Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Nature of Genius

I watched a documentary the other evening about someone whose work I have long admired and whom I view as a genius, Frank Lloyd Wright. I had read and seen much about Wright’s work and a little about his life, but this PBS documentary, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo, gave substantive weight to his personal life and demons. On the heels of watching an old 1970s-era interview with Woody Allen on the Dick Cavett Show, it got me to thinking about the nature of genius.

Frank Lloyd Wright, whose designs embody beauty, perception, clean lines, restfulness, a kind of light and music, was a man who took what he wanted personally without much reference for the feelings of others. He abandoned a wife and family for a sexual liaison and, later when his wife would not divorce him, co-habitation with the widow of a former client. This was an act so scandalous in his time that it cost him enormously for decades in terms of his career. Later, after her death, he took up with a woman 30 years his junior. More significant to me, personally, was the lopsided nature of his patronage relationship with Buffalo industrialist Darwin Martin. Through the years, Martin and Wright corresponded. Martin did not abandon Wright after the scandal, instead lending him money repeatedly and continuing to give him commissions. Though their financial positions reversed after the stock market crash of ’29 destroyed Martin’s fortune, Martin died still owed $70,000 by Wright, which was never repaid even though Martin’s daughter was forced to close the doors to the Martin family compound that Wright had designed and just walk away, a fact about which Wright seems to have had little or no compunction.

Woody Allen, arguably a cinematic genius, certainly a talented and unique voice in film, is another man whose art for me is stained by his personal failures. Then, there are Henry Ford and Wagner, men whose anti-Semitic views are totally unacceptable to me. Luckily for me, I am OK not admiring Ford, since his theatre of genius is one that I can largely ignore in my daily living even as I benefit from it. As for Wagner, while sections of his works stir me, overall, I find them so heavy-handed that I am quite comfortable striking him from my listening pantheon.

The word genius comes from the Romans. It has morphed quite a bit from the original concept to that which we know today. To the Romans, each man, woman, city, and home had its own genius (or, if a woman, juno), a guardian spirit attached to them from birth to death who gave them their gifts. The Romans sacrificed to these spirits on their birthdays.

I wonder if gifts of genius do require sacrifices? Perhaps they cannot coexist comfortably with everyday sensibilities. But after watching that documentary, I had very little doubt as to which was the better man. Darwin Martin, whose childhood had made him value family above all things, who cherished his wife, who was generous to others, and forbearing with his friends, won hands down over Wright. But it is the nature of human beings that it is Wright whose name has lived on and whose work cannot help but inspire.

My husband asked me today when we were discussing this topic if we require our geniuses to be more than average in all aspects. I felt instantly and definitively that that wasn’t it for me. It’s not that I expect geniuses to be more than the rest of us, but that, for me, the gifts of their genius, beautiful and alluring as they are, do not excuse them from standards in other areas. When they don’t meet the standards of basic human decency, their genius is tarnished.

In the end, I love Wright’s work so much that I can’t stop myself from admiring it, but when I see it from now on, I will also remember that without Darwin Martin, Wright would not have been able to go on, to get work, to have a roof over his head. Wright’s work is therefore, in my mind anyway, a monument to the work and love and faithfulness of another man too.


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