I ran across this panel in the comics page today, and couldn’t get my mind off it. I see this kind of unconscious condescension (and I do think it’s unconscious) all the time among people who are considered “creative” (and the reciprocal self-deprecation among people who aren’t). “You don’t decide to be an artist, you’re born one” and, conversely, “oh, I couldn’t draw a straight line to save my life, so I could never be an artist”. Guys, let’s stop this right now: the only thing preventing a person from becoming an artist is the lack of reinforcement for the process of becoming. In plain English: there’s not enough apparent reward to make us want to put the work in. In plainer English: if we’re not artists, it’s because we don’t want to practice.
Consider this hypothetical parallel (cribbed from Betty Edwards). Imagine that when a child arrived in preschool, she was given a book (no pictures, just words) and told to figure out what to do with it. No instruction, no examples. If, at the end of the day, she’d managed to piece together a few words, the teachers would label her “a reader” and encourage her to further develop her reading. Her parents would smile and say “oh, her uncle Dan was a reader – it runs in the family”. The other kids, the ones who hadn’t been able to make sense of the book (again, without instruction or guidance), would have mandatory, rudimentary classes throughout grade school, with assignments like “read this short story” – without any explanation as to how one was to do that – and by the time high school rolled around, reading would be an elective, taken at high levels by the “readers” and avoided by everyone else except to fill requirements.
If it’s unacceptable to think of reading that way, why do we treat art exactly as described? Show an early predisposition toward art, and you’re a “born artist”. Don’t, and you “just don’t have the talent”.
I’ll follow that with a caveat: I do believe that there are people to whom practicing a creative craft is more inherently rewarding than it is to others. At the same time, there are people to whom the practice of law is more rewarding than it is to others. I don’t think anyone would argue that law takes vast amounts of study and practice. Why would we believe that art is any different?
One of the songs I learned when I took piano lessons in my youth had the lyric “If I had even a fraction of Vladimir Horowitz’s talent, I’d practice all day”. It’s exactly the opposite: Vladimir Horowitz has his talent because he practices all day. Artists don’t draw/paint/etc. because they’re talented, they’re “talented” because they’ve spent years drawing/painting/etc.
Why do we persist in the “talent” myth? Because it’s reinforcing. Talent allows those with to believe that they’re special, that they possess a gift that separates them from the unskilled hoi polloi; and it allows those without to believe that their inability to do what they want to do is out of their control, instead of something to be worked past.
This is not to diminish the accomplishments of artists – far from it. But let’s recognize them for their hard work and real accomplishment – not for some imaginary “talent”.