Back in the 18th Century, Immanuel Kant posited the notion that a “genius” was someone who produced artworks that transcended the modes and mechanisms that allowed for the creation itself to occur. A genius was one who created art that was governed by the rules of nature, while at the same time transcended the context of its own existence and evoked beauty by superseding the senses of the observer. The genius was to be one whom beauty flowed from them so easily and effortlessly that it looked as if they were nature itself — a manner in which defied logical explanation or analytical reasoning, even to the artist themselves. While the art-object itself could be appreciated for its beauty after the process was over, the means of arriving at that point would forever remain a mystery, as if the artist was channeling ideas and forces from a higher power, unseen to the naked eye.
This definition tends to differ from the modern usage of the term “genius”, where the term is used to describe people of exceptional talent, intellect, or brilliance. Although the latter traits may have contributed to an artist’s genius, in its original meaning they were not necessarily prerequisites. As brilliant as Isaac Newton was, for example, Kant would not have considered him a genius because the mathematician was able to sufficiently explain the reasonings and procedures behind the processes that he had developed for himself and others. The art that a genius would create had to evoke something greater than mere explanation, pushing the limits of human understanding toward a higher, transcendental state of existence. (In this sense, J.S. Bach would not have been considered a genius as well, because he was able to explain his ideas about counterpoint and harmony through his pedagogical works such as The Art of Fugue and the Well-Tempered Clavier.)
Though probably unintentional, Kant is often credited for laying the theoretical groundwork for the concept of the “nation” and many ideas that have defined the characteristics of modern Western societies. As Europe’s nationalistic sentiments began to grow during the 19th Century, the idea of the “genius” began to gain traction among the political elite as a way to inspire regional provinces to unite towards a higher, common cause. As a result, the musical style that developed during that era became more grandiose, more expansive, and more idealistic, as to enshrine the glories and virtues of the nationalized state. Romanticism promised audiences what its feudal predecessors couldn’t — visions of a utopic world, free from the tyranny of oppression and the worries of civil strife.
World War I and World War II proved to be great disappointments for Europe’s nationalization project, as the emergence of mass-killings and rise of despotic dictatorships (Hitler and Stalin in particular) during the 20th Century made Romanticism seem nothing but a naive, adolescent dream. The warning signs embedded the in darker undertones of late-Romanticism largely went unheeded, and by the time WWI broke in Europe, contemporary music had by then moved toward the atonality and dissonances of the Second Viennese School, lead by Arnold Schoenberg.
Horrified by the atrocities committed during the World Wars, modern art attempted to change art’s purpose from political appropriation to one that was “critical” of authority and social norms. (The aesthetics of the Frankfurt School, lead by Theodore Adorno’s championing of Schoenberg, had one primary goal, “The Holocaust, never again.”) Nonetheless, despite experiencing dramatic shifts in ideology since the beginnings of the 20th Century, within the classical medium the genius narrative largely remained in tact. The creation of beauty was still tasked to the composer, and the rules of art were still governed by nature (environment) or natural law (e.g. science), as exemplified in the works of the experimental music tradition and the quasi-scientific approaches of the post-Webern serialists. As Modern music became more complex and more difficult to understand, it began to lose its appeal amongst the general public — this did not, however, bother many composers who pushed for that type of aesthetic anyway. Art was supposed to be beyond one’s ability to explain it, after all.
The myth-inspired stories that surrounded composers of the era (especially among cult figures such as Cage and Stockhausen) serve as reminders that Modernism had shared an intrinsic link from the ideologies of Romanticism, especially in regards to its performance-practice. While the ideals themselves may have changed, classical music was largely unable to abandon the notion that the composer should be treated as the messianic, enlightened figure who’s authority and vision was absolute. As a result, the aesthetics of Modern music gradually became more self-contradictory and self-destructive over time, as the authoritative practices of the composer directly contradicted the anti-authoritarian ideals that were embedded in the music itself. Even Adorno, for all of his intellectual prowess, was unable to escape the problems and contradictions of society that he had uncovered through his application of critical theory, and the vast majority of his ideas are, to this day, left largely unresolved. The philosopher often questioned if beauty was really ever possible again, or if there was really any hope for the future of Western civilization.
It’s difficult to say if the word “genius” really has any purpose in today’s society, as it seems to have lost all of its meaning due to its overuse. Nowadays the term has become synonymous with “a very talented person” or “a very intelligent person”, which can be used as a general complement but at that point the word itself holds very little descriptive value. The genius, having lost its political purpose, has now become relegated to the streets and forced to mingle with the commoners in order to make a living.
In the end this may be a good thing, as the term has and always been a social construct — a descriptor of an idea of what an artist ought to be, rather than who the artist really is. By its very description, society’s understanding of the genius will always be illusitory, and is not something anybody can acquire on their own accord. The definition of the term itself changes over time, always being beyond attainability, propelled by tales of mythology. Having known a few people who have driven themselves mad trying to reach such of state of existence, it may be wiser to simply abandon the term all together at this point.