Challenging creative genius: Sitting down with Joshua Wolf Shenk

The large room at the Central branch of the Kansas City Public Library was packed on Wednesday night, which is not surprising considering the author being interviewed was discussing his book, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. A good turnout can be guaranteed any time a book is about the secrets to finding one’s own creativity.

However, despite the fact that both the author, Joshua Wolf Shenk, and his interviewer, Robert Day, were charismatic and passionate about the subject, the audience seemed oddly ambivalent. One woman finished her monthly calendar before clipping and filing her nails. Another gentleman was smoking the stub of a cigar, and the audience as a whole seemed to be as engaged as the smoke that hung in the air.

That is until one man stood up and challenged the author’s entire premise.

“Are you saying that an artist is incapable of self-actualization without the help of others?” The man had an elegant Hispanic accent and was a bear of a man that contrasted with the slight author on the stage. There was an awkward silence as everyone looked between the men on the stage and the man in the audience.

“Do you know the story of Pablo Casals?” he asked the author. The author admitted that he hadn’t, and the man explained that Casals was the man who showed the world that the cello could be a solo instrument.

“You keep repeating yourself,” the man said, “saying that the art’s individual strengths and persona is subject to other people.”

The audience was in titters at this point, wondering how this was going to end. Robert Day tries to come to Shenk’s aide by giving an example of one how one supposed lone genius—Jackson Pollock actually had his own creative partner. However, Shenk didn’t need the assist. He told the audience how “this happens all the time.”

“I don’t mean any disrespect,” said Shenk. “This is part of this dynamic where if you bring a relationship into prominence, you are somehow diminishing the individual character. What I’m saying is, individual characters arise out of relationships and also contribute back to relationships and it is a virtuous circle.”

Shenk also said that an audience member surprising him with an example has happened many times and once even on National Public Radio—one of the biggest interviews of his life. The interviewer asked him how Beethoven was able to become such a genius if he didn’t have a creative partner. “I was flabbergasted and didn’t know what to do,” Shenk said. “But afterward, I got an email from a book editor who was doing a book on Beethoven and he said, ‘Let me tell you about Beethoven and his competitive relationship with Mozart.’”

Shenk emphasized how looking at the relationship is a bigger celebration on how creativity works and it in no way should diminish the accomplishments of the supposed lone genius if it is discovered that he or she had someone assist them.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon are a perfect example of this kind of relationship. Yes they were friends, but creatively, they were competitors.

“Their producer said that they were like two guys pulling on a rope as hard as they could, smiling all the while and that that is what made the bond,” Saud Shenk.

Instead of resting on their laurels, they constantly wanted to best each other with their song writing skills and they would count up who got more songs on the A side of the record.

Basketball players Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had a similar relationship, but unlike the two Beatles, their competition wouldn’t end in a win-win situation; they played to see who would win and who would lose.

“And yet,” Shenk said, “they made each other and when, after 12 years in the NBA, Magic retired because of health reasons, Larry Bird retired, too. What he [Bird] said was there is no point playing if Magic’s not there to beat.” Shenk also mentioned that their skill development arc was uncannily similar to that of Matisse and Picasso and it is the same story just a different genre.

Of course, some relationships were kinder but every relationship works at its best when each person is being challenged. Each person doesn’t have to like each other or they could love each other, but as long as the chemistry between the two is conducive to creativity, then spectacular things can happen.

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