As this year comes to a close I’d like to talk about a word that can be as debilitating and destructive as any in the English language.

That word is talent, and in America, it’s practically a national obsession.

I taught art at the high school level for five years, and over that period of time I had the chance to talk about my job to an awful lot of people. The most common response to the mere mention of art was almost invariably something along these lines- “I don’t have any art talent.” (Sometimes “I wish I had art talent, but…”). “I can’t even draw stick figures!” or “I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler!” usually followed by a wry smile or self-effacing laugh.

Let’s pass by for a moment the dismissive attitude toward someone with art skills, densely linked with self-loathing, packed into those statements,  and instead analyze the frequency at which it occurs. Is there any other skill besides music that an adult human being will completely dismiss the possibility of acquiring? Imagine if young drivers, presented with their first cars, informed their parents that they didn’t have a talent for acceleration, that they wished they had been born with the reflexes to navigate traffic rules and avoid collision with other drivers.

Some skill with drawing, singing and instrumental music was considered a requisite of an educated person in Britain in the 1800’s. Other examples can be found that suggest that at least some skill with draftsmanship was, at various periods, taken for granted as a task with which every thinking person should have some fluency. So now, in a culture obsessed with the idea of education as a equalizer of class, where each man supposedly has an equal opportunity to raise himself to his true potential, why have a handful of skills become the provenance of the few?

One potential factor is the idea that the availability of recordings– in the form of wax cylinders or LPs or CDs or MP3s in the case of music, and black and white and color reproduction in the case of visual arts– have eliminated some of the social necessity of these skills, and so they are less prevalent as a result. Being able to play an instrument and sing were requirements of middle class women a hundred and fifty years ago because it meant they could entertain guests, or their families, with music. The same thing can now be accomplished with a small piece of plastic. Likewise, some facility with draftsmanship was important for mapping,  informal portraiture, architectural design and other practical applications. All of these are skills  currently in the hands of specialists. Is the fall-off of drawing facility a symptom of specialization?

It’s possible, but I don’t buy it. Instead I think in visual arts it is almost wholly a byproduct of changes in educational method, the idea of “talent,” and the self-reinforcing cycle that can emerge from the combination of these two.

I had my first exposure to this process at the tender age of five, in my kindergarten class at Rolling Hills Elementary. We were supposed to be working on a ditto that involved a large mustachioed square, named, appropriately, Mr. Square, who was lifting a large dumbbell over his head. My curly haired teacher, whose name I have lost with countless other moments of my childhood, decided to use the coloring of the ditto for a little art instruction. “Outline Mr. Square first before you color him in, so he’ll look perfect,” she told us, pacing the room. “No, no, use your orange crayon. Mr. Square is orange.” I had already started coloring without any outlining, and it seemed fine, so I just kept going. “Remember, I have eagle eyes, and I can see if you didn’t outline before you color,” she reminded us. I continued what I was doing despite the warning and its implied consequences.

But it wasn’t me that was singled out for the violation of the injunction against direct coloring—it was the girl who sat at my table to the left of me, a pretty girl in a blue and white dress with hair so blond it was translucent. I don’t remember her name, but I remember her face. “I can see someone forgot to outline before they colored,” the teacher said, holding up her drawing. “Look how SLOPPY it is! Everyone remember.” I remember.

For a moment her eyes turned on me, and I felt a bolt of fear reach through me at the risk of discovery. “Everyone look at Sean’s drawing.” The eyes turned towards me, and towards the drawing, borne aloft by the outstretched arm. “See how nice it is, and how well he stayed within the lines?”

Is it possible that without this moment I never would have had the life I have now? That a single event at almost the beginning of my life determined the course of all that was to come? Conversely, what are the odds that the little blond girl continued to draw, or pursued art, after that moment?

It had to have been significant for me—certainly it’s one of my most vivid memories of that time period, one of a dozen or so discreet events that I can recall and describe from that year of my life. But what did it mean? What are the reasons I might have been better at controlling crayons than my peers, and do any of those factors have any relation whatsoever to an adult’s skills in art?

Why was I better at coloring? Was I a born artist, arriving in this world with beret and pallet, destined for greatness and excellent draftsmanship? Or was there something else at work?

Although there might have been other factors, the most significant was probably my age.

Born December 28th, 1979, three months after the cut-off age for enrollment in kindergarten, I was older than the majority of my peers, and at the early stages of life, even a few months can mean significant advantages in dexterity and fine motor control. In my memory the unnamed blond girl was the smallest girl in our class—it’s fairly likely she was also one of the youngest. According to my parents, they had been offered the opportunity to enroll me the year before as part of Florida’s grade skipping program, which was gradually being phased out when I was four. How different might I had turned out if I had been enrolled only a year earlier?

The other maddening aspect of this early selection is the fact that a person’s speed at acquiring a skill doesn’t significantly correlate to the ceiling of their ability. In other words, just because you learn a new skill very rapidly (or very slowly) doesn’t mean that you will be an expert (or novice) at that skill in the long run.

What is inarguable, at least from my vantage point, is that instances of students as young as four and five years old being singled out by their teachers or other adults in their lives for praise or ridicule are cumulative. I began the process of self-identifying as an artist. Each step on that road led to further opportunities for my rehearsal of those very same skills I had been singled out for initially. In other words, the results of the assumptions about my eventual skill level reinforced those assumptions themselves.

Of course, even if a budding artist survives the gauntlet of self-selection, there’s the limiting factor of the art education they’re most likely to receive, if they’re fortunate enough to receive any at all. In the American educational environment of the 1970’s, there was significant growth in the perception that art should be a kind of therapy, a free exploration time, rather than a structured, instructed activity. Although this view is still very common today, even more common is a view of arts classes as a kind of humanities class, art providing a lens through which students can experience and analyze other cultures.

Although both of these things are undoubtedly potential functions of art, causing them to be the sole or main focus of an arts classroom denies that experience to students who can’t acquire the needed skills on their own, or are paralyzed by the skills deficits of which they are painfully aware. Is there any other class you can imagine where students would be presented with the tools required for a particular activity with only minimal instruction, and then be instructed to “express yourself”? Imagine the reaction if a math teacher spent the majority of time in his class talking about the calculator and its antecedents in the abacus, or debating the relative cultural importance of the zero.

On the other extreme are the instructors who are passive mediums for the delivery of a narrow set of skills—the “this is how you make a bamboo leaf with the side of a brush” school of instruction. Although this has some pretty severe failings as well (not broad enough to apply to other media or other potential uses of skills), at least at the end of a lesson a student exits with a concrete skill, even if that skill happens to be “painting a cat’s whiskers with a split brush and a tube of lamp black.”

In my five years as a high school art teacher I taught Intro to Art to over a thousand students. And through all those one-semester classes I found that it was impossible to predict with any accuracy a student’s drawing abilities at the end of the class from the work at the beginning. In other words, as untrained artists, their current drawing abilities were not accurate predictors of their eventual skill. Rather, the most reliable predictors were the things you might expect from any teachable skill—attentiveness, interest and passion.

In fact, students who already had a great deal of skill were sometimes at a deficit, presumably for some of the same reasons that made them the successes they were as self-taught artists. It’s the flip side of the talent equation, the thing that paralyzed me for a long time as a youth, that I had a very difficult time overcoming. The word talent itself, with all its implications of ingrained ability and success and results arising naturally from somewhere within the person himself, can stop someone dead in their tracks at the first signs of adversity of difficulty with a new skill. If you accept that “talent,” a skill itself, is something ingrained in you, then certainly your limitations are ingrained as well. It is this big ugly block that keeps some people from doing things they’re not immediately good at, and keeps others from improving through their efforts. And it can have a horrible, long-lasting effect.

Here’s the thing—people do have ceilings on their abilities, some barrier of aptitude that they will never cross, but how many of us actually reach it? Have you reached your barriers at any particular skill? Did you try every avenue of instruction, practicing forty, fifty hours a week? Slave over it, theorize, read the history of the craft? How many of us reach our ceilings at any of our endeavors? Because someone’s initial, unpracticed skill is only a reflection of one thing: their starting point. It’s a mistake to think that starting point is an accurate reflection of their aptitude, their ceiling.

It’s the end of the year—December 26th—as I’m writing this now. It’s raining outside and the water is battering the house in sheets. I’m sitting now and thinking about all of the things I wanted to do when I was younger, all the things I never picked up because I was afraid of failure. Afraid of what might happen if I wasn’t good enough.

No one came shooting out of their mother’s womb with a paint brush or a Bunsen burner or a calculator in their hand. You didn’t come equipped with a Terms of Service agreement or an Operator’s Manual that spelled out exactly what you would and would not be capable of as an adult. You, your skills, your intelligences, are malleable. Changeable.

And I hope that as the new year arises you take those desires and turn them into something concrete.

This post was at least partially inspired by a very fiery discussion on the CJ message board from a few months ago- I have freely stolen from my own comments on that thread. You can read the prior discussion here.

Tags: , , , ,