The Talent Myth
Lee Emmerich Jamison
(I was talking to a musician today who had seen this column in the Huntsville Item. It is an important message we would do well to learn for any field, not just the arts.)
To most of us, even most artists, the arts look like magic. Hence the myth of "talent" in the arts. It is easiest in the face of that general misconception to go with the flow and treat art as a form of mystical enlightenment most people will never have access to.
That 's a mistake.
Art (or any of the arts) is neither mysticism nor magic. Like learning a language it is a mastery, one by one, of a withering fog of skills.
As anyone who has ever attempted to learn a second language can attest what seems second nature as an accomplishment of childhood can be like hoeing a garden out of a parking lot as an adult. So it is with the arts. Learning the language of communicating ideas and emotions with images, movements, sounds, or all of the above is hard, but can be manageable with the help of wise guides.
Very early in my art career I had the chance to meet landscape artist Dalhart Windberg. Encouragingly, he was more than politely enthusiastic about my work. At the same time, though, he gave me some brief, very keen insights into what I needed to do to get better. In the course of just a few minutes he showed me how he laid out his palette, premixing graded piles of colors so that he could move deftly and subtly from one shade of color to another.
My painting Windberg had critiqued and found a little lacking had won a regional art competition in Dallas. Defensively thinking to myself that I didn't want to paint like Windberg I resisted his advice.
Three years later, as a member of the stable of a nationally recognized gallery of Western art, I met Wilson Hurley. Hurley is, by any measure, a brilliant man. He was a fighter pilot, engineer, and successful corporate lawyer who, as an adult, taught himself to be perhaps America's finest landscape painter. I DID want to paint like him so I listened hard.
Very politely, he let me know I had a lot to learn. I relied too much on photographs, didn't plan paintings particularly well, poorly understood the use of grays to bring out the depths I wanted to show and, um hmm, needed to master the use of the palette. Otherwise he liked my work.
Windberg had been right.
The truth is at that stage in my life I, too, had fallen into the trap of thinking I was really "talented". How I succeeded was something of a mystery to me, as was why I so often failed. I worked hard, but my skills had reached a plateau. This is the problem with the talent myth. A lack of understanding obscures the path to success, then talent mythology steps in either to hold out a lottery ticket’s hope or an excuse for accepting failure. When the going is difficult we say we aren’t talented. When someone has slaved to master skills we don’t understand we belittle their accomplishment by saying how blessed they are to have been "given" (!) such talent.
As with any other form of mysticism seeing the world through the lens of talent blurs opportunities to perceive order on the way to one’s goals.
No single lesson has been worth more to me artistically than conquering the palette. It is an inconvenient process and it causes me to "waste" what seems a lot of paint. However, the thirty minutes or so spent on prepping a palette make some otherwise impossible effects accessible. The depth and subtlety in a painting of a big sky or the atmospheric perspective of a mountain pass are not magic. They are the result of skill taking advantage of an orderly process.
Combined with hard-earned observation skills and brush techniques this tool for carefully marshalling the properties of paint has helped make me a pretty good landscape painter. But now I understand how it does so. When the going gets tough I have a clue how to move forward from the seeming impasse. Sure, it’s not science. But it’s also not magic.
Accepting the myth of talent permitted me to excuse a lazy painting process. The lazy process delayed my learning a set of necessary skills. Look around and you will see this is a scenario not limited to the arts.
All around us kids who are permitted to believe they are not "talented" in writing, or science, or math join those who think they are not talented in the arts in being undereducated in areas that could be enriching their lives (and even their pocketbooks).
Lately I’ve had the experience of watching my 47-year-old brother, a solid "B" student his first time through college in business, decide that he was going to pursue a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. That has meant graduating with honors as a Chemistry undergrad and learning mathematics that leave my physicist Dad scratching his head. There’s no way he should be that "talented". But by hard work he will achieve his goal, going after it one step, one skill, at a time.
Hard work… I’m not holding my breath ‘till that’s as popular as talent.
Lee Jamison can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org