Talent and Success

Jeff Koons surely has success defined with his work on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Is he more or less talented than other artists whose work never makes it out of the garage?

Alyson Stanfield sent a tweet sometime last night asking: "Should I tell clients they won't find the success they want in a certain area b/c of lack of talent? I've always thought this wasn't my job."

A provoking question, and one that every teacher/coach/human being with artist friends must confront. My core values include a belief that every person is gifted and that creative work is our human condition-- certainly our human right. That doesn't mean that every person out there making oil paintings, watercolors or art quilts is equally "successful" at creating a piece of art. Nor, are any of us who do this work called art successful all the time.

Alyson's question really has two parts, one reason I couldn't even think of answering in the realm of Twitter. "the success they want in a certain area" and "lack of talent." Let's start with the tough one: "lack of talent."

According to Webster's (as quoted by Eric Maisel): talent is "any natural ability, power or endowment, and especially any superior, apparently natural ability in the arts or sciences or in the learning or doing of anything." Maisel in his book Creativity for Life; Practical Advice on the Artist's Personality and Career, writes compellingly about the subject of talent -- one of the most interesting points is that any artistic discipline requires an entire constellation of abilities -- a painter, according to Maisel, for example, must be able to make a powerful composition, have a fine color sense, a knack for new images or ideas, and the ability to evoke a powerful response -- so what if you have one or two but not the others?

That Webster's definition also adds "apparently natural" -- thus implying that some abilities at least can be learning, polished and improved. So there is that to consider as well.

Thus said, talent also, for me, has the dimension of "best fit." Since I think we all get to be creative in this particular manifestation, each of us comes into it with abilities and endowments to do something extremely well, something unique and un-doable by anyone else, stories (which might be in the form of quilts or paintings or jewelry or paintings) that no one else can tell. What I superficially judge as "lack of talent" really often means that the person in question has not (yet) found his or her strongest and most powerful form of expression. Watercolor just may not be it, no matter how much the person likes watercolors, lusts to be a watercolor artist and has latched on watercolor as his or her world. And that, I think, has to do with a lack of education for looking, dispassionately, at how and what are our sensory strengths, our physical patterns, our creative processes, our "best fits" thus to make a good match between what we come into the world with, and what we can most powerfully create.

Can a teacher help with this? Sure, but gently I hope. In the end though, each of us who wants to own the title "artist" must do a lot of clear-headed thinking about our abilities, powers and endowments and what the discipline of the medium really demands.

The other part of the question, "the success they want in a certain area," also implies another misfit -- maybe the artist just thinks the only success for her or him is to be hung on the wall of  MOMA. Is he or she reaching for a measure of success out of a need that has nothing to do with the creation of art, but fulfills some other longing for success, for fame, for fortune? The only way out of this one is more introspection, I fear. And a teacher or coach who can gently push one toward confronting and answering the tough questions about success. And, again, a realistic assessment of the fit between the "talent" and the marketplace (or exhibition space) desired. And talent may just not have a whole lot to do with some of those arenas of success: it could just be showmanship, luck, what the market wants, the historical "value" on a particular talent, the general economy...

Alyson is a art business coach, and she has curatorial experience and knows what the art market is on many, many levels, from personal experience and from her work with clients and workshop participants. Should she burst the bubble? I tend to agree that it might not be her job, as she defines it with her art business clients. Perhaps there's no harm in trying to get them to see clearly and come to the conclusion that they have not (yet) found their correct creative fit in the world? In conscience, can she keep taking someone's money to coach them through the business aspect of their artistic career, when she strongly feels that no matter how good they get at the business of it, they don't have the chops in the work? Maybe so, after all, no matter where they go with their work -- however they find the fit, now or later -- the business advice and techniques and skills should still be valuable. What do you think?

Maisel's book and the questions he poses for artists to answer might be a good tool to recommend. I'm finding it amazingly provocative, scary and quite helpful to work through -- and this from a woman who's done quite a lot of introspective thought about life, art and my place in it!

P.S. The entire realm of defining success is a rich, complex one -- and Lisa Call in her blog has been doing some really good defining, so for more on that, see this link (scroll down to find the success posts).

P.P.S.Creativity for Life: Practical Advice on the Artist's Personality, and Career from America's Foremost Creativity Coach