It’s a word that’s used a lot in the arts world, but what does it actually mean? We asked six of Australia’s leading artists.

The word ‘genius’ is used a lot when it comes to the arts – a subject matter that is generally discussed using superlatives. But what is it that makes an artist a genius? What qualities do they possess and how do they achieve this highest level of praise? We asked six of Australia’s leading artists to give us their definition.

Genius to me is the ability to see the future today. These brilliant people lead us along the path toward tomorrow, presenting ideas, works of art or theories that change the way we see the world – but, after experiencing them, also seem completely inevitable, making us wonder why that particular idea or work had never been thought of before.

I think most people whom I would put in this category are also completely enthralled in the process of learning and discovery. They explore and create, fulfilling an inner need or desire rather than being fuelled by an obsession with fame or notoriety. I think the word ‘genius’ is often used but only rarely earned.

I believe the term Creative Genius in the theatre refers to someone who possesses the ability either through performance, direction or design to reveal to its audience something about themselves or the time in which they live that they have never seen or felt before.

Theatre is an experience – a shared experience. It is an experience that cannot be made in isolation, by nature it must be collaborative. I think the word genius is problematic in theatre because of this reason – whilst one person may have the vision, it takes a group of very talented people to bring this vision to life.

However I think some performers can be described as possessing a creative genius, I think Cate Blanchett is one because of her consistent ability to embody the truth of a character with such strong physical skill as well as a mysterious emotionally transformative power. Maybe that is something at the core of the word genius – that there is some mysterious power at play that we don’t quite understand but we revere. The word genius says more about the society that attaches the word to the artists than the artist themselves, I think it reflects what we collectively want to adore. And I would like to point out it is a word very rarely used in reference to female artists!

A creative genius sees or hears things that others don’t. They do not write music; they hear music and write it down. They do not paint pictures; they see things and paint them. They might see and hear and feel through day dreaming, or acute observation, or free flowing curiosity, or (as often in history) through LSD. They might relish the clean paths of solitude or the messy stimulus of company, but will finally honour their intuition and protect a personal aesthetic. They work at the edge of their competence, knowing that risk and reward are allies.

They might follow their own hours, but they work harder than you do. They do not create something because there’s a demand; they create demand because they offer what was otherwise unimagined. You might not think they exist, that they are the fluffy notion of the romantic, but they eat and sleep and enjoy sex just like you, and without them we are poorer.

Is there anyone in the world that you could describe as a genius? Certainly various greats spring to mind – Da Vinci, Bach, Einstein – but I do find myself wondering whether they were geniuses all the time. Doesn’t everyone have off days? I guess you can only know that if you knew them up close and personal.

I feel that genius is something that seems to reveal itself in moments rather than in individuals.  At any time people may experience flashes of inspiration, great ideas. Sometimes these inspirations can lead to the manifestation of of some extraordinary creations but I suspect that in order for that to happen, what is required is the absolutely perfect combination of the rather amorphous concepts of inspiration and insight, along with the rather more workaday skills of craftsmanship, and technical knowledge. When these varied planets align, then we’re met with genius.

The most gifted or brilliant musicians I’ve met have a penetrating insight into music, illuminating, beyond the notes in the score, the quintessence of the music. We all as performers do this to varying degrees of success and integrity.

However, I’m always a little wary of the word “genius”. It denotes the possession something unattainable to most and gifted at birth only to a few. It also unnecessarily mystifies what is essentially the combination of talent and hard work. This goes against my “work your butt off and anything is possible” mentality which has served me to date! I guess that classifies me as “not a genius!”

I don’t doubt that some are born with special gifts and aptitudes. Intelligence manifests itself in many different guises. The most brilliant instrumentalists aren’t always the most insightful musicians, and conversely, often those with the most profound understanding of musical content aren’t the most technically proficent players. When the two combine at the highest level you have Barenboim or Gould or Kleiber. If we want to call that “genius”, that’s fine, but I prefer to focus on how natural ability at birth is nurtured and educated in the best way. At the end of the day, that’s what Mozart and Bach had too; the best musical upbringing imaginable to go with their unique talents.

In old English, ‘genius’ meant an attendant spirit, present from birth. We spoke of someone having a genius, rather than being a genius. I like this idea that genius involves discovering and articulating an inner world. Experiencing life from an utterly singular viewpoint, and then honing the skills to manifest this externally.

Bringing an internal genius to light takes huge generosity and bravery. It demands being open to risk and vulnerability, making oneself small and childlike, humble in the service of an idea, and wide, wide open to life. It involves being happily obsessed with detail, inhabiting crevices, cracks – the world or story out of general sight. It takes determination, passion, tenacity, recalcitrance, steeliness and endless resilience.

We need people who dare reveal their genius. They illuminate what it is to be truly alive, and by doing so, give us a chance to become more attuned to life ourselves.