The Problem With Talent

“…none of the epic poets, if they’re good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems… For a poet is an airy thing, winged and holy, and he is not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his mind and his intellect is no longer in him.

Plato, The Ion

“Talent is a snare and a delusion. In the end, the practical questions about talent come down to these: Who cares? Who would know? And What difference would it make? And the practical answers are: Nobody, Nobody, and None.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

Art looks like magic. You can’t imagine how she or he captured that likeness, got that idea, put those words or those sounds together; how someone could create something out of nothing that could make you have such a visceral experience just by engaging with it. It’s awe-inspiring; otherworldly, even!

Historically, when we as humans have been unable to understand something, we have placed it in the category of “supernatural mystery” and attributed it to the gods. This has been true of art at least since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, though I suspect this impulse has been in us from the beginning of artmaking itself. What art does to us feels nothing short of spiritual; it makes sense that we would be inclined to credit spirits working through the human with this feat rather than the human herself.

In our modern age of science and secularism, the language of Muses and gods and spirits has been slightly lowered and replaced with the words “talent” and “giftedness”. “Talent” can be defined as a natural aptitude or skill, or something that comes easily. “Giftedness,” of course, implies that a gift has been given (and not earned).

This is the language that we have for artists (really, for anyone who’s good at what they do), and I submit to you that this is problematic.

Now I know a lot of you are not liking this so far, but hear me out.

Since a talent is something that comes easily and naturally, when a person who believes deeply enough in the concept reaches the inevitable point in her work where art becomes hard, what do you think her response will be?

“It’s just as I feared!,” right? If “giftedness” is a prerequisite of good work in the artist’s mind, that artist will avoid risks or anything that makes her feel unsure of herself. If she had talent, it would come naturally; so if it doesn't come naturally, what's the point? Growing up, she may have loved to create, and perhaps her talent was validated at some point, but ultimately talent snuffed her out. This is very bad for art.

Now, imagine a person who doesn’t allow a lack of talent to stop him from making his work. It doesn’t come easily; in fact, he struggles with it every day. He takes risks, goes through dry spells, allows himself to make countless ugly and clumsy things, often feels deep inadequacy, but he keeps working. The work that he produces goes from bad to better to strikingly beautiful. The labor of his love for his work eventually, over years and years, leads to mastery. How do you suppose he feels when practically the only thing he hears from his viewers is, “You are so talented!”? Don’t you think it would feel discrediting? Dismissive?

I’m not saying talent doesn’t exist. I think we can all agree that certain things come more easily to some people than others. What I am saying is that it doesn’t deserve near the reverence that we lavish on it. Talent may be a good starting point for a lot of people, but it will never carry anyone through the struggle and uncertainty that comes with the territory of art-making. And, if a person doesn’t have talent to start with but only a love for the thing and a good work ethic, it won’t be long in that person’s career before no one would be able to tell the difference.

For those of us (myself included) who have attributed a person’s good work to talent, I know our hearts were in the right place. I don’t think we need to feel bad for having used that language in the past. We were being kind!

I do think, however, that when we talk to and about artists or any masters in any area, perhaps we ought to be more mindful. Let’s use language that credits the laborer for his and her work; language that doesn’t discourage people for whom the work doesn’t come naturally; that doesn't dismiss the blood, sweat, and tears that probably went into the creation of the thing you're admiring.

Some ideas to start you out with:

I admire your creativity/skill!

That song/poem/painting really makes me think!

I can tell you worked really hard on this!

This must have taken so much thought and care!

You have such a good sense for balance/color/aesthetics!

You really captured that person’s essence!

Your work has really made great progress!

This piece really speaks to me!

I love your work!


In closing, I’ll leave you with another quote from Bayles and Orland’s Art and Fear, a book which every single art maker should own and read over and over again (really, I’m not kidding; go to Kindle or Books A Million or wherever you buy your reading material. Just buy it ASAP.):

“The point here is that whatever his initial gift, Mozart was also an artist who learned to work on his work, and thereby improved. In that respect he shares common ground with the rest of us. Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work. They commit themselves to the work of their heart, and act upon that commitment. So when you ask, 'Then why doesn’t it come easily for me?,’ the answer is probably, ‘Because making art is hard!’

What you end up caring about is what you do, not whether the doing came hard or easy.”

Keep fighting the good fight, my friends.

Till next time,