What counts as genius? Who gets to be one? Some individuals possess a creative/intellectual talent that far exceeds average and are capable of harnessing this ability in some mode of expression be it science, literature, art, or music. Should this chosen medium of expression change the world, or influence a great many people, it might be considered the work of a genius.

Yet there are some modes of expression that seem to fall outside of the rubric of a potential genius. Personality (or what we call personality but is really a controlled every-day expression of the self to the outside world; a creative endeavor), is one example. Pedagogy might be another (I do not refer to the author of some kind of school text, but the possibility of a genius talent to inspire learning). What about acting? Can an actor be a genius at his or her craft? Every single physical movement is a creative choice after all– is the mind of a genius applied to this art form somehow “less than” compared a genius who paints?

“Genius” is a title reserved for those who have access to some kind of preservable (usually institutionalized) medium, so that they can be celebrated in historical retrospect. This occurs because intellectual cowards fear their contemporary convictions and find comfort in dead artists whose corpses shield elitists from the possibility of error.

Therefore, a free-style dancer cannot be a genius no matter how creative, innovative and exceptional their talent. A choreographer, however, with the money and resources to have a dance company learn, perform and save their dance has a chance of the title. The “great” choreographer, in other words, can be embalmed in a way the free-style dancer cannot.

Women especially– who have been historically institutionally barred from elite, artistic, canonic endeavors– are often limited to an expression of genius in the artistic medium of the body.

I believe the body (the voice, gesture, movement, expression, posture etc.) can be an expression of genius. With film, photography and sound recording the body-genius of women and men is preservable for the first time. We can finally canonize exceptional physical genius, sometimes so profound it has the power to reshape a culture. Elvis Presley’s quite self-aware vocal performance, shakes, and snarls–which have had just as much to do with the American transformation as the music of Fats Domino, prose of Karouac, or poetry of Hughes –is an exquisite example.

In an earlier post, I had quoted Wendy Lesser who gave voice to my aversion towards the glorification of Marilyn Monroe. She writes in His Other Half: Men Looking at Women Through Art:

“There’s something very depressing about setting out to write about Marilyn Monroe. It’s not that her life was so sad, or that so much has already been written about her, or that the inevitable tendency in writing about her is toward excess, exaggeration, and a certain degree of inauthenticity–though all these things are true. The problem is that the closer you look at Marilyn Monroe, the harder it is to see her….At the center of all this commotion, where there should be some tremendous motivating force, there is instead an empty hole. And that, if you take it seriously, is extremely depressing.”

I no longer agree. Is Marilyn Monroe’s “center” not absent (which is lazily assumed), but opaque to both Lesser and myself, who don’t have the terms or the categories to deal with a talent as colossal as Monroe’s? Lesser’s theory of the “empty hole” is arrogant and weak. Because Lesser cannot dominate Monroe’s center into language, she simply decides it must not be there.

The fact remains, her body– not just the biological form of it– but her usage of it, is one of the most riveting in cultural history. There are many beautiful women in the world, but few approach Monroe’s divinity. She is a Pagan Goddess.

Why did Monroe affect us so much? When we observe her, are we witnessing an act of genius?

You might be thinking that these photographs have more to do with the photographer than Monroe, but I disagree. Her personae— an invention of her own– is not up for grabs. The photographer hopes only to capture what makes Monroe Monroe. It is she who is ultimately the mastermind of any portrait.

Of course, the fact that Monroe and John F. Kennedy had an affair makes her birthday crooning of cultural interest by default, but this moment, above many others that may have been equally anecdotal, is the supreme moment of history:

Monroe created that moment with her body/personae. Like it or not, her body– in its infinite expressions of personae– is an enduring work of art, designed at once by nature and the mind of a great human creator.

“She was part queen, part waif, sometimes on her knees before her own body and sometimes despairing because of it — “Oh, there’s lots of beautiful girls,” she would say to some expression of awed amazement, as though her beauty betrayed her quest for a more enduring acceptance.”
-Arthur Miller

Marilyn Monroe is an American genius.

How might women in general be regarded differently if the category of “genius” is expanded?