Robert Watts. Picasso Signature. 1966. Neon and plastic, 15 7/8 × 33 3/16" (40.3 × 84.2 cm). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © 2020 Estate of Robert Watts

The notion of artistic genius still informs a surprising amount of our conversations about art. In recent times, it has attracted its share of detractors, among them critics who claim that radical ideas rarely tend to be the product of a single person, and those who insist that the idea of genius is simply a way to enshrine the privilege of white men. But can the idea still help us understand art and artists in new ways? Author Andrew Solomon believes that it can. He has covered visual artists, writers, and musicians as a journalist and critic, but has also explored the psychology of creativity in books like Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, which won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award. I spoke with Solomon—now a professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center—about whether genius is partly a function of timing, its uneasy relationship to race and gender, and his contention that “genius reflects the ability to add something of value to human consciousness.”

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