Nature of Genius: standing on the shoulders of giants or genes?

Thursday 21 October, 7.00pm until 8.30pm, Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2BS

Venue: Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2BS

Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Academy of Ideas website.

From Bach to the Beatles, the image of the prodigious genius effortlessly composing masterpiece after masterpiece holds a romantic sway over the popular imagination. Whether one believes Kierkegaard when he says, ‘geniuses are like thunderstorms…they go against the wind, terrify people, cleanse the air,’ or Schopenhauer’s claim that ‘genius aims at sights that others can’t see’, artistic genius tends to be regarded as a special force of nature, which makes the extraordinary look ordinary. With that comes the acceptance that geniuses don’t play by the same rules as ordinary folk: what else other than their sublime talent could allow us to enjoy the work despite Wagner’s anti-Semitism, Ezra Pound’s involvement with fascism or Phil Spector’s conviction for murder?

Yet while works of genius are notoriously hard to define, geneticists argue we are moving closer to decoding the talent gene, whilst a link is regularly drawn between genius and autism or other mental disorders. As a counter to this apparently deterministic view, books such as David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated seemingly confirm Edison’s intuition that genius – whether on the sports field or in the conservatoire and exhibition space - really is 1% inspiration and 99% (or 10,000 hours of) perspiration. Yet with the inspiration behind genius so often claimed to stem from intense spiritual devotion or an obsessive quest for aesthetic perfection – both seemingly anathema to rationalist, secular 21st century society – some doubt modern Western culture will ever again be able to produce a true genius capable of standing above his or her contemporaries in the way previous generations have.

What do we understand by genius in the 21st century? Is it a sum-total of DNA or a more subtle configuration of individual talent and the historical moment? Is genius something that is of its time or outside of it? What part does society play in the formation of genius and what potential does our current society have for ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’ and nurturing the geniuses of the future?

Rachel Halliburton
deputy editor, Time Out London; theatre writer, Independent, Financial Times and Evening Standard

Professor Colin Lawson
director, Royal College of Music; period clarinettist; author, Mozart: Clarinet Concerto and Brahms: Clarinet Quintet

David Lister
arts editor and founder member, Independent; fellow, Royal Society of Arts

Munira Mirza
advisor on arts and philanthropy; former deputy mayor of London for education and culture; author, The Politics of Culture: the case for universalism

Matthew Syed
former Olympian; columnist, The Times; author, Bounce: how champions are made

Matt Warman
new technology journalist, Daily Telegraph

Martin Butlin
retired art historian; author of catalogue raisonnés for JMW Turner and William Blake

Dr Shirley Dent
communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor,; author, Radical Blake

Produced by
Dr Shirley Dent communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor,; author, Radical Blake
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Recommended readings
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Shirley Dent, Prospect, 16 October 2010

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Philip Hensher, Independent, 7 August 2010

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Annie Murphy Paul, New York Times, 19 March 2010

Outliers: The Story of Success

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Malcolm Gladwell, Penguin, 24 June 2009

Tradition and the Individual Talent

In English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence. We cannot refer to “the tradition” or to “a tradition”; at most, we employ the adjective in saying that the poetry of So-and-so is “traditional” or even “too traditional.”

T.S. Eliot,, 1920

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