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Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth: Toward a Contextual View of Creativity

Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser

The Big Idea

The topic is creativity.  The problem is the stubborn persistence in popular culture of believing creative artists of all sorts—musicians, scientists, inventors, athletes, writers—are lone geniuses.  These authors ask the question:  Just how autonomous is the creative individual?  They answer:  Not very.


  • This paper exhibits what it explains: that creative ideas (in this case on the subject of creativity itself) depend heavily on social contexts, dimensions, and histories.
  • The authors attempt to demystify the idea of the lone genius as an autonomous individual heroically coming up with tangible or intangible discoveries as one might go on a quest for the Holy Grail.
  • The point of the discussion is this: If we can see our way to modify the popular view of the creative individual as a lone genius, and if we see the truth that creative people are essentially community-produced, then we can imagine environments where human creativity—both individuals and groups—become the norm and not the exception.
  • The paper does not mention the world of sport, athletes, or coaches. But if one thinks about it, creativity is the go-juice for most all our sporting endeavors.
  • And implicit in the meaning of sport itself is precisely what this paper is espousing: that the nature of the creative process itself is social in nature. As is sport.
  • Hooray for us! 

The Research

Historical context

In the first section of this lengthy essay the authors review the genealogy of creative imagination and expression by way of three historical and cultural eras: premodern (iconography and worship); modern (anthropocentric: self-preoccupation, biographies); and postmodern (heterogeneous self).

The idea of the lone genius is a recent Western cultural invention, the authors argue.  By redefining the world through ever more sophisticated technologies of abstraction, the creative artist is perceived to rise above the masses; in fact, artists are perceived and even perceive themselves as struggling against the masses, and against rules, constraints, conventions, and traditions.  The lone individual becomes romanticised.  But however much artistic individuals struggle, the authors remind us of the larger context of their individuality.  Creativity demands communication.  And communication demands a social context in order to exist at all.

The autonomy of the artist is an illusion.  This is so because the measure of our creativity is contained within a larger, positive community with a common ground:  we don’t know who we are, where we come from, or where we are going.  That is what we all have in common.

The cult of genius

Ever since the Renaissance and the rise of individualism, the lone genius—whether in art, science, invention, politics, literature—challenged conformism and the status quo.  By antagonising others, the artist is isolated, mocked, or censored.  The lone genius view fabricates an irreconcilable division between self and environment, creativity and conformity.

The popular view of the lone genius also invites the idea of genius as gifted.  That somehow or other, individual creativity is a gift emerging fully formed, and not in need of cultivated study, practice, or development.  The popular view is that creativity cannot be learned.  Or that creativity is a natural talent, a blessing, a spontaneous facility, or a specific personality trait.

Social influences and creativity

On the other hand, the authors of this paper present research evidence from psychology and related disciplines suggesting that the idea of the artist as lone genius largely ignores the role of social influences in shaping creative behaviour.

In other words, research as early as the 1960s emphasised spirited discussions of the variety of environments that in fact can foster creativity.  In the 1970s there were research studies on systemic and contextual approaches to creativity.  Since then, systems inquiries with sociological implications have expanded the range of inquiries into the individual-versus-social environment explanations of creativity.

Critics of such expansion argue that such research downplays the role of the creative individual.  The authors respond by saying it is important to study humans as humans and within the broader historical, environmental, and social context.  By so doing we increase the chances of getting the nature of the human experience right.  This doesn’t diminish the individual.  It enriches the individual experience.

In their continued research citations, the authors reinforce the impact of the social and cultural dimensions of creativity.  For creative individuals, the environment can be in fact a source of inspiration.  In a process of self-renewal, creative people draw on environmental factors to exercise their own playing with ideas, relationships, structures, and possibilities.   Such creative actions are open to the environmental context, not separated from it.  The individual is engaged in a creative relationship with this environment.  The environment becomes a source of creativity.

Creativity and context

In their effort to debunk the belief that creativity is the province of the lone individual, the authors discuss a number of context relationships.  In other words, it is uncommon for creative individuals to be entirely unhinged from social and historical influences.

  • Relationship to the sociocultural context
    • Creating anything implies a discourse or dialogue with others over time.
    • To master one’s craft is to have a relationship with the history of that craft.
    • What has come before us is often the cause of our creative inspiration.
  • Relationship of mentors and role models
    • Our predecessors are who we apprentice from.
    • Even if we break from the past, there must be a past to break from.
  • The role of collaboration and dialogue
    • Finding our collaborators is a way to find ourselves.
    • Sharing common spaces and techniques give rise to the uncommon.
    • These dialogues are often face-to-face within and between generations.
    • Improvisation arises from interactions with others or when we go beyond others.

In the end, the authors argue that it is by way of the social construction of ourselves that any creativity is made possible.  And it is the role of imagination that in turn creates a relationship between ourselves and others.  Hence, creativity is inherently bound up with our social and historical traditions, connections, and relationships.  Creativity is not then exclusive the lone genius coming up with something from nothing.  Creativity is the product of individuals and groups who are blessedly caught up in social entanglements, and who make unique connections between contextual possibilities within and between these entanglements.  Being creative is within the reach of all of us because of all of us are within reach.