The Persistent Myth of the Lone Genius in Art and Science

Alone in the Sky

Of the many persistent myths about innovation, the lone genius is about the most sticky. Continued research shows how untrue this is. 

When we consider achievement in science, we think of individuals. The Nobel Prize might be awarded to small groups of individuals, but they are not awarded to teams. Indeed, team science is not something recognized in the same way that we recognize individual achievement.

There is a persistent myth that discovery is best achieved through individual genius applied to a problem. The “eureka!” moment is played up in science fiction stories and films from Frankenstein to Back to the Future.

It is a myth because research on creativity and innovation consistently shows that hard work and persistence beats out raw skill (which is a myth in itself) . Indeed, people become skilled through some natural talent, but mostly hard work, concentration and consistent practice.

Yesterday, Keith Sawyer, a psychologist and researcher of innovation and creativity, asked that the lone genius myth to be put to rest. I wish that luck and support the idea, but don’t suspect it will come true. He writes (on artists):

The Wall Street Journal of June 3, 2011 reports that many contemporary artists use an equally collaborative studio system. The article (by Stan Stesser) reports that Jeff Koons has 150 people on his payroll and readily admits that he never paints himself. A long list of expensive, widely collected artists are named in the article; apparently, it is not a secret that the “artist” doesn’t actually execute the work himself. There’s no misreprentation here; gallery owners and dealers tell potential buyers the actual story, and buyers still collect the works.

The earliest return to a collaborative studio model was probably Andy Warhol in the 1960s, who called his studio “The Factory” and famously said “I want to be a machine.” So the “lone genius” model of the painter has been fading for several decades already. In the greater scheme of history, the Romantic era belief that the painter was an inspired solitary genius has been a small blip: slightly over 100 years. Painter as lone genius: Rest In Peace.

The notion that creativity is an individual thing might have to do with the uniqueness in which we all experience creativity. While each of us might create a idea from different things — ideas, feelings, abstract experience — we put such sensory stimuli together in manners that must make coherent sense to understand them. To communicate them, we need to make sure that these ideas are coherent beyond ourselves to others and the best way to do that is to get the input of others in the process. It means, collaboration.

Whether it is science or art, the notion of teams, collaboration, sharing, and co-creating is something too often denied or left unexplored in daily practice. In its place, the myths of the lone genius. It is why faculty are rewarded for being the first author on a paper or grant rather than being part of a team or collaboratory. It is why we do individual performance appraisals for most people. It is also why students are graded on their own work, with little attention to how they brought that work to others to share.

Dr. Sawyer’s declaration of the lone genius as dead is optimistic. What is needed now is something to make it realistic.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Visit the library section of Censemaking.

*** Photo lone giraffe by eddiemalone used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

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