Genius grant or TED talk: Does a MacArthur grant make a genius smarter?

It's genius season, and once again the usual suspects line up for accolades, fated to be prize magnets forever

Published October 5, 2014 11:00AM (EDT)

    (<a href=''>Grafissimo</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(Grafissimo via iStock)

It’s genius season again. From NPR to The New York Times they’re talking about where people were when they found out they had won the MacArthur Fellowship, our society’s most prestigious honor. Twenty-one of these so-called “Genius Grants” were announced two weeks ago by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago; they carry with them a prize of $625,000, to be spent over the course of five years however the Genius in question wishes.

Over the years, stories on the subject have always seemed to start with the phone call from MacArthur HQ in Chicago. Where was the Genius when he or she got the call? What was it like to find out that someone was giving you all that moolah? The famous critic, it was reported, finds she must sit down. The Southerner lets rip with a yell. The cellist thinks it’s a wrong number. The bioengineer thinks it’s a prank. The radio pioneer, who’s visiting a remote Mexican village, has to make his way to the town’s only phone. Their lives have been changed! Here is my favorite, from a 1992 article about the Genius Grants in The New York Times:

“And once there was only a long silence, then a distant thump: the sound of a body hitting a laboratory floor in Cambridge, Mass., as a winner fainted.”

All harmless and amusing stuff, of course. No, the Parable of the Phone Call has nothing to do with brilliance, or merit, or creativity, or whatever it is the Genius Grants are supposed to commemorate, but one can hardly blame the press corps for dumbing things down in this way, decade after decade. After all, it humanizes these people who otherwise stand so high above the rest of us.

What I discovered, however, was that it isn’t only the press that pushes this silly narrative. It’s also the people who hand out the Fellowship themselves; they want you to know how their philanthropy affects its recipients in the most intimate and immediate way. The MacArthur website features videotaped interviews with Fellowship winners; in every one I have listened to, the Genius in question winds up telling about how he or she felt when the call came, and often in strangely religious language. “When I first got the call from the MacArthur Foundation,” says playwright Samuel Hunter, “it was sort of like an out-of-body experience.” “You hear about MacArthur fellows,” relates public defender Jonathan Rapping, “and you sort of think of them as people who walk on water and do great work. . . . So, it was disbelief.”

Why would the Foundation itself encourage us to heed the Parable of the Phone Call? In other situations, they are anxious to correct public simplifications of their philanthropic work—when we stupidly call it a “genius grant,” for example, rather than what it really is, a prize for “exceptional creativity.” But this business with the life-changing phone calls—this they approve of. How come?


In his 2005 study of prize-giving, "The Economy of Prestige," the English professor James English takes note of the dizzying proliferation of honors and awards in recent decades—it’s “a kind of cultural frenzy,” he writes. “Just indexing all these prizes is a daunting task.” Indeed it is. In the course of researching this article, I discovered numerous distinctions I had never heard of before, including the American Creativity Association’s Special Achievement Award, a right-wing imitation of the Genius Grant called the Bradley Prize (every conservative newspaper columnist will eventually get one), and a literary honor that is named for Rob Bingham, a friend of mine who died tragically in 1999.

What James English tells us about the countless foundations and academies that make these awards is that they are not simply neutral observers, impartially recognizing merit from some lofty height. They are always engaged in a cultural project of their own—usually to establish themselves as authorities and their own concerns as correct ones.

In pursuit of that project, all award programs face the same problems. Because the reputation of the prize must itself be established for the academy in question to set about judging the merits of others, all prize programs—even the many “counter-prizes” set up to resist establishment prizes—lean toward convention. They tend overwhelmingly to reward people whose reputations are already made. Indeed, as the competition between prizes grows more intense, English tells us, the pressure to associate a prize with safe and unquestionably prestigious figures only grows. This is why competing prizes within a field always tend to converge on the same individuals, prize magnets who are fated to stagger through life under the weight of their accumulated laurels.

Prize programs are also subject to scandals and controversies—scandals over the many lousy choices that award juries make and controversies like the avalanche of derision that every year buries the Grammys. There is also the related problem of honorees who hold the whole prize racket in contempt—like Sinclair Lewis, who declined a Pulitzer in 1926; or Jean-Paul Sartre, who declined a Nobel in 1964; or George C. Scott, who declined an Oscar in 1971; or Thomas Pynchon, who won the National Book Award in 1974 but sent a comedian to accept it with a speech of solemn-sounding gibberish.

Well, no one has ever declined a Genius Grant, as far as I have been able to determine. (When Salon asked the MacArthur Foundation about this directly, they refused to comment on the subject.) Even Thomas Pynchon was “congenial and gracious” about accepting it, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune, when he got one back in 1988.

Nor have the Genius Grants ever been the focus of the kind of critical free-for-all that every year engulfs England’s Booker Prize—which, someone always finds reason to insist, has once again gone to the wrong goddam author. Virtually the only really persistent critics of the MacArthur are found on the cranky culture-war right, complaining about the honor being givenyawn—to the politically correct.

By and large, the way the mainstream media talks about the MacArthur Fellowships is the way the Foundation surely wants the media to talk about them, which is to say, in tones of reverence and admiration for the Geniuses in question. A cliché almost as common as the Parable of the Phone Call in genius journalism is what we might call the Delirious Apprehension of the Eclectic, in which the writer is simply amazed by the overwhelming diversity of the fields that have been honored. “They’re historians and scientists and one of them is a stringed-instrument bow maker,” as a gee-whiz NPR story from 2012 had it. “A neurologist who studies dementia. A jazz drummer who celebrates Latin rhythm. A remedial-reading teacher who writes poetry,” begins a Chicago Tribune account from 2011. And were those geniuses somehow to get together in one place—wow! Here is how that 1992 New York Times story described photographs of just such an event:

“Swimsuited policy analysts lounge at a torchlit poolside on Maui as a theoretical physicist lectures on infinity and galactic spirals. A historian of the Ottoman Empire and a biophysicist on a whale-watching cruise lean perilously over a boat rail, discussing whale song. A marine biologist scrambles up an active volcano’s rocky slope.”

And here, just for fun, is a passage from a Donald Barthelme story called “The Genius” that appeared in The New Yorker in 1971, ten years before the advent of the Genius Grant.

“The genius proposes a world inventory of genius, in order to harness and coordinate the efforts of genius everywhere to create a better life for all men.

Letters are sent out. . . .

The response is staggering!

Telegrams pour in. . . .

Geniuses of every stripe offer their cooperation.

The Times prints an editorial praising the idea. . . .

Three thousand geniuses in one room!

The genius falls into an ill humor. He refuses to speak to anyone for eight days.”


Here is where I should mention all the things I’m supposed to disclose. For many years I have known, and from 2010 to 2013 I worked for Harper’s publisher Rick MacArthur, whose grandfather started the MacArthur Foundation and whose father launched the Fellows Program. And: In 2005 I was paid to speak to an audience at the MacArthur Foundation on the subject of the culture wars.


The real promise of the MacArthur Fellowship program is that it does not require grant writing, or applications, or even achievement of a conventional sort. It could theoretically be used to bypass the world of foundation favorites altogether. It could single out worthy individuals who have been unfairly overlooked, lift them up, launch their careers, and force the world to pay attention. That even seems to have been one of the ideas for the program in the beginning.

Well, today the program rarely does any of those things. Instead, and just like nearly every other prize program in the world, it chooses noncontroversial figures and rewards the much-rewarded, giving in to what James English calls “the desire to have already famous and massively consecrated individuals on their list of winners.”

Sort through that list of winners and you’ll find lots of the usual prize magnets, the foundation favorites, the celebrated New Yorker authors, the “20 Under 40” set, the people you heard profiled on NPR a short while ago, the person who just got the National Book Award, or the John Bates Clark medal, or a Ford Foundation Leadership Grant. The résumés of certain winners are thick with honors: Junot Diaz was a literary champion many times over by the time he won in 2012, while Robert Penn Warren, who received one of the very first MacArthur Fellowships, had won the Pulitzer three times by that point in his life and had received more than a dozen honorary degrees.

My point here is not that some particular Genius didn’t deserve the prize. Few of the MacArthur Fellows represent genuinely poor choices. But many are certainly unoriginal choices, choices that by definition do nothing to advance creativity or innovation, as they are given to people who already have tenure, or recognition, or funding.

This particular criticism of the Genius Grant has been around since the beginning, but instead of changing course and concentrating on the business of finding brilliant but obscure people, the Foundation seems to have persuaded itself that rewarding the amply rewarded isn’t really a problem at all. When the Chicago Tribune asked program director Cecilia Conrad a few weeks ago what the foundation was “trying to achieve,” she replied that the goal of the Fellowships was inspiration—it was trying to motivate the non-Geniuses of the world. Conrad had discovered, she said, “the potential for the fellows program to have impact beyond the fellows, to inspire others. We learned that people who were familiar with the program reported that it inspired them to pursue their own creative pursuits or to think about how they could contribute to society.”

And that, in turn, struck me as one of the most evasive justifications for a large expenditure of money that I have ever read. Does a MacArthur Fellowship really enhance a Genius’s powers of inspiration, if the Genius in question is already a much-honored figure, or a best-selling author, or the host of a national weekly radio show? Then there’s the obvious flaw in the idea of giving 600 grand to one person in order to inspire someone else: Why not simply approach that someone else and inspire them more directly? (By, I don’t know, making college cheaper or something.)


The actual justifications for each individual MacArthur Fellowship are found on the foundation’s website, and after reading through a great many of them I was struck by the plummy tone of academic enthusiasm in which each one was written. I started running searches for typical buzzwords of the bien pensant crowd, and the results were almost exactly what you would expect. “Contemporary” came up 151 times when I searched; “experimental” yielded 78 hits; “original,” 72; “innovative,” 45. The standard adjectives of creativity were all present, in tiresome abundance: “Insight,” “Vibrant,” “Imaginative” “Alternative.” “Professor” clocked in with 588 hits, “MFA” netted 65, and “The New Yorker” 45.

“Rooted” is something the Geniuses frequently are, whether the soil is “observational astronomy” or the “rhythmic structure of bluegrass.” “Convention,” however, is usually something they shun or reject. “Barriers” are uniformly negative, something Geniuses “overcome” or bravely “face.” Their techniques are “rigorous.” They come up with “solutions.” They act as “entrepreneurs.” And they are forever “challenging” this or that “contemporary view.”

The word “dance” triggered an enormous number of hits on the MacArthur Fellows website. But this probably shouldn’t have been a surprise: dance is evidently a field that is ripe with opportunity for the kind of genre-crossing and style-hybridizing that always gets the scholarly pulse racing. And so there are Genius dancers who “pair rhythmic variety and exactitude of delivery.” They are “combin[ing] Eastern and Western influences.” They are creating a “unique hybrid of traditional and informal dance styles.” They are borrowing “from Russian Constructivist and Bauhaus dance movements.” And, of course, they are “Redefining where dance takes place.” It’s enough to make one pity the poor drone in this dazzlingly heterogeneous field whose constructivism or delivery-exactness is merely excellent.


I have followed the comings and goings of the MacArthur Genius awards for most of the last two decades, and after all these years of trying to understand the program’s operations, my conclusion is that it is impossible to decipher. It is true that the Foundation’s choices are almost always philanthropy favorites or prize magnets. We know that this is a prerequisite. But aside from that basic qualification there seems to be no pattern to these awards at all. Indeed, back in 1983, a director of the program actually told the Washington Post that they were bestowed “without plan or pattern.”

Frequently the Geniuses are academics, but sometimes they aren’t. On occasion they represent a main current of American intellectual life, but more often they don’t. Every now and then they are preeminent in their field, but usually they are not. The fields from which they are drawn are scattered all over the cultural map. Anthropologists. Cellists. Cartoonists. Cosmologists. Jugglers. Neuroscientists. Radio hosts. Documentary filmmakers. Experts on car exhaust. It seems almost random.

And that, on reflection, appears to be the key to the whole thing. Randomness is the pattern, the essential quality that defines the Genius Grant. From the selection process itself, which is totally opaque and closed to outsiders, to the phone call that comes as a complete surprise, what the MacArthur Fellowship is about is arbitrariness.

Let us recall, one last time, how the procedure unfolds. There’s that call—that “walk on water” call—in which an unexpected voice from on high informs someone that they have been chosen to join the elect, the creative. Because the Foundation is omniscient, like the Almighty, the call goes out to a great and diverse group, to people laboring in fields so varied they have no possible relationship to one another. Because the cogitations of the Foundation are unknowable, like the mind of God, the process by which they have all been chosen is completely mysterious.

Why me and not someone else?, a Genius might ask. But the answer is never disclosed. Of course, there are some outward signs that explain their spiritual fortune: there’s their good works; their many mundane prizes, their books and their journal articles. Maybe they sort of deserve it.

And then, according to what we might call the Foundation’s doctrine of saintly imitation, their good fortune is supposed to inspire others to emulate them, to follow them in the paths of creative righteousness.

But perhaps I have pushed this analogy too far. Perhaps, instead of being a parable of Christian salvation, the randomness of the Genius Grants is really a metaphor for our increasingly fragmented and pointless civilization. For our ancestors, there were always grand cultural projects to bring people together, like the postwar liberal impulse to define and celebrate American culture. Today, however, all such efforts have disappeared. There are no sweeping reform movements under way, nor any great revolutionary movements, nor any really convincing adversarial movements, nor even some romantic medievalism that everyone is pining for in a vague way.

What we have instead is creativity. We have the meritocratic assurance that rewards go to the worthy. And, of course, we have prizes, an ever-compounding plenitude of prizes, attesting to some individual’s creative excellence. Always the creative individual. Never the thing created.

Why does the Foundation promote the Parable of the Phone Call? Because that’s all there is. That is the civic ritual of our time. Here we are, Americans all together, staring at the solitary genius as she holds the instrument of destiny in her hand, taking the phone call from the billion-dollar patron. She is Creative. She is a Genius. And if you work hard, you can be, too. Someday, that phone will ring for you.

By Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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