Saturday, 4 April 2015

"Talent" is not a dirty word.

     Nature, in her wisdom, sprinkles talent indiscriminately amongst us, so that some lucky individuals are born with a genetic predisposition that allows them to do activities better than the rest of us. It doesn’t at all mean they will achieve anything with that specific genetic advantage because society has to allow for it to be fruitful and actively seek out the bestowed person and be encouraging. Parents, relatives, teachers and the public have to want talented people to succeed. And the individual with the talent may not know they have it and may not see any value in developing it. If there's no incentive to work at it, that itch they have as a child to draw or write or sing or dance or tell jokes won't last beyond childhood.  
     A country can do well by supporting the search for talent, no matter what the field; sports, arts, science, cooking, raising children, etc. and then provide good reasons for someone with talent to actually follow through. So, just as much as we need talented people to make life better for the rest of us, as we benefit from their exploits, as I do every time I turn on my laptop, a device created by a number of talented people, so we also need mentors, promoters, investors, agents, and critics. Talent shows might be tacky as all heck, but they can help. They're doing us a service that our friends daren't do, discern whether you have any ability or not. 
     Don't get me wrong, if you don't think you can win a talent competition, it doesn't in any way suggest you should stop singing or telling jokes. You might not get top marks, but you still are very valuable to all kinds of people. You just might not want to invest thousands of dollars in trying to make a living at it. 
     Sadly, many people, especially in the visual arts, see talent as a dirty word, and the search for it as something that will benefit a few at the expense of others. Some go so far as to say it doesn’t exist. It seems to be in our egalitarian nature to think that anyone can be an artist if they choose to be. Any time I'm with any sort of group of artists there's often someone there to remind us that, "anyone can be an artist."
     Funding and admiring only the talented seems grossly unfair. The problem, as we are all aware, is that we resent being told there is a wonderful film or art show worth seeing and when we go to the effort to check it out for ourselves, it turns out to be mediocre at best.
     In an art show a thousand mediocre works of art won’t make up for the one great inspiring piece that is missing. And much to the public's credit, more people than you think, actually have an ability to recognize a great work. The work often seems to sing for attention. It will have the effect of creating awe.
     With the invention of cameras, microscopes, wallpaper and colour printing, the ability to draw has been mistaken as a technological feat and not a human one. Many contemporary artists and critics too easily dismiss or undervalue an individual artist’s ability to create a vast range of subtleties in an image. They have thrown that ability into the dustbin of history, along with another, the ability revealed when an artist’s job or interest was the idiosyncratic application of allegory.
     This is where human emotions and actions can be read, where people’s desires and beliefs are recorded and can, over time, becomes part of history, so much so that history exists IN art, more artfully displayed than any camera or computer can achieve, until very recently. And even then, it takes an artist’s hand with enough skill to replace pencil and paper with stylus and pad and not make the image seem frozen. The difference between a photograph of any quality is nothing compared to a master painting filled with the artful use of texture and glazes.
     And of course there is the heavy handed weight of "the idea." A regular reader of this paper probably isn't aware that the traditional functions of art have been thrown under the bus in favour of lofty ideas, or philosophies of art. I'm not talking simply about "abstract" art. Some modernist and abstract art is valuable and quite good. What I'm talking about it when ideas become so strong in the art world that art, the work that physically exists in a gallery, becomes the byproduct of a way of thinking. Many university professors and their students get lost in their ideas, often having no application whatsoever in a world either outside of where the ideas are studied or where the byproducts are displayed, typically a gallery. 
     Or maybe I’m just a snob.
     Malcolm Gladwell argues in his book, Outliers, that all anyone needs to be good at something is ten thousand hours of practice. So in approximately ten years no matter who you are you will be good if not great at whatever it is you choose to do.
     Really? Sure, some can take ten years out of their lives to write a novel if they really put their mind to it, which Gladwell uses as an example, and anyone can learn to play a guitar in ten years or belly dance or ski or whatever. But will they be great? Will a woman or man practicing guitar for ten years be as good as Andres Segovia, or Jim Hendrix or Steve Howe? What about the kids who play the violin or piano at the age of five or seven? What about rock bands that turn out dozens of number one hits while other bands can’t? What about sports stars who have bigger lung capacity, or are taller, or have whatever physical disposition giving them the advantage?
     Two friends of mine have been painting portraits and figure drawings for much longer than ten years. Neither have gone beyond a high school level of ability. But they love doing it. One, Elizabeth, decided to expand her ability and love of art and went back to Fine Art school at the University of Victoria. She now produces installation works that don't require any drawing skills.
     Another friend, Daniel, who I knew for five years in Victoria, and who I hadn't seen in ten years, invited me into his home in Ottawa. His studio was filled with portraits and figure drawings. I happened to visit him on the day before a model was to show up. He had turned his living room into a studio as well, complete with lights and a model stand. He was excited and animated and was keen to talk about his collection that covered all the walls of his house. He still has the little portrait he bought from Myfanwy Pavelic in Victoria. You've seen Myfanwy's painting of Pierre Trudeau on television in the halls of the Parliament building whenever a politician is interviewed in the hall.
     Daniel's enthusiasm and love of art is infectious. And being French-Canadian his accent and manic gesticulations inspire admiration for his determination. He LOVES painting. He LOVES the human face. He LOVES the body. Yet after all these years, even with all his love he will not show his paintings publicly. He will not sell his work. He knows it simply isn't good enough. And he doesn't care. He loves the journey.
     Just about anyone in any field of endeavour can name someone else they were inspired by or are jealous of because they seem to be naturally talented at doing their job. I’ve been jealous of a number of artists who can draw and paint better than me. Boo hoo. But I learn from them and admire their abilities. And I know that my particular métier, my subject matter is quite different from theirs, so I only get inspired rather than turned off.
      Some people equate the search for talented people as the Nietzsche inspired Nazi search for the white superman of the Aryan race where countries hold up our sports and science stars as evidence of their superiority over others. This is a terrible rabbit hole to go down. But there are people who freak out when they hear the word “talent.” Or when they meet someone they think is more talented than them. I've met a few.
     I was invited to a drawing session in East Vancouver by an artist who just had a sellout show at a prominent gallery on Granville Street. We stood with our drawing boards next to each other and we had a clear view of each other's work. He drew in a Mannerist style. That night I was more Raphael. During the session, he became clearly more and more agitated as time went on. We barely talked. I realized soon enough that he had become insanely jealous. He began commenting on how organized I was, how sharp my pencils were. "They look like daggers." And after a few snide comments, often said with a smile, thinking he was funny, he said. "You know, you're a lot like Hitler." 
     There have been a number of books on the subject of how talent is a myth. Books on contemporary art often argue that the ability to draw is merely mechanical and that the attempt to find and create beauty is a shallow affair. They devalue the ability to draw and paint, which for thousands of years was the one qualifying ability that made a visual artist an artist. And Canadian Art magazine often features articles where inevitably the artist or critic or gallery owner states that popular art is the enemy of culture. Really? Pop-culture? Your biggest enemy? 
     There are genetic predispositions that allow some people to do activities better than the rest of us but only occur in an individual and not in that individual’s children. Sometimes talent skips a generation, like baldness. Maybe talent, on occasion, is a genetic benefit and rare, because nature in her evolutionary wisdom, or imperfection, sprinkles talent indiscriminately throughout a population no matter what their sex or race, like some forms of diseases? Are child prodigies the victims of a beneficial brain disease?
     Anyway, I’ve decided to write about individual Thunder Bay artists for the next two or three months to help them out. I’m looking to write more about talented female artists and First Nation artists. If you have any suggestions, please write to
    As an extra personal note, not printed in the CJ, I thought I should add that I never applied for a grant until I won a couple awards. When society gave me an indication that I might be of value, I decided I was worth other people's money. I've invested that money in my work and I'm happily making a living at doing what I love. Also, in my twenties, I saw artists who had no artistic ability, as far as I could tell, who received grants, and I was amazed that their work was getting support. Previous to winning the awards, I thought of grants for artists as welfare money. When I realized that a "best-selling" book in Canada is only at around 5,000 copies, I realized that I might as well be a welfare recipient. The chances of making a living in our current system, simply wasn't going to happen. I decided to dump the publishing industry and do it myself. So far so great.


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