The Genius Excuse

Correction Below.

Since we’re talking about Watson again, I thought I’d recommend a post on BitchMedia about how genius is used as an excuse for sin in the arts (thought the article focuses on film specifically). Despite the seeming differences in the scientific enterprise and the artistic enterprise, the observations in that piece seem quite relevant to how our society treats Michael Shermer, James Watson, and Inder Verma.

Consider this:

Auteur theory, originating in French film criticism, credits the director with being the chief creative force behind a production—that is, the director is the “author.” Given that film, with its expansive casts and crews, is one of the most collaborative art forms ever to have existed, the myth of a singular genius seems exceptionally flawed to begin with. But beyond the history of directors like Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, and many more using their marketable auteur status as a “business model of reflexive adoration,” auteur worship both fosters and excuses a culture of toxic masculinity. The auteur’s time-honored method of “provoking” acting out of women through surprise, fear, and trickery—though male actors have never been immune, either— is inherently abusive. Quentin Tarantino, Lars Von Trier, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and David O. Russell, among others, have been accused of different degrees of this, but the resulting suffering of their muses is imagined by a fawning fanbase as “creative differences,” rather than as misogyny and as uncompromising vision rather than violence.

In experimental “hard” science (I’m told, I have no experience with this outside some limited experience in Psychology labs, which are different from biology, medicine, chemistry and physics labs) the scientist running the lab typically has the privilege of taking last authorship on any paper that comes out of that lab’s work, even if involvement of the head scientist was merely nominal. Though many scientists don’t choose to exercise that option terribly often, those who exercise it more than the norm aren’t criticized that I’ve noticed. There is very much a myth that credit for all the production of a lab can be assigned to a single person, despite science being very much a collaborative enterprise, often on scales that dwarf even large-budget movie-making.

If it were true that a single scientist would produce the same great science no matter who is hired to work in the scientist’s lab, then it might make sense to allow scientists like Verma to ruin careers or sabotage recruiting efforts. Tolerating a sexual harasser like Verma gives every appearance of being would not hurt an institution at all, so long as the harasser produced science on a scale and of a quality to please employers like the Jonas Salk Institute. But of course this is not true, and the actions excused by directors and human resource departments injure not only the careers of individual scientists, but ultimately the institutions that these administrators and bureaucrats work to protect.

Go read the BitchMedia article if you’re interested in their insights on how this plays out in the arts, but don’t think that the genius excuse isn’t used in far more places than Hollywood.

InvivoMark corrected me about lab traditions: the head of the lab is traditionally the last author on a paper, though in this post I originally said the first author. Corrected above.

Also, thanks Sarah00 for pointing out I’d forgotten to include a link to the BitchMedia piece.


  1. sarah00 says

    I may just be missing it but I can’t find a link to the article you’re discussing.

  2. cartomancer says

    I don’t think modern Western society is nearly as aware as it should be of just how peculiar and culturally specific our concept of “genius” is. It’s very much derived from Renaissance Italian culture, exemplified in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, and grew up in a world heavily inspired by late Medieval and Reformation Catholic ideas of sin and self-worth. Indeed, biographies of great artists became such popular genre not in spite of the sins of their subjects but because of them. Prior to the late 15th Century the only major biographical traditions in Europe were the Classical tradition of moralising biography exemplified by Plutarch and the Christian traditions of Hagiography and Royal biography. If sinful or improper behaviour was mentioned in those then it was strictly to condemn it.

    But the city-states of Renaissance Italy were places full of violence and murder, vendetta, iconoclasm, individualistic money-making and nascent capitalism. Their citizens wanted tales of great men who were flawed and unchaste like they were – scandalous bisexual murderers like Caravaggio and Cellini, rage-driven cuckolds like Bellini, tormented souls like Da Vinci and shameless self-promoters like Michaelangelo. A culture of talking back to your patrons emerged in quite radical distinction to how artists behaved in the Middle Ages. To the Medieval European world the artist was a craftsman, a functionary – virtually none of them even signed their names, much less courted a cult of personality. To do so would be the sin of pride, the notion that they, rather than god himself, were the author of their creations. In their adoration of supremely talented artist superheroes the citizens of Renaissance Florence, Venice and Rome expressed a distinctive Early Modern Catholic desire to achieve brilliance and salvation despite their sins. And so the archetype of the artistic genius was born.

    Contemporary great artists in the Muslim and Hindu worlds had no such pretensions. Sinan, Bichitra, all the great Ottoman and Mughal court artists remained firmly subordinate to patrons and meek in their ambitions – content to bask in reflected greatness rather than claiming the brilliance shined from their own unique talent – a gift from god that rendered the European Renaissance artist almost divine himself. And it was, naturally, himself rather than herself. A few, such as Artemisia Gentilleschi, made the bold case that women could also be great genius artists, sovereigns of painting, but it was always an uphill battle. Particularly as far as making one’s sins into a part of the artistic glamour was concerned. Gentilleschi’s own past was not something her society was able to lionise – she had been raped by one of her father’s studio assistants as a teenager, which absolutely did not fit into the mould of the self-determined artist-genius.

    Moving from art to science, this is, I think, why we are so comfortable casting Isaac Newton as a great genius of science, but Charles Darwin less so. Newton has all the romantic, tortured, asocial moodiness we want from our Renaissance-inspired archetype – albeit paired with a startling asexuality rather than an indulgent sexual incontinence. Darwin, meanwhile, was polite, sociable, happily married, painstaking and dull. He cannot be seen as a rebellious, free-thinking outsider. The pious and depressive Johannes Kepler gets about the same write-up as his flamboyant, gluttonous, short-tempered collaborator Tycho Brahe, despite being by far the superior thinker and theorist.

    For my part I would question whether it is valuable to conceive of the category of “genius” at all.

  3. invivoMark says

    The owner of a lab (the PI) typically gets the last author position, not the first, but there is definitely a tendency to credit them overmuch (e.g., “Did you read the paper from so-and-so’s lab?” rather than “Did you read the paper by Grad Student X in so-and-so’s lab?”).

    It’s not generally seen as a big deal (the student/post-doc just wants enough credit to get a good job when they leave the lab, while the lab owner’s ability to fund their own lab is based substantially on their reputation), but it has resulted in people getting snubbed, as Vera Rubin was for the Nobel Prize for her discovery of dark matter.

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