Drawing on talent

What is the single greatest enemy of art?

What one thing more than any other manages to sabotage the efforts of the artist?

It’s not lack of money; it’s not the bourgeois tastes of the masses; it’s not cultural victimization.

The one great enemy of art is talent.

Well, maybe not talent, exactly, but the satisfaction of having talent and the willingness to settle for what talent gives you.

Being self-satisfied always makes the artist willing to settle for less.

I remember artist Frederick Sommer stating his case quite clearly: “Why would you ever do anything less well than you can?”

If you are going to attempt something, he says, you had better give it everything you have.

And talent simply isn’t everything you have.

Talent is like beauty; it comes with the genes. To rely on beauty to get you through the world is a shallow and unworthy existence. To rely on talent is equally unworthy.

Not that great artists aren’t talented. Talent is a gift, surely. But no artist ever produced anything great BECAUSE he had talent. In fact, many artists have had to work extremely hard to rise above their talent.

Talent, as I am using the word, is facility. It is the ease with which an artist — or poet or playwright or composer — can create something that looks like what society approves of as good art.

In the visual arts, this is often seen first in the ability to draw.

We think of Degas or Ingres or Picasso as great draftsmen, able to capture reality with the quick flick of a pencil, clean and unfussy.

But there are two things I want to say about that:

First, much of what passes for realistic drawing is in fact not realistic but conventional. We, the inheritors of the European traditions of art, have come to expect our art to LOOK a certain way, and when someone can produce that look, we mistake it for verisimilitude.

I don’t want to go into this too deeply here, because it will get me off the track.

But Suffice it to say, good draftsmanship, of this variety, says more about the acculturation of the artist than the artist’s engagement with the world.

And second, and more important, there have been great artists with little talent, at least, little of what we conventionally call talent.

I think of two in particular:

Paul Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh.

Both are among the greatest achievers Western art has ever known, and both did it despite having only middling talent. Consider Vincent’s drawing of a carpenter (above), from 1880. Almost childish.

One looks through van Gogh’s notebooks and looks in vain for facility. Nothing came easy for the Dutchman. The books are full of false starts and erasures. The pencil lines pile up on themselves in corrections and rethinkings.

One looks at Cezanne’s drawings and sees the work any moderately talented high school student could match, even exceed.

But the genius of both — indeed the genius of all great artists, even those like Degas who possessed talent out the wazoo — is their sense of commitment. They are committed unto death each time they essay a drawing.

It is always the depth of commitment that makes the artist. Talent helps, but talent is only a tool.

What do I mean by commitment?

I am talking about the ability to concentrate as if your life depended on it: To look at the world and steer your pencil as if you were defusing a bomb.

If the world falls away and only your task is real, you have made it to the first level.

But even that is only the first level.

Hey, we’re still only talking about drawing here. Drawings are wonderful — in many ways, I enjoy drawings more than I do paintings, just as I often enjoy symphony rehearsals more than concerts or dance rehearsals more than recitals.

What, then, takes us beyond the “preparatory drawing” and into the bigger, more important form.


I don’t mean the worldly ambition of making money or reputation. Those are altogether unworthy ambitions, and rather small ambitions at that. Anyone with TALENT can achieve those ends.

No, by ambition, I mean the grand biting off more than you can chew. I mean always working at the outer edges of your talent, attempting to take off into the stratosphere.

When one looks at the artists who were truly great, and let’s name a few:

Besides van Gogh and Cezanne, there is Manet, Goya, Michelangelo, Raphael, Poussin, Picasso, Matisse, Rembrandt, Durer, Turner, Botticelli, Titian.

Each one of these had ambition to paint more than pretty pictures. Each attempted to wrestle with some aspect of reality and bring it into submission so we could see it, test it and comprehend it.

Art that does less, I have said before, is wallpaper.

So where does that leave talent?

Well, the same place as that other great bugaboo of art, “creativity.”

You have no idea how ill I get when I hear someone talking about creativity as if it were a good thing.

Creativity is, like talent, an excuse for laziness. An excuse to accept easy, slovenly or simple-minded art as “good enough”; It is not.

Creativity is almost always used as such an excuse when we hear it. It is one of those words that should immediately make you suspicious. People who really understand what is going on in art don’t rely on such a word. It is only for poseurs and dilettantes.

Creativity is the merest baby steps of art. It is sure nothing to be proud of. Anyone is capable of creativity. It is just looking for a new way to join two sticks.

If it isn’t joined to a critical mind that can then judge whether the new way these sticks are joined is or is not a BETTER way, it is worthless.

Sure, it can be fun. So can a cross-word puzzle. But that don’t make it art.

Art is hard. If it isn’t, it isn’t worth doing.

If you are comfortable with what you are doing, it isn’t worth doing.

If you know HOW to do what you are doing, it isn’t worth doing.

That reminds me of another thing Frederick Sommer says: “I never read a book I understand,” he says. “If I already understand it, why am I wasting my time chewing this stuff twice.”

We need to dive into those things we don’t understand and think and feel as hard as we can, making sense of it. Then we have accomplished something.

Creativity: I leave that to new-age wannabes, where nothing of real worth is possible.

Shall we find yet another popular bugaboo? How about spontaneity?

Did Milton create “Paradise Lost” spontaneously?

Real art comes as the result of great labor.

It is the highly polished and refined gem that is worked and reworked, thought through and re-thought through.

No great art comes spontaneously.

Think of the great Sumi paintings of Japan, that are made with a few deft strokes of brush and ink, with no erasings possible, no “redos.”

A great Zen painter can only produce such work after years of great labor. It doesn’t come without effort.

But go downtown to any poetry slam: You will find piles of really wretched poetry written by young people who think that every word they utter is sacred. That spontaneity is somehow Holy.

Jack Kerouac espoused this view. But his best books, and especially “On the Road,” were rewritten heavily. It is later in his career that he started writing genuinely “spontaneous prose,” as he called it. And those books are awful.

His friend, Allen Ginsberg, likewise liked to say, “First thought, best thought.” But all his best writing, from “Howl” to “Kaddish” exists in variorum editions that show how much they were reworked and rewritten.

“First thought, best thought,”my ass.

The secret of great writing is rewriting, someone once said. And that is certainly correct. The really proper word doesn’t always come the first time round, and then the greater structure of a piece must often be carpented and finessed.

Ask James Joyce, who spent 11 years writing “Ulysses.”

I see it all around me in art galleries. Artists want a pat on the back, as they got when they were children and their mothers patted them for drawing such a nice doggie and horsie.

That is good for children. It is insufficient for working artists.

It is a struggle, and should be a struggle.

Art isn’t easy and it wasn’t meant to be. No human endeavor worth pursuing is easy.


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