Winter 2000

The myth of genius

The myth of genius – which promotes the artist as a lone, (even mad) pioneer – emerged when craftsmen first strove to become respected members of an elite. But before designers get too excited about winning the status of the artist, perhaps some caution is required.

In an essay entitled “God’s little artist” [1], art historians Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock examine how the myth of the genius as a creative individual is tied to the emergence of a new meaning for the word “artist.” Until the eighteenth century the term was applied to an artisan, craftsman, or someone who displayed taste. Parker and Pollock maintain that the modern perception (which developed from the Enlightenment onwards) of the artist as imaginative, creative, unconventional – a bohemian and a pioneer – is a constructed idea that came into being as certain craftsmen strove to become more respected members of the cultural elite.

In an interesting parallel, graphic design is increasingly encroaching upon the thought processes and spaces once designated for art, and its practitioners are calling themselves artists. This is bound up with the desire, over the past twenty years, to earn for graphic design the status of a “legitimate” discipline, a liberal art alongside respected fields such as architecture. Giant leaps have been made towards uncovering its history and bringing critical theory and other rigorous methods to bear upon it. As this has progressed, there has been a tendency to blur the boundaries between graphic design and art [2]. Critical discussions on this subject have often focused upon “graphic authorship,” one of the most prominent coming from Michael Rock in “The designer as author” (Eye no. 20 vol. 5). Rock states: “The figure of the author reconfirms the traditional idea of the genius creator; the status of the creator frames the work and imbues it with mythical value.” Rock compares this with film’s auteur theory which emerged at a time – the 1950s – when film and film critics were seeking to elevate its status from popular entertainment to work of art. The basic assumption was that if one can identify an “artist” behind a work, then one can call the product art.

Despite Parker and Pollock’s view, the figure of the maverick graphic designer is a cliché that’s hard to delete. Even when the word “genius” is not uttered, its myths are everywhere, reproduced by design critics, journalists and designers themselves. John A. Walker’s Design History and the History of Design notes that the process of canonisation first requires an increasingly high profile and suggestions of future greatness from a number of sources. True canonisation occurs once a single positive source resonates within the design community [3].

Genius checklist

Characteristics routinely associated with genius include the following:

1. the creator – usually artist, writer or scientist – who rises above the ordinary mortal, acquiring a semi-divine status, in past times as a messenger for “the original creator,” God

2. the individual – a pioneering, solitary non-conformist

3. the madman – links between genius and madness are legion

4. the intuitive person – whose work is “natural” and unlearnt and hence cannot be analysed

5. the pioneer – who is ahead of his or her (but rarely “her”) time and possibly a misunderstood or tortured soul (see 3 above)

The author as editor

In “What is an author?” [4], Michel Foucault says we are “accustomed to presenting the author as a genius.” We see the author as the “genial creator” of work in which he gives us, “with infinite wealth and generosity,” an inexhaustible world of meanings. (Being “creative” always has a positive ring, whatever is produced!) Foucault says that the author does not “precede” the work: ideas and meanings are already there and the author’s role is to “choose,” to filter and synthesise to create output. (Foucault also emphasises “limiting” and “excluding”). The author’s role is to limit the proliferation of meanings and present a personal view of the world. Yet the “genius author” is represented as a continual source of invention – the opposite of his genuine function.

Michael Howe, in Genius Explained [5] suggests genius is not natural, but the result of hard work, perseverance and the stubbornness to struggle on where others give up. Fran Cottell, in her essay “The cult of the individual” [6], says “the idea perpetuated by the art market that individual geniuses arrive out of nowhere . . . is convenient but untrue. Artists invariably arrive at artistic solutions as a result of . . . social influences as well as for intellectual reasons.” Innate talent, the “fresh eye” that artists are supposed to have, has been debunked by Pierre Bourdieu in his 1996 book The Rules of Art [7], suggesting it is the result of early upbringing or training. Brigit Fowler paraphrases Bourdieu’s most challenging idea that “the whole history of Modernism has been one in which only those avant-garde artists who were centrally located and who had the time to spend on their experiments were the ones who won out” [8]. Women and non-Western artists have been largely excluded. Between them, feminists and postmodernist theorists have pretty much debunked the myths of genius. But has that made a difference? In graphic design practice, as opposed to theory, the genius idea is still accepted, and convenient, with little sense of being a myth.

Big men, any women?

Within the personal projects by graphic designers we so often see the same striving for genius status: the wish to be seen as inspired visionaries, individuals, self-taught ingenues, pioneers and/or simply mad. So, although personal expression has become increasingly prevalent in graphic design, the personality behind the work is more often important than the so-called personal “content.” Scribbles in a sketchpad don’t have the same appeal if you can’t attach a “name” such as Ed Fella. And though there have always been big names within the industry, it was the 1980s that created the “design star.” Now designers such as Tomato, Bruce Mau, Peter Saville, John Maeda, Fuel and the “brand-named” Mr Keedy are the consumerables. Neville Brody, who for a while seemed to have been consumed by his own myth, has remodelled himself as a visionary with his post-linguistic alphabet systems. The same applies to art world figures, too. Graphic design is not simply drifting towards art, but both art and design are merging somewhere in the media world.

David Carson, the übermeister of celebrity graphic design, is often discussed as pandering to the “great artist” myth, though his work doesn’t so much exhibit personal content as personalise the way he works, through “intuition,” or spiritual insight. All designers use this to some extent, but for Carson it is the whole process. His book 2ndsight [10] gives the process authority with phrases such as “what gives unity and coherence to intuition is truth,” and cites an issue of New York magazine [11] in which a headline declared Carson to be God. (Helpfully, the book points out that this is not true). Therein lies Carson’s great talent: he draws on the myths of genius with the handy disclaimer that, since “intuition” is not an academic theory, it is not something you can analyse. Carson is presented as being self-taught, working alone – in particular when living in the one-horse (surely one-designer) towns of Del Mar and San Diego, California – and uninfluenced by the aesthetic emerging from Cranbrook at around the same time. 2ndsight tells us that if anything, he only had a spirit in common with Hard Werken in the Netherlands and Terry Jones at iD in the UK, of whom he had little knowledge at the time. What is interesting about Carson – or any other design star – is that, just as theoreticians often pander to authors, the design world panders to him because the way he presents himself and his creative process is often cannibalised by his very presence as a charismatic figure. As with the academic world, names and theories (Carson’s talk about his working method is just a theory) may change, but the way in which we are dazzled by each one will not.

So that’s what you mean by body of work

Many examples of graphics with “personal vision” deliberately avoid drawing attention to the individuals behind them, lest they obscure the idea – in particular ideas that spring from personal convictions but where the focus is on society’s betterment. The contemporary feminist collective Cunst Art works on this theory – their work is similar in spirit to the Atelier Populaire, who self-produced impromptu posters during the May 1968 revolution in Paris. The Guerrilla Girls have exposed male domination of the art world, notably in the poster “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” As their name suggests, the work is anonymous/collaborative, though their gorilla masks helped gain the cause recognition in the celebrity sphere.

Yet despite the equality – in terms of numbers – promised by celebrity culture, a parallel with the poster can be drawn in that it’s still largely a woman’s body, not mind, that is available for consumption. Many artists of the past 30 years have used the body to address this in a critical way. These ideas often sprung from the feminist saying “the personal is political.” Traditionally the domestic sphere was seen as female and “trivial,” while male concerns and interests were “of the world.” So the personal and domestic is equally important because it is the arena in which the inequalities of the world are played out.

Exploring these areas has been a part of the liberation project – but not the only one – and in a wider sense the body has been used as a symbol for personal concerns. Yet in tune with the mainstream media, focusing upon the body always attracts the most attention. April Greiman, who has recently become a Pentagram partner, has been a force in graphic design for three decades, but the one image of her work to which everyone returns is her poster for Design Quarterly [12] where the dominant image is her naked body. Turn to the “Cutting Edge” [13] book on Greiman: it is the first image on the introductory page.

The personal is political

Where a designer might once have waited a generation to have their work canonised (except for Paul Rand), designers now race to establish a persona within the industry by publishing their own projects. Look at Attik, DED, and any number of youngish designers following the Tomato/Fuel model. Milk’s Sneakers: Size Isn’t Everything [14] was a self-initiated project which ended up as a collection of visuals and writing on trainers by more than 100 contributors where Milk played the role of . . . designer/art directors. To pull the project back to focus upon themselves, Milk included a taxi-cab conversation in which the idea was first mooted. Evidently written after the event, the dialogue showed their need to “personalise” a project that was anything but. This contrasts with designers or activists such as Reclaim The Streets, who use underground tactics to challenge the mainstream monopoly – not just get into it. In a culture where the persona is merely PR, perhaps anonymous graphics can be more personal than a signed statement.

In a reversal of the genius myth, feminism is now part of the canon in academic circles but hideously unfashionable in the design industry. But the idea that “the personal is political” is important: it is surely as much at the root of the desire for personal expression in graphics as the art metaphor usually cited. In fact, it allows us to see “personal work” in a way that is more positive and productive than the self-aggrandising and ultimately conservative myth of genius.


1. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 82-113.

2. Rick Poynor, Design Without Boundaries: Visual Communication in Transition. London: Booth-Clibborn, 1998.

3. John A. Walker, Design History and the History of Design. London: Pluto Press, 1989. Walker paraphrases Juan Bonta from his book Architecture and its Interpretation (1979).

4. Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought. London: Penguin, 1991, pp. 118-9.

5. Michael Howe, author of genius Explained, quoted in The Independent 15 April 2000.

6. Katy Deepwell, ed., New Feminist Art Criticism: Critical Strategies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995, p. 87.

7. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Cambridge: Polity, 1996.

8. Brigit Fowler, “Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture.” Variant vol. 2 no. 8 summer 1999, p. 4.

9. Geoff Danaher, Tony Schirato and Jen Webb, Understanding Foucault. London: Sage, 2000. (A definition of Foucault’s “author function”).

10. David Carson with Lewis Blackwell, 2ndsight; Design after the end of print. London: Laurence King, 1997.

11. This appeared at the time of a talk by Carson at The Cooper Union, New York, ca. January 1996.

12. April Greiman, “Does it make sense?” Design Quarterly no. 13, 1986, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

13. Liz Farrelly, ed., April Greiman: Floating Ideas into Time and Space. London: Thames and Hudson Cutting Edge, 1998, p. 8.

14. Milk, Sneakers: Size Isn’t Everything. London: Booth-Clibborn, 1998.

First published Eye no. 38 vol. 10, 2000

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