That is the premise. I reject that premise.
I admit it: I am a chauvinistically low-culture guy. I watched, with something approaching religious fervor, every episode of Joe Millionaire last season. I am sure I will do the same this season. I think the realm of high culture, the realm of capital "A" Art--the realm these Stranger Genius grants are dedicated to celebrating--is mostly useless, pretentious bullshit.
I can irrefutably prove the truth of this claim with a mere two words: modern dance. I don't believe modern dance ever signifies genius, or even art; I don't believe it ever signifies anything more than snooty people making complete asses of themselves.
But even if, for the sake of argument, I accept the validity of modern dance, I still don't understand why some idiot prancing about in a leotard to tinkling xylophone music is considered an artist and celebrated as a potential genius, while Dirty Dave Brown, who aspires to be the best pro wrestler he can be, is Not An Artist, according to the inhabitants of the art world, but Just An Idiot. Both perform, employ choreography, and jump around in tights. Yet one is an artist, one is a moron.
Perhaps my failure to understand this distinction is a personal deficiency, some terrible genetic or cultural defect that prevents me from appreciating a wondrously effete world of sublime beauty. But I also know that I am far from alone in suffering from this affliction.
Back to Dirty Dave Brown, who, it is safe to say, is similarly impaired. He is 26, and poor. He lives in a dingy basement apartment on Capitol Hill. He works three nights a week as a bouncer at the Lusty Lady. He does not paint paintings. He does not read Artforum. He never attends avant-garde theater performances. He would probably shoot himself rather than attend a modern-dance recital.
Yet he believes himself to be an artist, and potentially a genius, and the basis for this belief is his single-minded pursuit of wrestling glory. Dirty Dave lives, eats, sleeps, and dreams professional wrestling. He believes in the artistry of wrestling so strongly that he submitted more than a dozen heartfelt and provocative letters pleading for a Stranger Genius Award. He wanted--clearly quite badly--an award so he could hone his already considerable skills by attending a three-month wrestling-school training course. Not at just any training school, mind you. No, Dirty Dave wanted to attend that hallowed training ground for wrestling geniuses, the "world famous" Hart Dungeon, which is located, for reasons that escape me, in Calgary, Alberta.
Dirty Dave didn't get his award. Instead, the grants went to conventional artists: a novelist, a playwright, a visual artist, and so on. Though I have watched videotapes of Dirty Dave wrestling, I cannot say for sure whether Dirty Dave deserved a Genius Award. I freely admit that I'm not a pro-wrestling expert. I'm not qualified to judge whether his wrestling skills are of such a rarefied level that he merits consideration as a "genius." But after having spent a recent weekend afternoon with Dirty Dave, I know he deserved more serious consideration than he received.
Though Dirty Dave is broad and thick-armed, he looks too small to be a professional wrestler, standing about 5' 7". Tipping the scales at 191 pounds, Dirty Dave freely admits he's undersized, but quickly cites a number of smaller men who went on to successful wrestling careers. He shows me videotapes of said wrestlers wrestling. My doubts are laid to rest.
Dirty Dave takes wrestling every bit as seriously as does a modern dancer prancing about in a leotard. His otherwise spare apartment is a shrine to his obsession: There are the gaudy color photos of famous wrestlers taped to the concrete walls; there is an entire shelf of wrestling videotapes; there are the wrestlers' autobiographies he eagerly shows me; there are, leaning in a corner, the folded-up wrestling mats on which he practices several hours a day.
Dirty Dave claims to have sacrificed for his art. Contrary to popular belief, pro wrestling is not all fakery, though it does have a strong performance aspect. It extracts, he says, a physical toll. He has ripped a muscle in his calf and broken his tailbone, "a lot" of his teeth have been knocked out, and he tells me he's "messed up" his toes "pretty bad." And there is the mental discipline. Dirty Dave sleeps on a wooden board rather than a bed; he worries that too much comfort will sap his will to succeed.
There is no question that Dirty Dave has some way to go before reaching the big time, before tasting the glamour and the glory of the packed auditorium full of screaming, angry fans. But he has an inkling of what that would be like, from the monthly matches he and his friends put on at local venues like the Rendezvous. He always plays "the bad guy"--professional wrestling is built on a Manichaean view of the world--and speaks eloquently of that moment when the words come to him unbidden, the exact words that will rile the audience into a frenzy of hate, the words that will make old ladies want to beat him senseless with a rubber chicken. There is a certain genius in that, Dirty Dave asserts.
After meeting Dirty Dave, I looked up "genius" in the Oxford English Dictionary. The most relevant definition states that it is "native intellectual power of an exalted type, such as is attributed to those who are esteemed greatest in any department of art, speculation, or practice; instinctive or extraordinary capacity for imaginative creation, original thought, invention or discovery. Often contrasted with talent." By this definition, it seems to me that Dirty Dave could have qualified for one of our awards.
Of course, Dirty Dave doesn't waste much time leafing through the OED's pages. He doesn't need to study definitions in musty old dictionaries to know with absolute self-assurance that he has the makings of genius. He is a little mystified, and very disappointed, that The Stranger did not recognize what seems so obvious to him.
I don't know whether he's right. But I do know that I hope he makes it to the "world famous" Hart Dungeon in Calgary, Alberta, and I hope he goes on to an illustrious career hitting his share of unsuspecting "good guys" with metal folding chairs. I hope he succeeds in his quest to become the object of spite and hatred for countless thousands of ordinary people who will never attend an art opening. And here's to hoping that somewhere along the way Dirty Dave gets the chance to piledrive a couple of modern dancers.