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genius

Maybe my mom was right.

I have an older brain damaged brother, Peter. In 1953, a small pox vaccination failed to localize and shot up to his brain. Encephalitus (swelling of the brain tissue) and a high fever ensued. They were not able to get the swelling or the fever down in time to prevent extensive brain damage. The convulsions Peter went through afterwards were damaging his brain further so, in 1955 , Peter underwent a hemispheral removal of most of the left side of his brain. This was done in an attempt to stop the convulsions and with the hope that his right brain would assume and compensate for his left. He was one of the first people to undergo this operation. For a time it was successful, but then the convulsions returned, each convulsion wreaking havoc, and, in the 1970′s, Peter suffered encephalitis again. This time, he went into a three year light coma. When he woke from the coma, he could no longer sing our family.

Sing our family? Yes. Peter, could only say a few words: “What” was his name for my mother (because she was always calling out to him : “what, Peter?”). Water was close to “what” but distinct enough. After that, he did not speak accept through songs. Peter loved bright lights, loud sounds, and most of all, music. He loved when my parents yelled, and unlike us, would laugh and sing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” My mother played records to calm him, and he could sing the words. More importantly, he could modify words.

We all kow the parts of the brain that sing and those that speak aloud are not the same. There are hundreds of stories about stammers and stutterers with the voice of angels. But Peter took this difference one step further. He changed the lyrics slightly to identify me, showing some sort of brain function that could recognize syllable counts and accents. He had a different song for everyone in the family.

“Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, How you can love,” for my brother John.

“All day, all night Mary Ann,” for my sister Mary .

He had a song for different behaviors: “Why do fools fall in Love?” for when my parents fought.

“It’s another be good to mommy day”, for when he threw dinner plates, or ripped down curtains (he was hyperactive).

But perhaps the most interesting song was the one he modified for me: “Daisy, Daisy.” The song lyrics:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.
I’m half crazy over the love of you.

He changed Daisy to Joseph. This meant his brain was capable of substitution, even of improvisation (they say he has the mind of a six month old). He would sing this on occasion, belting it from the hopsital bed we had set up for him in the bedroom. He sang these songs through out the day. it was his way of station identification. It was his family. For the dog he sang “How much is that doggy in the window.” Our dog, Peppy, was wonderful with Peter, always understanding, even when Peter would be rough with him. Peppy saved my brother’s life by waking my mother up while Peter was in the midst of a terrible convulsion.

So my mom thought about all this, and until the day she died, she believed that certain great abilities, even certain forms of genius, might be the result of a re-routing of the brain from an accident/disability.In short, she thought all genius was a form of brain damage. She thought genius and creativity were compensatory or re-routed adjustments of a broken self. She said: “your brother is a marvel. You should remember that at the same time you remember he is brain damaged. You should remember how amazing he is.”

Here is an excerpt from an article in a Harvard Medical Journal on how many great artists might have suffered from an ocular disability of depth perception often known as lazy or wandering eye causing “stereo blindness”, and how the lack of one form of depth perception might have been an advantage to their use of other forms of persepective, shading, and three dimentionality. I just think this stuff is interesting. We want to fix everyone and reform everything–especially if it works in a way we don’t approve. We say we love mystery, but we persecute and taunt those who come to greater truths by defective means. This article ought to make us at least consider that what we disparage, may hide a remakable gift. The stones the builders reject might become the cornerstone:

Sleight of Sight

It seems logical that artists, like baseball players, would find any visual defect detrimental to their work. Yet, when we looked at photographic portraits and compared the position of the light reflex in the eyes of 53 famous artists, we found a surprising proportion—28 percent—with misaligned eyes, which would suggest stereoblindness. The artists with ocular misalignment included Marc Chagall, Edward Hopper, Gustav Klimt, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Man Ray, Chuck Close, Thomas Moran, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg, N. C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and perhaps even Pablo Picasso.

Why are the best artists not always the most successful? I have a friend, Marco, who I believe is the most visually gifted artist I’ve ever met. His eye, his sense of color, shape, perspective, line, and shading is beyond good; it’s great. His conceptions are often both original and novel (not always the same thing). Yet, he is unknown when many lesser artists, including people Marco and I grew up with, are far more successful. Why? I mean we could say the usual stuff: luck, the ability to schmooz, a benefactor who took a liking, etc, etc, but what might be the common, non toxic explanation?

I believe being recognized is a talent, a capability in its own right. It can arrive at success or fame either from the stand point of optimal normativity ( a word I coined to express a talent for fitting in to standards of excellence intuited among the prevailing norm of a field) or abnormativity (the ability to seem abnormal, or distinct in a manner that pleases the normative’s desire for variety). These are separate gifts from artistic ability, but I believe they are essential to most success in the arts.

True originality is never apprehended until it has been either normified or abnormified–either taken into the norm of what is considered right and well, or taken into the abnorm of what is considered acceptably quirky. In short, true originality does not exist until it is well on its way to no longer being original. The human mind, the eye, the ear, the sense, the intuition follows after it, not seeing it until the mind and ear and eye evolve enough to apprehend. The audience must be invented with the artist. And so I have several theories as to why Marco is not as famous or successful as some of our mutual friends who have not even half his ability. I could put them bluntly as: he is both too normal and abnormal in ways that do not signify success or fame:

1. He has poor skills for knowing who is valuable and who is not, and he does not cull the herd of who and who not to associate with. Alexandro, a mutual childhood friend of ours who is successful, highly successful (art books by Pittsburgh University press, exhibitions globally) knew who and who not to waste time on. He wasted time on us when he was a teenager and we were the only game in town, then departed from associating with us when he caught the eye of a major latin American art power broker. He did not hurt or help Marco. Alexandro simply took off for more promising associations. Alexandro did not waste energy. I don’t believe he did this consciously or out of disdain so much as he had a talent for recognition. He had good target sense and an ability to articulate his aesthetics. It is no surprise to me that his art works, though well received, are not as emphasized as his critical writings on the arts. He is an expert in Latin American art of social protest. He knows Marco is a superior painter. he will never champion his work. He went after what he instinctively knew would help him achieve his goal. His goal was never to be a great artist. Most people in the art scene do not essentially care about that.That’s too sloppy. His goal was to find steady and admired success in the arts, to achieve a homeostasis of well-being as an “artist” in the top circles.. To that end, Alex was good at being both normal and abnormal in all the right ways. He did not waste energy, and his desire was, in a sense , as normative as a law student’s. One brand of this sort of thinking is called professionalism. It is only one variant and it means showing up and presenting one’s normalities and abnormalities, one’s in the boxes and “out of the boxes” in a package that is appealing to the gate keepers.

2. Marco while at the same time he is too available, is also too unavailable: Alex was not available when it would make someone desire his availability. He had the gift for making others slavish, and courtly. They courted his attention. Marco, because of his superior artistic gifts, had great trouble either courting the power brokers who were not equal to his standards, or denying attention and availability to those he considered talented (some of whom were lost souls and would never do him any good). He was also so obsessed with his art he never developed a marketable “Style.” Marco did not imitate Marco. This is also problematical when it comes to achieving success: how does one learn to imitate one’s self without appearing to be stuck in a groove? Most people do not know the difference between true style and voice, and parody of style and voice. You can fool most of the people almost all of the time until some expert says you are a mere imitation of yourself, and then the crowd decides to agree.

Talent means many things: one is recognizable ability, and the other is the mystique of being recognized for that ability. I believe these are very separate talents. Picasso had both in abundance–a genius for norms and abnorms that would serve his fame and success. Some call this luck, or good fortune, or fate. I believe it is a talent whose mechanisms are capable of being studied. This is an opening salvo in that regard.

PHOTO CREDIT: MARCO MUNOZ