Is Artistry a Selective Talent?

With most things in life that people are good at, all too often the hard work, commitment and training of the individuals are brushed off simply as “talent”. With that in mind, I got to wondering if this natural aptitude or skill truly is the case, or is a person’s proficiency in something the result of an intense commitment to their particular craft?

I’m thinking in artistic terms for this particular insight, but following another trail of thoughts on the same topic (which is a very broad ranging topic); would any of the world’s most renowned thinkers and men of science amounted to anything had they had no former education? Can a boxer win the heavyweight without any training just because he was “born to be a boxer”? I personally don’t think that could ever be the case and helps to form my argument that “talent” is the result of a vigorous routine of learning and training.

There are some exceptions to the rule especially when it comes to child prodigies who defy all expectations and say for example, can memorise and play entire Beethoven sonatas on piano at the mere age of five years old; one particular account of this was featured in the Daily Mail a couple of years ago. Now these rare occurrences could make me eat my words but on the contrary, these are very few and far between and not common enough to count for the overuse of the term “talent”.

Leonardo da Vinci 

Leonardo da Vinci - Self-Portrait (ca.1512) Red Chalk on Paper
Leonardo da Vinci – Self-Portrait (ca.1512) Red Chalk on Paper

Let’s use the most world famous artist and genius who is the very epitome of the word Renaissance as an example for my theory. Born on the 15th April 1452, in Vinci in the Florence region of Tuscany in Italy as the bastard son of a wealthy Florentine legal notary; Leonardo’s future prospects could have seemed quite bleak, illegitimate children were not entitled to formal education or highly esteemed careers and usually lived and died as peasants.

Leonardo however grew to be a polymath; he was a painter, inventor, sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, geometer, mathematician, engineer, anatomist, geologist, astronomer, cartographer, botanist, philosopher, historian and writer. A very extensive list of attributes and skills indeed and all of these things Leonardo excelled in. He was not born as any of these things, they were all a result of his life, circumstances and interests that pushed him towards a lifetime’s work of genius.

Growing up as a young boy in the Tuscan hills of Vinci, Leonardo took an interest in the natural world and spent a lot of time studying it and sketching, he was also fortunate enough to receive an informal education in Latin, Geometry and Mathematics. His true education started once he reached fourteen years old and become an apprentice to the master Verrochio in 1466. By the age of twenty, Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke; a guild of artists, doctors and medicine.

Without now writing a complete biography of Leonardo da Vinci’s life, it’s clear to see that his circumstances; despite being born out of wedlock, and his interests drove him forward to become the man he did, he dedicated his entire life to his work and worked harder than most in doing so. Leonardo da Vinci died on 2nd May 1519 aged sixty-seven and his dying words of modesty were “I have offended God and Mankind, by doing so little with my life.” – that quote alone could be a very interesting topic for a post and debate.

With all this in mind, Leonardo was obviously a talented man but his life’s work can’t be simply put down to “talent”; it truly is the result of a lifelong servitude to his curiosity and thirst for knowledge, sacrificing both relationship commitments and children (not in the pagan sacrificial sense) in order to become the world’s most diversely skilled man.

My Theory

As may already be evident with what I’ve already wrote, my belief or theory is that “talent” in respect of the connotation it carries is a non-existent force. A person’s talents or attributes/skills as I prefer to call them are the result of a series of different elements:

  • Circumstances – Where and when one is born and grows up have a massive effect on who one is as a person and who one becomes in later life. The same goes for events in one’s life. Circumstances play a huge role in more than just what skills and attributes one acquires but it is definitely a key element responsible for such things.
  • Interests – Interests also play an important part in the skills one acquires, without interest in a subject one wouldn’t be willing to learn about it and even if one tried it would be extremely difficult to take in. I have this problem with sports history, I love history beyond most things but as soon as sports history is mentioned I’m looking out of the nearest window and seeing random familiar shapes in clouds. Without interests in a subject, it’s highly unlikely that one would bother with it in the first place, let alone excel in it.
  • Time – The most valuable thing in the entire world and the one thing no one can get enough of; on the flip side of that though, when it comes to time we were all created equal. Both you and I and everyone else for that matter have the same amount of hours in a day as any of the old masters whether that is in art, science or any field. In order to excel in one’s field though, time must be taken and used wisely to commit to the preferred field of study. If Artist A and Artist B both started studying at the same time and at the same level of experience, but Artist A spent one hour per week drawing whilst Artist B spent one hour per day, it’s pretty hard to imagine that Artist A would become the more proficient draughtsman of the two.
  • Willingness – Along with the previous three elements, willingness is probably the father of all of them, without willingness there is nothing. The willingness to dedicate oneself to their field of study is paramount to the acquisition of any attributes and skills.

These elements; and there are definitely more, combined with the blood, sweat and tears of a hard worker are the key ingredients for the recipe of a skillset. So where does that leave “talent”? As stated before, talent can be used as an interchangeable word for skill or attribute and thus that is the recipe for talent; talent in the more common use though, as a natural ability one is born with is left as a non-existent entity as far as I’m concerned.

To suggest that artistry is a skill of a selective nature only to be given to a certain percentage of humans makes it seem quite an elitist craft, one that can only be entered into if you were fortunate enough to have been born the recipient of such a skill. It also suggests that if you can’t pick up a pencil or paintbrush and create a work of art instantly then there is no point endeavouring to learn, even if you are extremely interested in it; this puts me in mind of art historians, such formidably knowledgeable people, but most of which never bother to learn to create art due to a sense of inadequacy because of a previous experience of attempting a drawing or painting and it not coming out how they had envisioned it. Personally I think if certain art historians did dedicate themselves to learning the craft, they would have the potential to initiate a new world Renaissance of art.

Questions for Readers

So what do you think about this topic, is artistry a natural talent only gifted to a select number of people in society, or is this skill available to be learned by anyone that holds a keen interest in the craft and who is willing to dedicate their time to learning it?

Do you have a similar or differing theory to this one, or do you perhaps share this theory on talent?

Please feel free to add any comments with answers to these questions or to have a discussion about this topic, I’m all ears (or eyes as my laptop suggests) and more than happy to engage in discussion.

JGlover