Sunday, August 3, 2008

what is talent?

"There is nothing so terrible as the pursuit of art by those who have no talent." – W. Somerset Maugham.

Hearing of my search for women artists in literature, a friend gave me Of Human Bondage. I was fairly certain that I had read it before, yet could remember none of it. In the story, a young man named Philip tries many things and one of them is art school in Paris. Here he meets a woman (named Fanny Price, which is also the name of a major Jane Austen heroine) who has “no talent” but nonetheless literally starves for her art - until she can take no more, and commits suicide. The haunting image of her suffering and sacrifice never leaves Philip.

Outside of a coming of age story, the theme is rather evasive. One subject however that the book revisits is that of “talent.” It’s quite clear that Somerset Maugham thinks a lot of us are wasting our time on creative endeavors. Second rate is just not good enough and the world is way too full of it.

But exactly what talent is, that’s never fully explained. - For a lot of these characters can draw OK. They can render. They talk about art and philosophy all day and night long. It’s all enough to fuel them in youth, but true brilliance is another thing. The fact that it all takes place in Paris does not save their efforts, or make them any better. One of the professors makes a grave impression when he tells Philip: “Get out while you can. It’s not enough to be just alright, there’s not enough reward for that.” What he is basically doing is trying to save Philip from a life of romantic mediocrity.

It’s interesting to be reading this book now, in a time and place where there is so much drawing and yes, I’ll say it: a hell of a lot of it is mediocre. That’s not to say they can’t draw. But just as the novel implies - that’s not enough. Talent is a word I’ve personally learned to distrust, because some people think it can replace hard work. But whatever that mystery word means, I don’t see it in enough of the drawing. And I know drawing is fun, in and of itself.

When Philip decides to quit art school, it’s not played as a tragedy. He has to make a go of something, he must earn his way and having grown up with a club foot and no parents, he’s got very little room for rose colored glasses. But he never forgets the artist’s way. He is always grateful for the two years he spent in Paris.


Anonymous said...

I always loved Tim Burtons fictionalization of the life of Ed Wood the notoriously bad film maker. It's a film that makes a good case for doing something you love even if you have no talent for it. Passion is also something people can be born with that can drive their art and craft is something you develop through hard work and years of practice and attention to details. I remember how my grandmother would judge a piece of clothing based enitirely on it's construction. No matter what it looked like if it was well made it was good, if it was poorly made it was junk. I like to think there are more factors that can be used to qualify someones work then just the subjective concept of 'talent'. Also practicing any art teaches one how to appreciate when it is done well, and the ability to appreciate art is a valuable goal in itself.

Eva said...

I like this example of Ed Wood, Anonymous. He was so bad he was great.

nod said...

samsara (tiny smile)
some words from long ago are so
or so

namastenancy said...

Good essay on a subject that's impossible to pin down. How many artists were thought to have no talent during their lifetimes and are now valued, Van Gogh being one case in point. Who decides what's good and what's bad when there is no prevailing aesthetic? I went to a discussion at Yerba Buena last Saturday about the state of art and artists in the Bay Area. I was amused and yet, rather saddened, by the pontificating and vague generalizations being spouted forth. When you look at art of the past, we have guidelines but today? Sometimes I think that the real talent lies in NOT following the crowd and being humble in your practice which is something that I don't see very often.

Chris Ashley said...

I was going to make a comment somewhat similar to anon's, but the example I was going to use is Sol Lewitt. You can't qualify Lewitt's work using the criteria of "talent". Talent often means a kind of skill or ability. So, to define in relation to Eva's mention of drawing, this means a kind of finesse with line and shading, and "creativity" (I really don't like "creative" art, and someday I hope to explain why, but just put it this way: look at how much of the current drawing is really just creative illustration).

A better definition of talent might use words like intelligence, endurance, loyalty, integrity, and honesty. Lewitt's talent is that he doggedly pursued a vision with a balance of both rigor and curiosity. He made things over and over, moving from one variation to another, worked series through to their end, and created a lifetime's body of work that has coherence, beauty, and logic and surprises. Another name I could use is Donald Judd.

A slight variation of this is Agnes Martin's best work from the early 60's to the mid or late 80's- there is no obvious talent to make her paintings that fits the popular definition. Anyone can apply a wash to to a canvas, rule some lines, and hand paint little lines or dots. So why aren't the paintings of her many imitators as good as hers? Her best work has a quivering power and naked beauty that so many others fail to achieve.

Jerome said...

I would try a definition of talent: doing something you absolutely need to do and nobody else can do.
The second part of the definition is the more important one and where the lucidity of the artist lies.

Anonymous said...

I like the definition Jerome. What also makes it tricky (and true) is that when someone produces that thing that no one else can do, then of course they do not recognize it and so it is often dismissed.

CAP said...

I've always thought talent just indicated a natural aptitude toward something - some people have great reflexes, longer limbs, 'get' maths or music right from the start. It's a hard-wired capacity, something you're born with or inherit.

But obviously it's not enough on its own - 'capacity' or potential is all it is.

The next tricky question is what is 'good' drawing or art?

jerome said...

Eva, you are right but i ll ad a quotation by Simone Weil who says :"A man with something new to say - platitudes don't need attention at all- can only be heard at first by those who love him".
We all know that for example Van Gogh was recognized by his artist friends long before he got public recognition.

Anonymous said...

cap, your question of "what is good drawing" is an interesting one. I can't begin to define what that is. All I know is that when you are bombarded by a lot of drawing - countless group shows full of "the line," as Yves Klein would call it - it tends to all blur together in your experience. Something else, something special and significant has to make it rise above and often the attempts at being "clever" were the worst of the bunch.

nod said...

I know that is selfish of me... but I've always had the belief that art is "good" if it created an emotion... a thought... either comfortable or uncomfortable... that made my experience of life somehow better... if it does the same for someone else... even better.

Anonymous said...

to me talent is not that dificult to come by but genius is. I see lots of talented people and when
I look at my self and look back at my life I see that I have been given many talents but not one that's significantly supirior to the others.
Everything else is skill and the level of it which means also how much time I'll give to it and what size of a junk of my life I am willing to sacrefice for it and with it I mean Art and I say this as a lazy artist not in production but in depth and time spend with each piece. So bad and good worth and worthless are depending on my expectations not others and the feed back I get out of it outside of a monetary value is what makes it valuable to me. Junk art can inspire me if the idea behind it resonates with my growth pattern. Great Art can bore me because it is not what I am looking for right now. History is written to please its writer not to be a truthful acount and the historical value of an art piece offen superseeds its artistic value.
Good material to rattle on

keep it flowing Eva
hope all is well


Anonymous said...

Hey Richard and Nod,
If talent hits you over the head, will you see it? As a curator I picked up some pretty obvious choices that no one was willing to really consider. On the other end, just because something has a million stamps of approval and flags to wave, doesn't mean it will mean anything to anyone years later.

I could be wrong about who said it, but I think if was the Double J who said something like this in a blog: "By the time you're 50, you know if you matter or not." That certitude just blew me away. I've turned 50 and I find that things rise and fall like the tide - daily.


nod said...

I believe that age only has the signifcance that we give it.. I would hope that at whatever age I might be.. 6 or 60.. that if I give it effort.. or not.. that just in the act of living I might create something that would make someones life better if you talking about "art" as a business venture.. then maybe 50 would be a good cutoff.. it is for most business endevors.. but even that is not a truth I hope.. I'm 53 and am going to take a test to become licensed land surveyor.. hopefully I can still work as a land surveyor after the age of 50 and people will appreciate my work... and drawings ;)

Anonymous said...

Well I agree with you Nod - it ain't over til it's over and even then, it (art history) is never over.