Brian Eno had some interesting comments on genius vs “scenius” at the Sydney Luminous Festival:
I was an art student and, like all art students, I was encouraged to believe that there were a few great figures like Picasso and Kandinsky, Rembrandt and Giotto and so on who sort-of appeared out of nowhere and produced artistic revolution.
As I looked at art more and more, I discovered that that wasn’t really a true picture.
What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people – some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work.
he period that I was particularly interested in, ’round about the Russian revolution, shows this extremely well. So I thought that originally those few individuals who’d survived in history – in the sort-of “Great Man” theory of history – they were called “geniuses”. But what I thought was interesting was the fact that they all came out of a scene that was very fertile and very intelligent.
So I came up with this word “scenius” – and scenius is the intelligence of a whole… operation or group of people. And I think that’s a more useful way to think about culture, actually. I think that – let’s forget the idea of “genius” for a little while, let’s think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.
Certainly there was a “scenius”for electronic music in the 1970’s, when Eno did some of his most important work. We may have a scenius now, too, spurred on by the surge in creativity that Internet media is driving.
What do you think is more important – the contributions of individuals like Eno, or the time and the scene that they work in?
22 thoughts on “Brian Eno On Genius, And “Scenius””
What prevails time and time again throughout history is that no matter how brilliant or talented someone is, they can't succeed on a large scale without opportunities: such as finding an incredibly well-matched promoter to get the word about them, and learning the right tools to connect with fans. (Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers examines this in greater depth, such as Bill Gates' already financially-privileged background giving him access to computer time that was rare.)
Thus, one cannot contribute without a scene which is receptive. I was just reading about Paul Oakenfold's early "acid house" sound not making it big in Ibiza until some years later, and how wildely popular the descendants of that are today. Persistence, it seems, is a necessary constant — along with change.
I love hearing artists' inspirations of what initially got them into making music, or whatever creative craft they've dedicated their life to. Those are the very keystones upon which their accomplishments are built.
Specifically to this article, reminds me of Aphex Twin's quote: "I guess you can say I'm a modified Brian Eno, though I never heard any Brian Eno before I started making records." So I wonder if he actually listened to someone(s) else who was influenced by Eno, thus continuing the chain of inspiration! (And to wit, all those people wanting to get into game music because of Nobuo Uematsu's battle themes, not realizing they often draw from ELP.)
Your comment reminded me of the band Jet – which reminds me of PInk Floyd & The Beatles.
My kids listen to Pink Floyd and think they sound like Jet……
i think eno is spot on with his observation, but i also think that a big part of being called a genius is summing up an era nicely for historians. so, once history is generally agreed upon, the place of the genius tends to be reinforced. as an example, beethoven might not have been the most brilliant composer of his time, but when you put him central in that place and time, it's becomes a nice way to characterize the time and place in the way we do now.
it reminds me of steve reich being asked in an interview about how it was for the '4 geniuses of minimal music' (reich, glass, lamonte young, riley) in the 70s. reich said that there were hundreds of minimal composers around at the time, and that nothing put them in a special position.
personally, i think the whole idea of a genius comes out of the human urge to tell stories. of course, at the center is somebody doing something extremely well, but historians can make it seem as if all the good work from a time and place can be attributed to that person. a scenius indeed.
Very, very well put!
As a race, we prefer to celebrate genius to scenius (note that 'celebrate' and 'celebrity' come from the same root). In pre-1970s science textbooks, the transistor was invented by Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley working at Bell Labs. At some point in the '70s, it was as though the corporation asserted some kind of historical rights, and textbooks started to read "the transistor was invented in the 1950s by (note, not "at") Bell Labs."
I suspect that the latter may be more accurate, but, for inspiration, I preferred the romance of the former statement. I'm sorry, but I cannot recognize Bell Labs, nor "the minimalist movement", as a personal hero.
It *is* easier to recognize individual personalities than relate to groups (especially "faceless corporations"). Mythological stories often reflect this, too — there are main characters. As in "Jason and the Argonauts".
And that reminds me of younger folks who heard Oasis and then the Beatles, and go, "Wow! The Beatles sound like Oasis." Thankfully that doesn't happen very often because Brothers Gallagher have been open about their influences. 🙂
Mr. Eno can always get right at the meat of a thing. Scenes and cultures can cultivate mediocrity and me-too-ism, but they also provide incubation for those that can take all the pieces and parts and really make it happen, separating the clever from the stupid, or just making the stupid clever.
Indeed, or even putting the 'stupid' into a suitably supportive environment in which they can thrive and develop 'cleverness'.
Personally I think Eno himself is a perfect example of 'scenius' — his rise to prominence happened in the context of an absurdly creative scene in the UK of the early 70s. I haven't liked anything he's done since about 1990 though, and I think a large part of the reason is that he became more isolated and singular.
Not to mention he and David Byrne forming a mutual admiration society…
I'm with you completely on the idea of having personal heroes.
Eno's "scenius" idea is interesting to me because it suggests that we may be able to cultivate these scenes and encourage more great work.
I think he'd agree.
He's said in the past that he's not a musician, he's questioned whether what he does is music and it's hard to imagine him thriving in the music world in an earlier time.
That doesn't diminish his importance or the importance of his work, though.
Agreed. In fact, I'd go so far as to call him a 'genius'… And so is David Byrne. I don't always like their music, but they regularly come out with some very pertinent observations about music and their place in the great scenius of things…
therefore genius is a summation and representative of the scenius they came from?
dunno about contributing Eno's brilliant work to a collective tho…as nice a thought as it might be
In your message I find the formulations, „created a kind of ecology of talent“
and „the ecology of ideas“.
„Ecology“ is a terminus technicus meaning the “science or teaching of the
relationships between living entities (animals, plants) and their non-living environment”. I
am a trained (marine) ecologist, and may be that my scientific manner of
thinking disables me to understand all those other modern meanings of this word and made me too narrow-minded.
The word „ecology“ has been coined by Ernst Haeckel in Leipzig around 1850
with the above mentioned meaning.
So I do not understand what it means to talk about the „ecolgy of the
The „evolution of consciousness“ needs a very accurate language. That is why
I insist of using well defined and known words – we have enough of
them – or we must invent really new ones and define them properly and openly – .like your “scenius”.
Sincerely Dr Aryaman Stefan Wellershaus
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Also interesting that ‘genius’ is a thoroughly western concept. Though great artist were feted by the Greeks (less so by the Romans), the genius cult for artists seems to start with Vasari in the late 16th century (he ‘digs’ back several centuries to Giotto.) This is around the time that Copernicus, places the Earth (and mankind) outside the centre of the universe. A generation or so later Galileo brings Copernicus’ theories to a larger intellectual audience. From this period (early 17th c.) Philosophy turns away from Cosmology (which eventually becomes a discipline of Physics). This is called the Epistemological turn (from Descartes to Kant), which places human knowledge at the centre of philosophy – one could call it a reinvention Ptolemaic Cosmology by other means – ie man is again placed at the centre of things. Isn’t the genius cult just a part of this intellectual project? Of course this precedes the splitting of the humanities (in German still ‘Geisteswissenschaften’ – ‘Sciences of the Mind’) and the Natural Sciences. But also plays an important role in that split, as philosophy (traditionally the ‘highest’ of the humanities (as in PhD) continually resists the stringency of scientific method.
In the humanities ‘ecology’ and ‘evolution’ are often used metaphorically, often without a full knowledge of their scientific meaning. There is even an own language of acceptable metaphorical use of borrowed terms, that builds up within the philosophical and theoretical canon.
More recently the ‘Humanities’ as a general field have been attacked from within by ‘Posthumanists’ who would reinvent philosophy and related disciplines, partly in relation to scientific viewpoints, but also influenced by ideology and academic competition. (Maybe two steps forward and one back?)
Restudying the so called ‘genius’ of certain artists (and more importantly their art) from a a more complex study of the milieux (ie Eno’s ‘scenius’) can only add to our appreciation of artworks.
I was aware of this theory and I find it pretty depressing – because it fully explains why the music scene is so intermittent and thin these days – of course, there are still individual, talented acts but no more a sense of “we’re going somewhere”.
I’ve lived in New York City for 30 years and while there’s still a flourishing underground scene it’s extremely segmented and distinguished by figures who are colorful rather than brilliantly talented.
It’s likely that in music, at least, we have simply reached maturity. There won’t be that shock of the new for us any more… I still remember the first time I heard a sitar, the first time I heard a synthesizer, and these sounds shocked me, but now any kid can hear all this stuff in a few minutes on YouTube.
Admin: Personal attack deleted. Keep comments on topic and constructive.
Does anyone know when Eno first, as he claims, coin the word ‘scenius’?
Nick: I was just looking this up too! Earliest mention I can find is from his book A Year With Swollen Appendices (1996.
“A few years ago I came up with a new word. I was fed up with the old art-history idea of genius – the notion that gifted individuals turn up out of nowhere and light the way for all the rest of us dummies to follow. I became (and still am) more and more convinced that the important changes in cultural history were actually the product of very large numbers of people and circumstances conspiring to make something new. I call this ‘scenius’ – it means ‘the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene’. It is the communal form of the concept of genius. This word is now starting to gain some currency – the philosopher James Ogilvy uses it in his most recent book.”
The book was published in 1996, written in 1995, and he said “a few years ago” so I think I would say “early 1990s”.
I’ve gotten further! In another book by James Ogilvy, the author mentions that Eno talks about scenius at a conference in London in 1993. That’s the earliest confirmed date I got.