SNP’s word of the day: Polymath

Illustration by Lewis Mirrett

Illustration by Lewis Mirrett

Word: Polymath

Meaning: A person whose knowledge and skills span numerous of subject areas. In more common terms, a Renaissance man or woman.

Usage: “The word ‘polymath’ teeters somewhere between Leonardo da Vinci and Stephen Fry” —from an article on the subject in Intelligent Life, Fall ’09.

You should know it because: It seems rare to find someone who does one thing and does it extremely well anymore: it’s like the internet is a Nu-Renaissance that leaves no career choice unviable. Like, remember when actors were actors? (Me neither, but anyway.) Now they play in psychedelic rock bands, write novels, put on multidisciplinary art shows, and probably grow free-range pot on the roofs of houses they built out of reclaimed limestone. I’m squinting my eyes at you, James Franco. Or they have multi-million-dollar clothing businesses and countless licensing deals and get name-dropped in Kanye West songs. Yeah, hi, Mary-Kate.

Speaking of Kanye, he seems determined to show up Beyoncé—with the help of her man, Jay-Z and their new album together—by operating in multiple worlds. There’s fashion: in 2008, he designed shoes for Louis Vuitton, then he turned to scarf-making, and now he’s working on a serious ready-to-wear line rumoured to look something like Proenza Schouler. There’s the restaurant business: he’s opened two Fatburger joints in Chicago and has eight more planned. And there’s production, which he’s undeniably great at, whether it’s R&B he’s producing or controversy (see: George W. Bush, Taylor Swift, Hitler).

In all of this, it’s easy to forget Kanye isn’t actually very good at the one thing he’s supposed to be famous for: rapping. There’s the danger in being a pop polymath. As one of the original Renaissance men, Leon Battista Alberti, said: “A man can do all things if he will.” But that doesn’t mean he should.

Part of the modern polymathy—which I’d define as knowing a little about a lot, as opposed to the B.I. (Before Internet) polymathy, in which select leisure-class intellectuals knew a lot about a lot—results from the way we’re growing up. From kindergarten we’re told we can do anything we want. At 25, say, we’re still not prepared to choose, or, in a multi-channel world, we don’t see why we should. Hence the number of Twitter bios that read “blogger, journalista, PR pro, brand ambassador, DJ, keyboardist, YouTube guru, and creator of the FindYourDream app.”

Even Kellan Lutz, a Twilight actor who mightn’t strike the average person as the new Da Vinci, recently told Women’s Wear Daily this: “I grew up wanting to be an inventor. I went to school for chemical engineering. I love to create. I’ve always wanted to get into fashion.”

On the one hand, why am I even repeating this? On the other, maybe if Da Vinci were alive today, he’d be a multimedia artist with a job at Google, selling custom-graffiti’d Nikes on the side.

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