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Interview with Christine Battersby

I saw three cities kay sage architectural review

We speak to philosopher Christine Battersby about the historic erasure of matrilineal lines of cultural inheritance and the notion of the genius

Where do our contemporary ideas of genius come from?

There are a few different understandings of the concept of genius that remain current. We first come across the word genius in Latin as the divine aspect of maleness that was passed down from the ancient Roman patriarch to his sons male and heirs. The genius was also the spirit that watched over the lands of the male family clan – we still have remnants of this ancient understanding of genius in contemporary art theory, with genius loci. Whenever theorists or artists rely on such a notion, there is a tendency to link the ‘spirit of place’ with the traditions of male creators, who are regarded as embodying the essence of a culture, ethnicity or nation. We need to be aware of its capacity to write out of history matrilineal lines of cultural inheritance.

A second, quite different, tradition was linked to the Latin word ingenium – think ingenuity, talent and skill. Our current notions of genius come out of the overlap and tensions between the two different traditions.

Another tradition involves treating genius as a personality-type: often an ‘outsider’ who is near to madness. There is, in principle, no reason why the inspired and crazy genius figure might not be a woman, but in both popular and high culture it is rare to find a great woman artist portrayed in these terms.

Why is it so rare to see a woman artist portrayed as a genius in that sense?

What I argued in Gender and Genius was that the typical genius was described in terms that expected him to have the body and the developmental history of a male, plus supernormal characteristics (an excess of emotion, imagination, sensitivity and intuition) that are in our culture normally associated with women.

I should add that my argument has often been understood by those who suppose that I was putting forward a notion of genius that was based on biological essentialism, but that was never my claim. Deciding that a person is ‘male’ or ‘female’ has not always been done in an identical way in different cultures and at different points in history. We are not dealing here with straightforward biological ‘givens’, but instead with the categorisation of an embodied self, based on the way that that person’s body is perceived.

The genius was, in effect, a ‘feminine male’, and by the end of the 19th century, it had become a cliché to assert with Cesare Lombroso in The Man of Genius (1891) that ‘there are no women of genius; the women of genius are men’.

‘With the change in values brought about by industrialisation, males began to covet stock descriptions of femininity, and began to appropriate that vocabulary’

Why are ‘feminine’ characteristics valued in men but not in women?

It has to do with treating the genius as a sort of super-male, having to be both male and transcend the normal male subject position. It’s really in the 18th century that things changed, and everything changed at about the same time. If you’re thinking about masculinity prior to the 18th century, it was the men who wore make-up, who had wigs and breeches, whereas women were often positioned as wild or as witches. For centuries, male philosophers had described women in ways that made them inferior: as emotional, instinctive, moved by nature rather than by reason, but with the change in values brought about by industrialisation, males began to covet stock descriptions of femininity, and began to appropriate that vocabulary.

For a time those descriptions of the genius and woman were so close as to suggest that women would be likely to be the greatest geniuses, if only they could be released from their domestic duties. But as qualities previously despised as feminine were re-valued and re-ascribed to the ‘geniuses’, so the stereotype of woman also changed – once the sexually greedy, over-emotional, over-imaginative and frenzied sex, women now found themselves portrayed as naturally sexless, gentle, domestic and nurturative.

This account of the genius as outsider, as super-male, also tends to fuse with a third model of genius, what I call the ‘virility theory of creativity’, which appeals to an underlying physiological reason for the ability of the unconscious to take over the consciousness of an artist. Here it is explicitly claimed that it is the male sexual energies that are sublimated in the production of great artistic – or also scientific or mathematical – inventions.

Why are women considered unable to sublimate?

Freud has been a special influence here, and the Freudian woman is psychically unsuited for the tasks of cultural production as opposed to those of biological reproduction. Freud says that women’s ‘shame’ produces their one real cultural achievement (weaving) – needed to cover their genital ‘lack’ – and even this is not ascribed to sublimation, and hence to genius, but to the imitation of nature, and hence to craft.

There’s this notion, that carries on in many ways, that women are trapped by their biology, whereas men are able to transcend their biology. All that language to do with production and reproduction, creation and re-creation: it was thought that women had hormones that locked them into biological reproduction in a way that men are not subject to.

‘It is significant to note that there are models for creation other than those that dominate thinking about creativity in the West’

How have notions of genius been formulated more recently?

Today, it’s a combination of two traditions, both having adherence in different situations. There is genius as talent, linking to skill, or even to a high IQ which is a strange notion – quite dominant in areas such as psychology and some of the sciences – and there is the genius as outsider, which is much more common in the arts.

There is another notion still employed today, much more pragmatic and the only one that I defend (in a limited sense) as useful for a feminist aesthetics. A person’s cultural achievement is evaluated and assessed against an appropriate background of artistic genres and traditions. The ‘genius’ is the person whose work both marks the boundary between the old way and the new way within the tradition, and which also has lasting value and significance. Of course, we must also recognise that not all humans have the same sensibilities, and that the multiple traditions of art cannot all be aligned onto a single graph of excellence.

‘The individual cannot function creatively without a dynamic relation to others who interact with them’

Clearly, in terms of the way that the history of modern architecture has been narrated, this notion of ‘traditions’ has been of greatest importance. It is of significance that, in terms of the way that the past has been parcelled up and divided into traditions within architecture, the genius-figures who are labelled as originators have almost all been male. This model of architectural history has since been shattered with the Postmodernist fracturing of the monolith of Modernism. But as Arthur Drexler remarked – without a trace of irony – in his Transformations in Modern Architecture: ‘Now that imitation is no longer focused on the work of three or four great pioneering figures, the movement of ideas is less from father to son and more from brother to brother’. The Postmodernist ‘families’ remain linkings of males.

How does this then become useful in a feminist sense?

In Gender and Genius, I set out to draw attention to women artists whose achievements have been overlooked, along with matrilineal lines of influence that have been screened out of cultural history, but which can suddenly become visible or audible as our expectations begin to shift. These days, many people would say they want to get rid of the notion of genius, but it’s inescapable. Often it’s now disguised in the way people talk about creativity: they say they don’t believe in genius any more, but the concept of ‘creativity’ is doing all the work that the term ‘genius’ used to do.

‘Creativity is social and interactive, arising out of the activities, thoughts and insights of an individual, but also within situations and complex histories in which other human beings are intimately implicated’

In that sense, I am not arguing straightforwardly for getting rid of the notion of genius, but rather for thinking of it in terms of an evaluative category. Insofar as some notion of genius continues to operate in our culture (as it most certainly does), it’s appropriate to extend its scope to include women, as well as those in marginalised races, ethnicities and locations, along with the many art-forms and ‘crafts’ that are sidelined by artistic institutions and taste-shapers.

I feel that in that sense, in terms of the recognition of women or otherwise marginalised artists, we are now at a very different stage in history from that when I was writing – a stage that I was only imagining at the time.

Where does the limit lie in the defence of this evaluative notion of genius?

An observation that is too often overlooked in the accounts of the processes and attributes of creativity that emphasise ‘genius’ and originality – the dominant sense of which implies the creation of something out of nothing – is that creative individuals are not atomistic and isolated units. Instead, creativity is social and interactive, arising out of the activities, thoughts and insights of an individual, but also within situations and complex histories in which other human beings are intimately implicated.

There is a contribution that the individual human being makes to the creativity of a society and its history, but the individual cannot function creatively without a dynamic relation to others who interact with them. Creativity is the product of different shaping forces: the individual, the community and shared histories that emerge from it; and the interactions between the individuals and the social, technical and environmental niches that both individuals and communities inhabit.

Are there other models for creativity that depart from this tradition?

It is significant to note that there are models for creation other than those that dominate thinking about creativity in the West. One example is mitate, a Japanese artistic technique involving a layering of references to historical or fictional events or ideas. This goes together with the concept of ma, common in Japanese aesthetics. Ma can be translated into English as space, interval, gap, blank, room, rest, time, or opening – in effect, it’s a relational term which makes the empty spaces that exist between objects more important than the objects that are placed within the space. Colleen Lanki puts it as potential, or as tension, and it is out of that tension that creativity emerges. This also involves thinking about the self in relational terms – something for which I argue in my later books.

Lead image: I Saw Three Cities by Kay Sage, 1944 from the cover of Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics, Christine Battersby

The AR March 2020 issue on Masculinities + W Awards is available to purchase – click here to buy your copy today