Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Myron Barnstone on "talent"

"I don't believe in talent. I recognise that there's genius out there; I respect it; I stand in awe of it. Most art has been produced by real people, everyday kinds of people, for whom art has become so important that they've developed the skills to say something that others have thought is very important also."
Myron Barnstone.

If you recall, we have officially banned the phrase "I can't draw a straight line" from the commboxes. It is meaningless drivel and is, as Myron Barnstone points out above, actually a kind of insult, both to the object of the speaker's putative admiration and to the speaker himself. It's actually a kind of dodge, that really means, "You must be some kind of freak to be able to do something that is so clearly impossible," and "I'm too lazy to be bothered to learn."

As Myron Barnstone says above, for a Florentine boy of, say, 1430, apprenticed to one of the painters of the time,
"for 8 or 9 years he would be in constant training. And he would learn all of the skills, all of the craft, all of the techniques that everyone was being taught. And he would become the painter of Florence...Vasari would love to rewrite history and suggest that Raphael showed genius at a very very early age, as did Michelangelo and Leonardo...to what extent any of that's true we don't know. What we do know is when they started to get formal instruction, rigorous, demanding, disciplined, rote instruction, they responded favorably. And they developed rapidly. But all of the artists of that period came from the general population, and it was a working class background for the most part."
They were young people looking for a way to make a living.
"There wasn't any mystique and the words talent and genius was little heard. Today we only hear the terms 'talent' and 'genius' by someone who's offering training. I tend not to use the terms. Talent is the word that you find in the mouth of the lazy, the dismissive. All of the hard work that somebody else has invested after they've achieved something, their achievement is dismissed as being a product of talent. And that sort of implies that it didn't require anything on their part."

"Talent," if there is such a thing, largely lies in application, the willingness to put the effort into learning the tasks and pushing through the obstacles and difficulties. This, I have said before, requires a kind of love. "Talent" therefore, is a kind of love, a love of the chosen art form, strong enough to make it a priority. Strong enough to make one willing to sacrifice other pleasures to pursue it.

I don't know about other types of arts, but about drawing - and we can probably assume the same applies to painting - I have learned through experience that it is a skill. Difficult to learn and requiring time and discipline, and instruction, but a skill like driving or cooking. When I was younger, I assumed what everyone does, that "artists" have a "talent" they were just born with, like their eye colour. Or at most, they were born into a social atmosphere where art was encouraged - Yoyo Ma started his 'cello lessons when he was five, taught by his father. Cecilia Bartoli's first singing teacher was her mother - And if you weren't lucky enough to have been granted these advantages by the heavens you were sunk. Either way, you had to have this mysterious, innate thing, like the Harry Potter wizard gene, or you were simply doomed to a life of frustrated mediocrity.

Some of that, I have discovered, is true. There are certainly advantages that some people are born with and others miss. Some people are born into families where art and literature and good music are the norm and they are encouraged and guided to accomplish what they aim for. And there are good and bad places and times to be born. I can't imagine getting anywhere with artistic work without a reasonably leisured and orderly society to live in, one in which the struggle for bare survival is no longer the only concern. In times of stress or social upheaval or want or scarcity, not a lot of art, or work of any kind, gets done. Hunter-gatherers of the ice age did little art, as do North Koreans or Somalis of our time. (But the fact that there is music and art from every human culture and every human epoch - no matter how brutal - has to indicate that "talent" is born into us as a species, not as individuals. It is human to want to create beautiful and meaningful things. Divine, perhaps. And surely it is therefore satanic to want to tear down.)

There is obviously also such a thing as genius. It seems indisputable that a Leonardo or a Mozart, or for that matter a Newton or Kepler, were uniquely gifted men. They had all the necessary social support to do what they did. But I think we Modernians have a lazy habit of assuming that one has to be as freakishly gifted as that in order to qualify for this "talented" label. But we have to remember that such genius stands out because of its rarity, perhaps more even than its accomplishments.

But take the case of probably the most famous of these freakish geniuses: Leonardo. He was born the illegitimate son of a notary. He could not, therefore attend university and get the classical education that was the foundation at that time for all intellectual work. In his studies of nature he was self-taught, and lamented all his life that he never was able to formally study mathematics. He was apprenticed to Verrocchio at 15. At the time, this arrangement made for him by his father, was no more glamorous than learning to be a plumber. Painting was a trade, with specific tools and (jealously guarded) techniques that one simply learned. A working class boy was given into this work in exactly the same way he might be to any trade and for the same reason: to earn an honest living. Painting was, and remains to the honest and non-puffed-up, work. A job.

It is certainly possible to waste the training on someone who has no depth of perception, no strength of personality or character. No ideas. But I don't think those things, philosophical depth or perception or character, are what we call "talent" either.

We can thank the self-absorbed and morally rotten group of people the 19th century came to call "The Romantics" for the silly notion that painting was some kind of divine calling. It was with the advent of this group of shysters, peddling the same kind of proto-New Age pseudo mysticism that we later got from the hippies, that we have our ideas about "talent". And it was from them, ultimately, that we have the collapse of the Western art tradition. Once it all became about natural, inborn "talent," "creativity" and "expression" and no longer about hard work and diligent application to real techniques, it was no longer important that a young person learn to draw, or learn anything about the mathematics of composition, proportion or perspective. All that just seemed like too much work when you could just dip a basket ball in paint and dribble your way to fame and fortune.

If "talent" is anything, it is love. It is the interest and drive necessary to keep you going for years of study and to keep you willing to sacrifice other things to get the skills to be able to proceed. I wish I had understood this when I was a child, or that someone had explained it to me. My grandma tried. She said to me once, in response to my complaints about the tediousness of some of the drawing exercises she tried to get me to do, "You haven't earned creativity yet."



Anonymous said...

I think Henri Amiel's aphorism is pertinent: "Doing easily what others find difficult is talent; doing what is impossible for talent is genius."

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Please review the commbox rules posted to the sidebar on the left. Anonymous or pseudonymous posts are not allowed.