While commitment surely is critical to building something lasting, we should not underestimate the importance of the particular brand of madness that is creative genius. Madness is perhaps synonymous with genius, or is at the least a key component. And it surely captures our imagination, leaving a lasting impression.
Pictured above is Lucien Freud, who passed away this year at 88. He was prolific to the end, abiding by a rigid daily studio ritual. (See: Commitment.) He painted uncomfortably revealing and confrontational nudes, which by many accounts reinvented the entire notion of portraiture. He stripped away social standing and exposed human vulnerability, establishing the artist as a sort of ruthless interrogator.
Freud had many lovers and fathered countless children. He actively eschewed manners and social conventions. He was, by most standards, a bit mad. That his grandfather was Sigmund Freud did nothing to detract from this impression.
For years – decades – his work was deeply unfashionable, and yet it now appears that his twisted take on representing reality has had a deep and enduring impact on the history of art. His distinctive – mad – persona, too, will remain in our memory long after his passing.
Another notable crazy is mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. Mathematicians, like painters, of course, are widely renowned for their madness as a group. One of the maddest of the mad, Dr. Mandelbrot defied classifications and boundaries, working across disciplines — mathematics, economics, biology, physics, engineering — an approach unprecedented in academia. “Very often when I listen to the list of my previous jobs, I wonder if I exist,” he said once. “The intersection of such sets is surely empty.”
Dr. Mandelbrot coined the term “fractal” to refer to a new class of mathematical shapes whose uneven contours could mimic the irregularities found in nature. He used the geometry of fractals to explain how galaxies cluster, how wheat prices change over time and how mammalian brains fold as they grow. The outlines of clouds and coastlines, once considered unmeasurable, could now “be approached in a rigorous and vigorous quantitative fashion.” In other words, he made the unknowable complexities of nature knowable. Madness.
He passed away last year at the age of 85, having a lived a life in full that fundamentally changed how we view the world.
Madness – the ability to ignore convention, to see what other people say isn’t there – is the hallmark of all innovators. And true innovation leaves an indelible mark on the world.