“Scenius” is a term coined by musician and producer Brian Eno to counter “The Lone Genius Myth,” or the idea that innovation in art and culture comes from a few Great Chosen Ones. When Eno draws what the traditional model of genius looks like, he uses the example of the symphony orchestra, with God or the Muse at the very top of the triangle, and on descending levels, the composer, the conductor, the musicians, and, finally, the audience listening:
He then draws other organizations in our society that traditionally have hierarchical models:
When he gets to “scenius,” or what he calls the communal form of genius, he draws this:
Here’s what I wrote about it in my book, Show Your Work!:
There’s a healthier way of thinking about creativity that the musician Brian Eno refers to as “scenius.” Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals—artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers—who make up an “ecology of talent.” If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of “a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.” Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals: it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.
What I love about the idea of scenius is that it makes room in the story of creativity for the rest of us: the people who don’t consider ourselves geniuses. Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute—the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start. If we forget about genius and think more about how we can nurture and contribute to a scenius, we can adjust our own expectations and the expectations of the worlds we want to accept us. We can stop asking what others can do for us, and start asking what we can do for others.
To put it even more simply: Genius is an egosystem, scenius is an ecosystem.
Our world is an ecosystem in which our only real chance at survival as a species is cooperation, community, and care, but it’s being lead by people who believe in an egosystem, run on competition, power, and self-interest.
This was the message of the great feminist and pacifist Ursula Franklin, who said:
The dream of a peaceful society to me is still the dream of a potluck supper. The society in which all can contribute, and all can find friendship. Those who bring things, bring things that they do well. [We must] create conditions under which a potluck is possible.
When you think about your family, your friends, your neighborhood, your office, your city, your country, your world… are you operating as an ecosystem or an egosystem?
Which model we choose to operate under will determine the quality of our lives, and, arguably, our survival.
Try this: Next time you come across someone’s work and you’re not sure exactly how they do it, don’t ask them how it’s done. Don’t go after the “right answer” like some eager honors student. Look closer. Listen harder. Then use your imagination and experiment with the tools you have. Your bad approximation will lead to something of your own.
Last year I bought an old Rolodex with the original cards in it for $2 at Goodwill. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, then I came up with the idea of listing my favorite artists and telling my kids about them. I leave it on my desk and whenever I have some extra time, I pull it out and add a few entries.
My Rolodex project: I list artists I like and tell my kids about them pic.twitter.com/eqvbZ5Sldo
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) April 27, 2017
Here are some of the cards:
I’ve been enjoying learning Robert Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” (“Scenes of Childhood”) on piano. Here’s the music for the first piece:
Who’s in the handful? Maybe it’s your friends, maybe it’s your partner, maybe it’s some dead writer from the 15th century. It probably shouldn’t be your parents or your teachers. (Those relationships are too loaded.) It can be yourself, I suppose, as there are plenty of “greats” who claim to do it for nobody but themselves, but things can get masturbatory real fast. I’ve always liked Vonnegut’s advice: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Whenever I get stuck, I try to make something for my wife, who’s been reading me for a long time, and is good at telling me when I stink.
I lived in Florence, Italy for two months during the heatwave summer of 2003, then I went back to Rome, Florence, and Venice for a week in 2004, but I hadn’t been back to the country until last week, when I had a talk in Turin, and added a couple days of extra days in Milan. I love the country and the style and the coffee and the language and the food and the way once you get out on a highway out in the farmland, it looks like you could be back in Ohio.
I was trying to remember how I planned my trips 13, 14 years ago… probably with a Rick Steves guidebook or something. This time, I just starred everything that seemed remotely interesting in Google Maps and downloaded the map to my phone so I could use it offline. (I didn’t realize that even in airplane mode, if you’re using Google Maps offline, you can see your location on the map.) I’d sort of plan my day in advance the night before, but then if I found myself in a certain part of the city, I’d just pull up the map and see what was starred nearby. I also printed out the Google Maps on paper and pasted them in my notebook, so I could take notes on where I went and what I saw.
Before I take a trip, I try to jot down a few notes about what I hope to get out of it. For this one, I told my wife I hoped to discover some things I couldn’t get in Texas, and if not that, maybe discover some things I could get in Texas that I haven’t discovered yet. (I’m suddenly reminded of a story from Dave Hickey’s Pirates and Farmers: Ed Ruscha got back from a trip to Italy, and when somebody asked him what he saw, he said, “Oh, lots of things, but nothing I could use.”)
What did I see? Lots of things. (And a few I think I can use. We’ll see.)
In Milan, I stayed in Brera, had dinner near the Bosco Verticale (“Vertical Forest”) with some folks at my Italian publisher, Vallardi. The next morning I walked the neighborhood, poked into the art academy, browsed an old library, observatory, and the wonderful botanical gardens, then headed down to the duomo and saw Warhol’s last supper at the Novecento. While waiting on De Santis (heavenly paninis!) to open, I wandered into an amazing church that turned out to be something like the Sistine Chapel of Milan. Walked in Sempione Park, watched people playing soccer, had a coffee in the design museum cafe, walked past the castle, then took a car to Turin.
In Turin, I saw a Bruno Munari show at the MEF, walked the river and watched the sun set, ate gelato under the crescent moon. The next day, I spoke in the Intesa Sanpaolo skyscraper with a terrific view, had lunch with magician Ferdinando Buscema, took the metro down to the mall in Lingotto and bought a 100 euros worth of Munari books at the wonderful Corraini store, then ate a plate of pasta at the famed Eataly. Next morning, I watched the mountains wake up, strolled Via Roma, caught the flea market, strolled some more.
Took a car back to Milan, walked the gorgeous cemetery Monumentale, visited Bruno Munari’s tomb, and had a beer with the great Olimpia Zagnoli, who signed a copy of her book I’d been coveting, La Grande Estate. (The cafe we drank in employed people with special needs and they practiced the Neapolitan tradition of “suspended coffee” — you pay for two coffees, one for a stranger who can’t afford one. I made a note to find out if anybody does this in the US.) I was exhausted by that point and coming down with a cold, but happy.
On the airplane(s) home, I decided to steal from Nina Katchadourian’s “Seat Assignment” series and see how much art I could make on the way. I made a bunch of silly collages and English blackouts from Italian newspapers. It was a grueling, 24-hour day of travel, but I can’t remember an easier “re-entry” upon my return. Maybe it was that I had so much time to process the trip.
Today, before sitting down to write this, my best friend from college forwarded me some emails I had sent him from various internet cafes across Florence in 2003. A sample: “almost everything you [hear] about italians is true, they are gorgeous, [a little] vain, fashion-conscious and they watch your every move. but they know how to live…everything is slow and steamy.” Fourteen years later, still pretty true. I look forward to my next return.
We had a houseguest a few days ago and he said, “The thing I like about your books is that I feel like they give me permission.” I’ve heard other people say, “You gave me permission,” to do this or that, but I always found it sort of bewildering. “Permission” makes me think of a teacher handing out passes to the bathroom, or a parent signing off on a field trip. I’m just a writer, you know? I write about stuff I’m trying to figure out, then I share it.
I kept turning that word over in my mind — permission — and then I was sitting in front of a video at Nina Katchadourian’s show at the Blanton Museum, and I doodled this page in my sketchbook. Like many doodles, I wasn’t sure what it meant, if it meant anything, but as I was walking around the museum, looking at Katchadourian’s work, it clicked for me: Every piece of art or writing I’ve ever truly loved was a kind of permission, a permission to bring forth what I felt was already inside of me.
Permission to be humorous. Permission to draw. Permission to write poetry. Permission to use the simple tools at hand. Permission to write books with pictures. Permission to suck. Permission to love my family more than the work. Etc.
At the end of Katchadourian’s Q&A, a woman raised her hand and said that she found the show so funny she couldn’t stop laughing, and then she felt bad about laughing, because she’d never laughed in a museum before, and she wasn’t sure you were supposed to. She was, in a sense, asking for permission.
I turned the page in my notebook. You don’t need permission. But if you insist, here it is…
Here’s the complete section of Leonard Woolf’s Downhill All The Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939:
I will end… with a little scene that took place in the last months of peace. They were the most terrible months of my life, for, helplessly and hopelessly, one watched the inevitable approach of war. One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler—the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers… Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.