst into flames and collapsed. A fury screamed silently in its miniature hell. Without a second glance, the artist went back into the house for another load. Then another. As the morning progressed, the column of smoke grew thicker and rose higher, visible across the city in the clear winter sunshine. Michelangelo did not stop until he had emptied the studio, until every last scrap was safely gathered in to the fire. Until there was nothing to show for his years of toil with chalk and ink but a heap of embers and ashes.
What on earth possessed Michelangelo to destroy his own drawings, on which he had worked so hard? Why did he deprive the world of so many precious masterpieces?
Even in his own lifetime, Michelangelo was revered as a divine genius, and his sketches were valued accordingly. He was the first artist to have his biography written while he was still alive. His biographer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote that he treasured a drawing by Michelangelo ‘as a relic’ – i.e. a physical object with miraculous qualities. A 16th century Italian Catholic would not use such a term lightly.
Perfectionism was Vasari’s explanation for the burning: ‘Michelangelo’s imagination was so perfect that, not being able to express with his hands his great and terrible conceptions, he often abandoned his works and destroyed many of them.’
Craftsman and author Roger Coleman offers another interpretation:
Michelangelo was, if anything, ashamed of his drawings. In his thinking the ‘art’ stage of creative production, which he identified with the careful procedure of making studies, sketches and working drawings, was the menial and mundane side of the business, whereas true merit was to him displayed in the rapid and apparently effortless execution of a painting or sculpture.
The Art of Work
By burning his drawings, Michelangelo was destroying the evidence of the ‘menial and mundane’ work that constituted his creative process. His aim was to leave behind only finished masterpieces, bolstering his image as a creator of sublime genius. With the drawings gone, the public would be reduced to gaping at his paintings, sculptures and buildings, shaking their heads and asking themselves ‘How did he do it?’.
Michelangelo was a notoriously proud individual, yet there was more to this attempted deception than vanity. Coleman points out that Michelangelo was living at a time when the whole concept of art was in transition.
The world of the medieval guilds was coming to an end. In this tradition, there had been no concept of an individual ‘artist’ in the modern sense. ‘Art’ simply meant ‘skill’ or ‘labour’, and artists were essentially craftsmen. They were hired labourers, paid according to the hours they worked. Most projects were collaborations, making it hard to single out any individual and credit him as ‘the artist’. Skill and knowledge were highly prized, handed down from master to apprentice and guarded closely as trade secrets within the guilds. Drawings were functional, containing important knowledge and ‘working out’ necessary to create the finished artefact. They would not have been seen as artworks in their own right, any more than the scaffolding used in the construction of a building.
The brave new world of the Renaissance brought with it a very different concept of the artist – as a solitary, divinely inspired ‘genius’ capable of feats of creation that ordinary mortals could not aspire to, but only marvel at:
Michelangelo was actually working within the context of a tradition in which art was synonymous with skilled work and, as any skilled worker knows, the preparatory stages of any job of work are of fundamental importance and determine absolutely the quality of the finished product. But Michelangelo’s work was appreciated and commissioned by class of patrons which was already attached to the idea of genius: individuals who advertised their social status by surrounding themselves with the works of ‘genius’.
The Art of Work
Among this class of patrons was Giovanni Rucellai, a wealthy Florentine who was the first art collector to catalogue paintings by the name of the artist instead of the subject. Michelangelo was keenly aware of the economic benefits of being perceived as a lofty genius instead of a lowly craftsman. Destroying the evidence of his labours was part of a calculated strategy of projecting the image of genius.
As time went by, artists ceased to be paid for mere labour, and were instead rewarded in proportion to their perceived level of genius. The modern art market evolved through the mutually reinforcing benefits that accrue to artists and collectors: the former increased their status and earnings exponentially; the latter enjoyed healthy returns on their investments while basking in the reflected glory of genius.
The Myth of Genius
Far from being divinely inspired, it looks as though the modern concept of genius originated in market forces and naked ambition.
If you aspire to high level creative work, and/or depend on your creativity for a living, then the myth of genius could seriously damage your work and your career. Here’s why.
Firstly, it’s all too easy to place the ‘geniuses’ in your field on lofty pedestals, and tell yourself you have no hope of emulating them. Not only is this discouraging, but it also deprives you of the opportunity to learn from their example. In a way, it’s a form of laziness – it takes a lot less effort to gawp at Michelangelo’s David than it does to carefully study his surviving drawings (he missed a few) and apply the lessons to your own practice. It’s all very well to swoon at Mozart melodies, but if you’re a professional composer then it’s your business to study his technique and learn from it.
I sometimes encounter a subtle variation on the genius myth when working with coaching clients. Some of them get stuck worrying about whether they are ‘a real writer’ or ‘a genuine artist’. They mistake the image for the process. My answer is always the same: ‘Forget about “being a writer”, let’s focus on “doing the writing”‘. Once they do this it becomes much easier, as we can usually find the point in the process where they get stuck, and come up with new options for working through it.
Secondly, although genius is a myth, it’s a very popular and persistent one. Canny marketers will tell you that perception is reality as far as the market is concerned. If you understand the genius myth, you can learn a thing or two from Michelangelo about how to exploit it to your advantage. Otherwise you risk being cast in the shade by self-proclaimed ‘geniuses’ – just as Michelangelo intended.
- Extraordinary thought processes – such as leaps of insight, unconscious incubation, remote associations and lateral thinking.
- Special psychological characteristics – the ‘genius personality’, made up of extraordinary sensitivity, flexibility and other admirable traits.
His central argument is that there is no evidence for either of these attributes: high-level creativity does not involve special ‘creative thinking’ techniques, but results from ordinary thought processes; and that genius cannot be reduced to a set of personality characteristics. Creativity – Beyond the Myth of Genius is a provocative and stimulating book that will give you a very unconventional take on creativity. You may not agree with everything Weisberg says, but he will make you question some of your fundamental assumptions about creativity. And if you’ve ever worried that your thinking isn’t sufficiently ‘lateral’ or ‘outside the box’, or that you’re simply ‘not mad enough’ to be a real creative genius, you may even find it an encouraging read.
So What DO You Need for Creative Success?
Robert Weisberg lists the following factors as essential for creative achievement: talent and skill; motivation and productivity; and knowledge of your chosen field.
My brother is a musician. He’s forever humming, tapping, running through tunes in his mind. If his guitar is nearby his fingers start itching to pick it up. If I bought a guitar tomorrow and practised with every day for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t get half the music out of it that he does. I don’t have the talent. Words, on the other hand are a different matter. My friends are sometimes amazed that I can remember whole poems by heart or repeat back exactly what they said several years ago. But to me it comes naturally, I can’t help it. Words are in my blood.
Raw talent will only get you so far – skill and mastery come from practice. Each time I hear Paul play, sometimes at intervals of several months, I can swear he’s better than the last time. Which he is, of course. Because he’s always playing. Just as I’m always writing – I start most working days by writing for several hours. When I look at something I wrote years ago it’s easy to cringe – any improvement in the meanwhile has come from all those hours of practice.
I even find myself writing at weekends, when I don’t really have to. But if an idea for a piece gets into me, it won’t leave me alone, so work is more enjoyable than lying in bed. It doesn’t even feel like work. According to Weisberg, I’m not alone, since ‘a strong desire to succeed and a high level of commitment to one’s chosen field’ – in other words powerful extrinsic and intrinsic motivations – are typical of creative people.
Motivation and practice lead to productivity:
one particularly impressive characteristic of the most esteemed individuals (and presumably the most creative) in any field is that they are almost always extremely productive. In addition to possessing talent, then, one must be willing to work, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else.
Creativity – Beyond the Myth of Genius
One of the root causes of the Florentine Renaissance was the excavation of Roman ruins and rediscovery of ancient forms of sculpture and architecture, which had been lost for centuries. Without this knowledge, the great Renaissance artists could not have produced such an extraordinary flowering of sculpture, painting and building, no matter how talented they were. Weisberg argues that ‘one must become immersed in the field and develop a deep expertise before one becomes capable of going beyond what has already been produced’.
Bearing in mind Michelangelo’s example, I would add the following factors to Weisberg’s list:
Art historian Ernst Gombrich was evidently under the spell of the genius myth when he wrote The Story of Art:
it is very difficult for any ordinary mortals to imagine how it could be possible for one human being to achieve what Michelangelo achieved in four lonely years of work on the scaffoldings of the papal chapel.
In fact, historian William E. Wallace has shown that Michelangelo collaborated with no less than 13 people on the Sistine Chapel, and with around 200 on the Laurentian Library in Florence. So much for loneliness. As Michael Michalko points out, ‘Michelangelo was not only a great artist, he was a CEO of other talent that collaboratively made the art that bore his name’. As we’ve seen elsewhere, collaboration is critical to success and creative rock stars love to work with other cool creative dudes.
Gombrich was writing 400 hundred years after the death of Michelangelo, and is still far from alone in his veneration of the artist’s divine genius. So it looks like Michelangelo did a great job of his marketing – if we define marketing as projecting the right image to the people who matter. Genius may be a myth, but as Seth Godin reminds us, all marketers are liars – they understand that nothing sells like a good story.
A business model
Economist Tyler Cowen is pretty blunt in his description of Michelangelo:
Beethoven and Michelangelo, who sold their artworks for profit, were entrepreneurs and capitalists. Rembrandt, who ran a studio and employed other artists, fits the designation as well.
In Praise of Commercial Culture
Michelangelo’s art and business were inextricably intertwined – his materials were expensive, and he was ambitious to have his work on display in the most prominent places – so he depended on his ability to win lucrative contracts from wealthy clients, beating off stiff competition from the likes of Raphael and Leonardo. If you want to make a living from your creativity then you’ll need a similarly sound business model. Even if you’re content to pursue your art as a hobby in your spare time, you still need to pay the bills and buy materials in the mean time. Remember, artistic self-expression is fairly near the top of Maslow’s pyramid.
Genius and You
Do you agree that genius is a myth?
Are there people in your creative field (alive or dead) that you would class as geniuses? Do you find their example inspiring or discouraging?
What difference does it make to your creativity when you forget about being (‘a genius’, ‘a great artist’, ‘a good writer’ etc) and concentrate on doing (actions, routines, processes)?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.