When I looked back on my week of attention paid, as represented by what I chose to post to these blog pages, this post by Maria Popova resonated. The title, Against the Cult of Originality, caught my eye.

As I thought about the proposition of a “Cult of Originality” I thought about the number of times I have come across the idea that one had not arrived, could not hope to arrive, as an artist until they had found the unique voice that distinguished them from all others, the voice that made them an “original,” a soloist.

Maria Popova writes this about genius and originality:

The best things in life we don’t choose — they choose us. A great love, a great calling, a great illumination — they happen unto us, like light falling upon that which is lit. We have given a name to these unbidden greatnesses — genius, from the Latin for “spirit,” denoting the spirit of a universe we can only submit to but cannot govern.1

She is talking about the spark of creativity as a gift. Our charge is to become the medium through which the genius of the cosmos is delivered to our species and to take no ego gratification from it. Of course, the very idea of genius in our society is that of the prodigy soloist.

In the paragraph immediately following her declaration above she cites Wordsworth who proclaims that genius does that which hasn’t been done before and is worth doing, well. But wait, isn’t that the same as being unique, qualified as it is by the stipulation that it be done well and in a direction deemed useful? Even while writing against the cult of originality it is hard to free oneself from the adoration of… originality.

But then she gets to the point with Emerson, who has a take on genius more in line with her own thoughts at the beginning:

Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am more in line with this thinking about genius which moves it away from prodigality and in the direction of a gift transmitted through us. This is the Lewis Hyde concept of the creative act2. The idea that we are gifted an ability and set of circumstances that favor a different way of seeing and that we have an obligation to suffer “the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.” In this way of thinking, we are the medium, not the point. We are participating in something larger than ourselves.

As I am writing this I am listening to a recording of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. I think it was probably my most listened to recording of 2022. I adore choral music. And what I adore most are the passages utilizing the full choir. I understand and appreciate that soloists are important and appreciate their counterpoint to the choir as they deliver whatever piece of information and beauty they have been charged with delivering. But what truly gut punches me every time is the full choir in all its synchronized beauty and power. There is little in this world that is more sublime to me.

Personally, I think we place way too much emphasis on the soloists of the world, as exemplified by our fetishization of genius and originality. We are fascinated by the individual, the celebrated, the notorious. I would guess that most of us harbor the hope, deep within or psyches, that one day the world will discover the wonderful soloists we are capable of being. I know I do. We must all be exceptional at something? Right? But the idea that we should all be soloists is untenable and leads to disappointment in most people’s lives, in addition to being a recipe for a dysfunctional society.

I remember, many years ago, attending an exhibit of space photography in the then named IBM building in Manhattan. The photography was made by the Hubble Space Telescope which had recently launched into orbit. What I saw was the most beautiful art I could imagine and what blew me away was that it was art made by all of us. A choir of engineers, scientists, analysts, technicians, politicians, educators, tax payers, and on and on.

We need soloists. But we also need to appreciate that no soloist exists with out a choir. It needs to be ok to be part of the choir and we need to value it as we value our soloists. It requires all of us to receive the gifts of the cosmos and move them out across our collective being.

  1. https://www.themarginalian.org/2023/01/21/emerson-genius-shakespeare/ ↩︎

  2. See Lewis Hyde, The Gift. https://lewishyde.com/the-gift/ ↩︎