Tim Burton and the myth of the lone genius

We like to believe that great artists follow their muse, not the crowd – but far more radical and original work is produced when they listen and collaborate

Great artists, everyone agrees, listen to their own idiosyncratic muses. They don’t trim their art to please either elitist snobs or the ignorant masses.

When critics suggested recently that Tim Burton should consider casting more black people in his films, defenders were quick to rally to him. They muttered darkly about the PC police and the threat to individual genius which might result from kowtowing to the diversity zeitgeist.

More cheerfully, Kellogg’s recently released a Twitter meme showing Alfonso Ribeiro and Tony the Tiger dancing “like nobody’s watching”. Unselfconscious artistic expression is free, joyful, different and grrrrreat!, as Tony might say. Don’t let the haters squash your joy; listen to the quiet inner voice telling you to dance like a Tiger, or to cast only white people in your films.

But isn’t there a disconnect here? If a chorus of people are shouting at geniuses to listen to their hearts, should a genius like Burton listen to all those people telling him to listen to his heart? When Apple declares, “Think different,” it seems clear that “thinking different” is not “thinking different” at all. Ignoring the crowd doesn’t make you idiosyncratic. It just makes you into a marketing meme.

The painful fact is that the idea of art as idiosyncratic genius is far from idiosyncratic; it’s been around for some time. In his wonderful book Art and Homosexuality, Christopher Reed traces the concept to the mid-19th century: “Artistic priorities shifted during this period away from skills and knowledge acquired by academic study and toward expression of a personality type defined by ambition, adventurousness, rebelliousness, and constant innovation.” Rather than a craft and a skill, art became a spontaneous effusion of essential inner brilliance. This was the start of the concept of the avant garde: the accepted wisdom that insists that great artists buck accepted wisdom.

Lisa-Kainde Diaz, Halle Bailey, Naomi Diaz, Beyonce, Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya (bottom) and Chloe Bailey in Lemonade.
Collective power: Lisa-Kainde Diaz, Halle Bailey, Naomi Diaz, Beyoncé, Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya (bottom) and Chloe Bailey in Lemonade. Photograph: Beyoncé: Lemonade

To see how accepted the avant garde has become, you need only look to Hollywood, where appreciation for a codified canon of intensely personal expression has become one of the cliched attributes of heroism. The genius anarchist V in V for Vendetta is presented as an awesome super-intelligence because he likes the standard cultural things that geniuses are supposed to like, from Shakespeare to Billie Holiday.

Similarly, in the recent film The Accountant, the autistic savant superspy hero, played by Ben Affleck, collects canonical think-different art, including Renoir and, inevitably, Jackson Pollock. When Affleck gazes at Pollock, the viewer is supposed to understand that he is brilliant, deep, unusual. Pollock’s bold swooping brushstrokes and daring defiance of convention are a Hollywood convention: a lazy shorthand for “different”.

In fiction, art and taste equal Pollock. In reality, numerous artists have rejected the tropes of idiosyncratic genius, focusing instead on collaboration and community. David Wojnarowicz’s films, photographs and writing insistently addressed the oppression and silencing of gay men during the Aids crisis. More recently, Beyoncé’s Lemonade was intentionally rooted in the artist’s experience as a black woman; the album and film were presented not as an effusion of isolated genius, but as an expression of community and solidarity. Analogously, fan fiction writers don’t present themselves as creating out of untrammeled internal genius. Instead, they consciously write about beloved characters for other people who also love those characters.

Of course, people often sneer at fan fiction precisely for lack of originality. But using corporate characters to make your art isn’t any less original than uncritically signing onto a corporate slogan like “think different”. With all the numbingly unoriginal calls for artists to be original, there’s something refreshingly honest about art that admits its investment in other people’s work, other people’s opinions, and other people’s imaginations. Isn’t it better to just say “I care what you think” than to engage in some sort of roundabout double-think, where you flatter your audience by loudly telling them you aren’t paying attention to them?

Art is a form of communication; it’s created, in the vast majority of cases, to be viewed, or read, or listened to, by other people. We’re not all stuck in some cliched, indifferently written Ayn Rand novel; the artist isn’t a brave genius soul defying the conventional herd.

On the contrary, the conventional herd greets artists who present themselves as brave, genius souls with enthusiastic accolades. It’s when artists like Wojnarowicz and Beyoncé present themselves as members of, and advocates for, marginal, despised communities that their work is greeted with outrage, contempt, and protest. The bourgeoisie love the individual; it’s the collective that makes them nervous.

When Burton decides not to put people of color in his films, that’s not an expression of some avant garde inner impulse to whiteness locked in his inviolable individual artist brain. It’s just the usual bland, low-key Hollywood racism, which sees human beings as white by default, and worries that too many actors of color will depress box office turnout.

There’s nothing especially noble or individual about aligning yourself with whiteness and corporate groupthink, just as there’s nothing especially noble or individual about aligning yourself with individualism. Everybody, after all, is an individual. The cult of thinking different is pervasive. But still, strong-minded artists can distinguish themselves by carefully choosing whom they listen to, whom they speak to, and whom they love.


Noah Berlatsky

The GuardianTramp

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