I recently watched a video featuring author Elizabeth Gilbert called “Your Elusive Creative Genius.” Elizabeth begins her Ted Talk session by raising concern that the modern creative has a reputation for being emotionally unstable. She notes that several artists since the twentieth century either committed suicide or were “undone” by their work. As a writer, Elizabeth is uncomfortable with this idea and wonders if it has to be this way. Better, she says, if we “encourage our great minds to live!”
Elizabeth looks to the past in order to offer a solution. She tells of ancient times, when people didn’t believe that creativity came from an individual, but rather from a divine outside source. In ancient Rome the word “genius” referred to a spirit that existed to assist the creator with his work, not the actual person. This “genius” protected the artist from both sides of pride: one could never fully take all the credit if the work was good, nor all the blame if the work was bad.
Elizabeth then fasts forward to the rise of rational humanism and points out that this new frame of mind put the individual as the source of creativity instead of an outside entity. She believes this mindset put too much responsibility on the artist himself and has been killing off great creative minds ever since. Elizabeth ends her talk by encouraging her listeners to dismiss the thought of their extraordinary aspects coming from themselves, but to believe that they are on loan from some “unimaginable source.”
I found this talk fascinating and absolutely agree with Elizabeth about today’s stereotype of an artist, having thought many a time myself that this modern age of human-centeredness has led to the devaluation of both art and the artist. As Elizabeth rightly points out, this narcissistic outlook has led to the destruction of both the successful and unsuccessful, as the former dissolves into meaninglessness and the latter into despair. What seems painfully obvious to me is this: humans were not created to be worshipped, but rather to be worshippers.
I appreciate Elizabeth’s reference to the ancient Greeks and Romans, especially the insight that the word “genius” used to be a divine outside source, not an individual. I might add that these words from the Creative Genius Himself, found in the book of Job, only enriches and fleshes out this concept:
Have you ever in your life commanded the morning,
And caused the dawn to know its place,
That it might take hold of the ends of the earth,
And the wicked be shaken out of it?
Have you entered into the springs of the sea
Or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
Or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you understood the expanse of the earth?
Tell Me, if you know all this. (Job 38:12-13, 16-18, NASB)
No, humans certainly are NOT creative geniuses! And yet this does not bind, but rather frees, at the realization that the true Creative Genius is not an elusive spirit or unknowable entity, but one God who has interacted with mankind on a personal level ever since His masterful creation of this world. He created man in His image to be creators themselves, that they might craft works that reflect His glory. These are the truths that give me joy and freedom in my own creative work, and dismiss the depressing modern idea that I am an end to myself. Instead, I say with Job, “Behold, I am insignificant. What can I reply to you? I lay my hand on my mouth,” (Job 40:4) and sing with the psalmist, “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for His name alone is exalted; His glory is above earth and heaven.” (Psalm 138:13, NASB)