The arts are full of abusive narcissists, people who are “soooo talented” that we’re told we have to overlook their bad behaviour and cherish their scarce genius. We have some prominent examples before us currently, but it plays out everywhere. These people are in every arts community, and they are endlessly destructive.

They hoard resources and connections, they cut down their peers, they support no one but themselves.  Anyone who contradicts them is ostracized, shouted down, shut out. You don’t kiss the appropriate  ass, or – god forbid! – you offer an honest critical opinion of their work.  Suddenly you can’t access cheap rehearsal space,  you can’t find collaborators, you can’t get media attention or a favourable review.  You can’t even get a beer at your local, because the artist-bartenders have decided that you don’t get served. And other people in the community are afraid to challenge, afraid to criticize, just plain afraid.

These “geniuses” are often performing artists, but I’ve seen the same thing grow up around administrators, or bookers, or anyone in the arts.

A cult of personality builds up around these people; they’re so talented, so insightful, and yes, they’re a little handsy, or cruel, or crazy-making to work with, but so talented! And you know, all brilliant artists are self-destructive, selfish, crazy; they burn hard and bright and short.  You want a little of that fire for yourself, or to warm yourself by it.  Maybe this person is the next Van Gogh, the next James Dean, and you want to bask in their light once they make it.

But you know what? Fuck that.  There are too many talented, decent human beings out there, and they’re too easy to find, to claim that that’s true. Talent and skill, so long treated as a scarce commodity, is all around us in abundance. This cult of the brilliant douchebag, the bitchy diva, the asshole genius, is the worst product of the Enlightenment, and it’s utter bullshit. I know hundreds – HUNDREDS – of people who could be as charming and engaging an interviewer as JG1 seemed to be if they were given a chance, but who also are decent human beings who wouldn’t then use their platform to violently abuse scores of people.

I’ve heard certain successful people described as ‘the goose that lays the golden egg,’ as though they were born a magical, otherwordly creature with powers beyond our ken.  The truth is that they’re just people who’ve developed some skills.  Almost anyone could, if they had the right support.  Artists aren’t magic; art is work.  Skilled work, to be sure.  But still just work.2

How many times have I heard bookers say “They’re assholes, but you gotta book them, because they draw.”
How many times have I been ‘tsk-tsked’ by older bookers because I refuse to book artists that I know are assholes to work with, as though I’m some naive child for thinking that good art can be created by good people?3
How often have I watched talented people struggle and fail to get the recognition their work merits, while the careers of less-talented assholes take off?

It seems that if you’re not willing to cosy up to monsters and their syncophants, your career suffers.

People say to me “That’s just the way it works, Candace.” But we’re the people in charge of that; we are the arts community, we are the audiences, we are the bookers, the producers, the publicists, writers, editors, and directors.  We choose who and how people are presented, where we spend our budgets, and we choose our priorities.  We don’t need the assholes; they need us. And when we help them succeed, it’s at the expense of helping decent, talented people. Whatever receives nurture grows; previous generations have nurtured assholes and abusers, but we don’t have to perpetuate their mistake.

I am so angry right now; I’ve seen this play out over and again over the past twenty years, and I’m fucking fed up with it.

I think it’s time to smash this system and stop acting like talent is so scarce that we’ve got to cherish it in douchebags. It’s not; we’re surrounded by people who are brilliant, skilled, talented, and more than that, decent.

I know we can do better than this.  And I know that we have the power to do better than this.

  1. Yeah, this is about him, but it’s not just about him, y’know? []
  2. Yes, each of us is a unique individual who brings unique perspectives to what we do, but that’s true of everything, not just art.  You as a person are special; artists as a group or classification aren’t. []
  3. If I’ve booked a band, and I say after they’ve played that they’re “great to work with,” that’s some of the highest praise I can give. []
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3 Responses to On the cult of genius.

  1. Glen Burg says:

    I hear ya, Candace, and I thank you for writing a thoughtful and thought-provoking blog entry. I’m lucky that I participate in an arts community where good people far outnumber difficult ones… Heck, the difficult ones are so rare, I can’t think of any right now. Currently playing in the Jordan Musycsyn Band (hard country with a rock edge, first album is pressed and set for release at the end of November), and you can easily see as to how the crowd responds to Jordan being an all-around nice guy… and it helps that we’re virtually all approachable as band members (even sometimes when we’re busy concentrating on getting the gig done right (laughs)).

    Perhaps some people think “someone must be good because (s)he has the guts to treat others badly” (a variation on the old “I believe in him because he obviously believes in himself” mentality). Thankfully, enough music fans around here see things differently.

  2. Candid Candice! You are so right, drives me nuts too. I’m ‘talented’. It’s 8% talent, 99% 33 years of hard slog, dedication and training (Ok I was never good at Math!), and I still fight, like most of us, to be paid even half the correct amount for that level of training. Sometimes I think it would be better to put on an “asshole” act because at least it makes you memorable.

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