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    Mr. Square and the Curse of Talent

    Posted by Sean Michael Robinson at 7:31 AM - 57 Comments »

    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: , , , ,

    57 Responses to “Mr. Square and the Curse of Talent”

    1. Alex Buchet says:

      Agree 100 per cent, Sean.

      As a language teacher, I see exactly the same phenomenon. Thank God, though, there has been vast progress in my sphere away from rote learning and obsession with literature.

      The impetus for this, however, came from business. Companies wanted their employees actually to learn how to speak a foreign language, no ifs, ands, or buts, and innovative, practical methods of teaching were devised away from the stultifying influence of professional “educationists”.

      Art, however, lacks this commercial motivation…

      In language as in art, people self-select. “I’ve no gift for languages”. But you do. Everyone does, otherwise you’d never have learned your mother tongue to start with!

    2. Derik Badman says:

      Happy Birthday, Sean!

      I too was a late December (29th) kid who ended up being in the older range of my peers. I had a contentious relationship with my elementary school art teacher, but thankfully my mom is an art school graduate so she always encouraged me to do what I wanted with my drawing/art. I might not have continued drawing had it not been for her encouragement in contrast to my school experiences.

    3. One of the interesting things about art is that you basically don’t need any drafting skills at all to do perfectly valid contemporary art. Large swathes of contemporary art are even inspired by children’s art. The whole idea of talent is really something that contemporary art takes as its subject matter and deals with in interesting and non-intuitive ways.

      Most of that doesn’t really make its way into the curriculum, unfortunately.

    4. Martin says:

      “Is there any other skill besides music that an adult human being will completely dismiss the possibility of acquiring?”

      Math? Various sports-related skills?

    5. James says:

      The idea of talent also diminishes the work involved in making art. Artists such as the Jacks Kirby and Davis, or Picasso were considered to be “drawing machines” for whom the drawings sort of magically appeared on the paper. In truth these artists worked very hard to make what they did look so easy.
      The idea that one child is a better artist than another because they are better able to “color within the lines” is absurd, actually the more interesting innovations are often done by artists who refuse to adhere to such limiting rules. When it comes to personal expressions, outside of understanding the nature of the available mediums and a certain amount of historical and technical information that can be helpful so one can avoid reenacting problems that have already been resolved, and fumbling with issues that have already been hashed and rehashed, there are no rules that are worth obeying. One could be have an “aptitude” for artwork and be trained to explore their potentials, and that is a good thing.
      In previous centuries many people with education could draw or paint to degrees that were often higher than those many professional artists are capable of today, when artists are coming out of art schools with weak drawing abilities but tons of theory to back up their perfunctory but slick presentations.

    6. Alex,

      >>>In language as in art, people self-select. “I’ve no gift for languages”. But you do. Everyone does, otherwise you’d never have learned your mother tongue to start with!>>>>

      Perhaps it’s a broader phenomenon than I’m acknowledging here. It’s pretty infuriating in a way, and also pretty sad that people have given up on themselves so quickly…

      Derik,

      Thanks! Happy early birthday right back to you. I’d be really curious to hear what you remember about your early art experiences, if you have time to share at some point.

      Noah,

      You’re completely right. However, try telling a fourteen year old that! In our photo-philic culture kids have a tendency to abandon their drawing around the middle school level, when their ability to perceive the differences between their symbol-laden drawings and their view of the outside world have grown too far apart. A kid in this period wants to draw “realistically”, i.e. they want to be a draftsman of some competence. I used to have the kids fill out there pre-instruction questionnaires, and the most common response to “what would you like to learn in this class” was some variant of “draw people” or “draw better” or “draw more realistically.” And, you know, I had the technique to help give that to them, and once they saw any progress towards that goal at all, it was like a big weight had been lifted. So, I totally hear you. But draftsmanship itself is acquirable.

    7. Mike Hunter says:

      Your article is far more thoughtful and measured than the sweeping claim made by a certain comics-artist turned art teacher, and heartily rebutted, in this thread:

      “Talent is Bull@*%$!” with Ty Templeton
      http://archives.tcj.com/messboard/viewtopic.php?t=7194&start=0

      (After typing the above, I noticed on rereading you’d posted a link to it, but an awfully “missable” one, hence the repetition.)

      And it’s supposed to be a tragedy, as glutted with competition as the field is, that millions of would-be “artists” are being scared away from pursuing art because of a real or imagined lack of talent?

      Rather than a “national obsession,” in virtually every field but the arts, virtually everybody in America has grotesquely inflated images of their own acumen and abilities, which they extend to their favorite politicos. “Sarah Palin? Definitely presidential material! Like President Bush, she’s not one of those snobby Washington elitists…”

      Since you brought up driving, one poll showed that 99% of drivers thought they were better-than-average; and of those arrested due to drunken or reckless driving, 100% thought they were better-than-average. Amusing, if not for the tens of thousands killed, and far more crippled and maimed, by American drivers each year.

      Elsewhere, we see…

      http://img839.imageshack.us/img839/9569/goldstarcollage.jpg

      ———————–
      “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?”
      ———————–

      We’re supposed to cringe with horror at the insensitivity of this teacher, crushing the free expressiveness of children who don’t “stay within the lines.”

      But in learning, isn’t it an important step to attain mastery and control, before moving on to a more “free” creativity? Hence the value of rigidly rule-bound, formulaic material to follow: “Dick and Jane” books to learn reading, rather than rule-breakingly bizarre Surrealist prose.

      Weren’t countless master artists taught via the academic approach, laboriously rendering classic busts and draped cloths, thereby giving them a rock-solid foundation from which to take off?

      Even earlier…

      ——————-
      Historically art was taught in Europe via the atelier Method system where artists’ took on apprentices who learned their trade in much the same way as any guild such as the Masons (stonemasons or goldsmiths etc.). The first art schools were established in 400 BC Greece as mentioned by Plato. During the Renaissance formal training took place in art studios.
      ——————-
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_education

    8. Martin-

      >>Math? Various sports-related skills?>>>

      I tried (unsuccessfully, it seems) to avoid the sports argument here, because it’s the one area where some aspects of a person’s limitations can be apparent from the outset, as in the perennial example “If I was four feet tall I could never play for the NBA”. Well, that’s true. It’s also true, though, that a four-foot tall basketball player, just like any other player, can continually improve their skills, is unlikely in casual play to have reached the ceiling of his abilities.

      Now, I realize there are people that are paralyzed by the thought of dodge ball in the same way that other are paralyzed by two point perspective. But surely a large portion of this is the culture that surrounds our physical education environments?

      As for math- are there really that many people terrified by basic math- let’s say, addition through division and fractions? Because if basic draftsmanship were as common as those elementary math concepts, I’d be a happy man.

    9. Mike,

      >>>>We’re supposed to cringe with horror at the insensitivity of this teacher, crushing the free expressiveness of children who don’t “stay within the lines.”>>

      Actually, you’re welcome to have any reaction you’d like. It’s a true story.

      I’ve repeated a similar instruction to countless students when instructing them on shading, so it’s not the information itself that’s the problem. It’s holding up the girl’s drawing for ridicule and mine for praise without knowing for sure whether we had really followed her instructions.

      Did you read the rest of the article? I’m advocating for a partial return to the type of instruction you’re link-lecturing me about.

    10. Last thing, Mike, and thanks for bringing this up-

      >>Since you brought up driving, one poll showed that 99% of drivers thought they were better-than-average; and of those arrested due to drunken or reckless driving>>>

      Although a much more informal poll, when asked to rate their art abilities, from below average to above average, on the survey at the outset of my intro to art classes, more than 70 percent of students identified themselves as having “below average” abilities. Sounds like a problem to me.

    11. Huh… and there’s this-

      >>>And it’s supposed to be a tragedy, as glutted with competition as the field is, that millions of would-be “artists” are being scared away from pursuing art because of a real or imagined lack of talent? >>>

      I guess I’d like to think that every person that wants to draw well won’t necessarily pursue a career in the arts, in the same way that everyone that rides a bicycle on a summer day doesn’t neccesarily want to ride the Tour de France

    12. pallas says:

      This is a very interesting article, but I don’t know how to take it. It seems to fly in the face of advice from career consultant type people who suggest that people focus on strengths, not weaknesses. The idea being, I think, if you are bad at public speaking, for example, you’d do better to focus on, say, a writing career, rather than putting in countless hours to improve on public speaking, when (I’m guessing) the idea may be that you probably won’t get all that much better at it.

      Of course, maybe one need only find a way to distinguish between “starting points” and weaknesses.

      Alex wrote:

      “In language as in art, people self-select. “I’ve no gift for languages”. But you do. Everyone does, otherwise you’d never have learned your mother tongue to start with!”

      Actually, I believe there are scientific studies showing that children learn languages with a different part of their brain than adults. There are also studies showing (If I recall correctly) that people who learn a second language as children have a much easier time acquiring a new language as an adult.

      So I don’t know. Personally, I have a pretty bad memory, and haven’t succeeded in acquiring a second language. I’m also one of the “trouble drawing stick figures” types, though haven’t made a serious effort at testing my drawing ability after training.

      I’m not particularly optimistic, though this article makes me consider give drawing lessons a shot.

    13. >>>It seems to fly in the face of advice from career consultant type people who suggest that people focus on strengths, not weaknesses. >>>

      Well, I certainly wouldn’t recommend you switch careers into a field in which you haven’t previously had any success. As I mentioned to Mike, I think there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had in the exercise of a skill well-earned- you don’t have to make a career out of something for it to be a worthwhile pursuit.

      >>>Of course, maybe one need only find a way to distinguish between “starting points” and weaknesses. >>>

      This. Definitely this. And maybe some appreciation for the capriciousness of the ways in which we select who will go forward with certain skills.

      Some of the things that have been the hardest for me, skills that seemed the least “natural” (playing water polo, starting on the flute, projecting happiness and accomodation while caroling (long story…)) have also been the most rewarding, and the things that have changed me the most. Even if I hadn’t ended up being any good at those things, I would like to think that the pursuit itself would have been worthwhile.

    14. I considered myself utterly unable to draw until my 30s. After that I did a lot of (non-representational) drawing. I’ve had several gallery exhibitions and had my work published (thanks Andre!) I certainly don’t think of myself as a professional artist, or even someone who should be a professional artist, and I’m not really doing art at all at the moment…but my personal experience at least has been that if you cease worrying about whether you have talent and just start practicing, you can end up able to do a lot more than you’d expect.

      Mike H, I sometimes wonder if you read the things you write. It’s a conversation about young kids learning art, and you start attacking the evils of Sarah Palin. I mean, I don’t like Sarah Palin either, but her political megalomania has little to do with anything. Just because people overrate one skill doesn’t mean they overrate them all.

      Re: sports. What age kids are when they go into school has a noticeable effect on sports outcomes, apparently. Kids who are old for their grade level, thus bigger, etc., tend to get encouraged in sports…and end up more likely to become professional athletes. So even here talent can be less important than people often assume.

    15. Thanks for the read. Excellent take on an interesting issue in the arts.

      One of my professors at the University of Richmond actually spoke on this same subject at our Arts/Sciences Symposium last year. She warned that if someone says you are talented, you need to run the other way at all costs! “Talent” implies you didn’t earn your skill set. It insults the person with the ability, and banishes everyone who doesn’t.

    16. Anthony-

      Thanks for the kind words, and for the insight. That’s a really concise formulation for a very complex thought!

      Also, from your portfolio- this is awesome http://www.artferg.com/Images/illustration/illustration_02.jpg

    17. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Scott McCloud and others. Scott McCloud said: Another good piece on art education by Sean Robinson: http://goo.gl/P45zX Last few paragraphs may esp hit home for some. [...]

    18. Derik Badman says:

      Sean: No real story to tell. I think there was something about coloring things the “wrong” color. I don’t have a lot of memories from the time.

    19. Alex Buchet says:

      Mike Hunter:

      >>Since you brought up driving, one poll showed that 99% of drivers thought they were better-than-average; and of those arrested due to drunken or reckless driving>>>

      There’s actually an expression for this among statisticians and cognitive scientists: the ‘Lake Wobegon effect’!

      If you remmber the NPR program by Garrison Keillor (“It’s been a quiet week at Lake Wobegon”) you’ll recall his description of Lake Wobegon as a place “where the women are strong…and the men are good-looking…and the children are above average.”

    20. Alex Buchet says:

      Pallas wrote:

      “Actually, I believe there are scientific studies showing that children learn languages with a different part of their brain than adults. There are also studies showing (If I recall correctly) that people who learn a second language as children have a much easier time acquiring a new language as an adult.

      So I don’t know. Personally, I have a pretty bad memory, and haven’t succeeded in acquiring a second language. I’m also one of the “trouble drawing stick figures” types, though haven’t made a serious effort at testing my drawing ability after training.

      I’m not particularly optimistic, though this article makes me consider give drawing lessons a shot.”

      Pallas, you are right as far as you go…which isn’t far enough.

      I speak from over 32 years’ experience teaching English and French to adult learners.

      Yes, adults do not learn language with the frightening natural ease of children. The teacher must, therefore, address those areas of cognition where adults are stronger.

      Most prominent among these is an adult’s sense of STRUCTURE. Hard as complex structures and patterns are for a child to fully grasp, an adult has far fewer difficulties dealing with them. Well, language is patterns and structure to a great degree!

      Pallas, why don’t you try to acquire another language? I’m sure you’d be enrichd by the experience!

    21. Ben Cohen says:

      Wonderful. Thanks Sean.

      As a cartoonist and art student, I couldn’t even begin to tell you why I was studying comics and art. Not until my Art Education classes and becoming a teacher did I begin to understand. I now make an effort to help students understand the relevance of the lesson from thier perspective. First thing I ignore is “talent.” My goal is to challenge them all, with relevant, foundational, fundamental, lessons. Ones that prepare them for their future as artists, individual and citizens.

      All students need a clear understaning of the visual lexicon. For practical applications in both consuming and creating visual communication both aesthetic and manipulative. These skills help them avoid being dupt by political and economic propaganda. An increasingly important skill in out global market.

      The process of art is an efficiant excerciese for all students in developing problem solving skills that lead to innovation skills strengthened by the cognitive development that occurs at the same time.

      Art Curriculum can and should provide integrated multiple intelegence and integrated curriculum methods, which create opertunity for student access to lessons. This will help students use strengths and interests to inform and accelerate students learning in challenging areas for the individual student. Partnering with other students helps as well, where each student has the opertuinity to teach and guide in areas they are competent in.

      None of this however requires “talent.” It requires learning that leads to questioning, skills and an informed perspective.

      My job is only made more difficult by teachers and parents who instill doubt in my students, before my lesson planes are implemented.

    22. James says:

      Sadly, in America, after kindergarten, arts education is backburnered. I think most people could be taught to draw, at least to a point…you don’t know until you try. Try drawing with the “wrong” hand, you might be surprised.
      It seems as if comics are the last bastion of drawing—though, to my taste, much more in the alt/lit comics zone than in the mainstream. They may well be the last bastion of the printed book. But it goes deeper—at the recent Brooklyn Comics Fest, I saw an emerging, extremely vital 21st Century art movement.

    23. Artists don’t make money. Ergo, art is useless. It’s that simple.

      If North American society valued art, they would have let us know a long time ago.

      In the meanwhile, cultivate a zen-like state of cantakerous, devious wrath and cunning. In every intricate, tightly inked, baroquely florid drawing you make, carefully conceal the words “nation of swine.”

      Happy inking!

    24. Mahendra-

      Seeing your blog is the best thing that’s happened to me all day- and this was a good day.

      My favorite bit of text from the first few entries-

      >>>The above picture is an excellent example of how we like to do things in our graphic novel version of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. Your eyes do not deceive you. That is Karl Marx on all fours. He is imprisoned in a circus cage.>>>

      Beautiful. Can’t wait to see the book!

    25. david t says:

      again, a great essay, sean. i could read a full-length book’s worth of insights like this. thanks for your writing, & a happy new year to you.

    26. Just read this again, and a couple of thoughts.

      I think the analogies to driving and math are problematic, though maybe in interesting ways. Driving is not aesthetic, and it’s not something that you even are good or bad at in most cases; for most purposes, you can drive or you can’t. People don’t rate each other on it. It’s like reading or typing; either you’re able to do it or you’re not.

      In a kind of similar way, the math analogy doesn’t work. Of course people don’t want math teachers to teach you to express yourself; math is an extremely rigorous logical system. To learn it, you learn how to deal with that system. Art is really different.

      I think in part this gets to something that isn’t well articulated in your piece. You’re sort of blurring the line between representational drawing skill as something to learn and art as something to learn. The first might be in some sense analogous to driving or math; it’s a somewhat well defined skill set that you could presumably judge on some sort of objective basis (it’s still kind of dicey that, but it’s at least a step in that direction.) The second, though, is much, much, much less easy to judge; it involves conceptual work and looking at history and all sorts of other issues which are very fuzzy and don’t at all map to acquiring a skill.

      I don’t have any problem with people learning representational drawing if that’s what they want to do. But…I really do feel like there’s a lot more to art than that, and that a lot of the “more” could be interesting and meaningful to a lot of people. My friend Bert Stabler who teaches art in Chicago high schools, for example, often talks about contemporary artists with his class and then has them do projects inspired by that. Often this involves sculpture or collage or activism or performance or some combination. He does work with drawing and comics too…but I think he’d argue pretty strongly that a big part of art is the conceptual work of interacting with a tradition and other artists, not just acquiring a single skill which, in isolation, is not necessarily all that relevant even aesthetically.

      I don’t know; it could just be where I’m coming from. Like I said, I can’t do representational drawing at all. That’s actually been a huge boon to my art, a lot of which is built around copying things so badly that they turn into big abstract messes. I just feel like part of the reason that people don’t teach drawing may be because there’s not the same need for everyone to be an entertainer, and probably most of the reason is that our schools suck…but part of the reason is also probably that modernism happened. Contemporary artists are not doing the same things that contemporary artists were doing 200 years ago. Teaching people as though they were seems like a bad idea, at least to me.

      Anyway, I think I’ve linked this before, but here’s Bert talking about one interesting project he did involving kids making Michael Jackson masks (this was before Jackson’s death.

    27. Wesley says:

      “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.”

      People who believe very strongly in Talent often imagine art (drawings, music, writing, whatever) emerging effortlessly, complete and flawless, out of the artist’s brain into the world. More often a finished work is the last link in a chain of drafts, sketches, false starts, and failures which the audience never sees. It’s taken me many years to get my drawing skills within shouting distance of where I want them to be; a major stage in the process was deciding that it was okay if I had to draw everything two or three or six times before it looked right.

      Anyone learning to draw has to get over a mountainous scrap heap of awful drawings before the skills start to fall into place… but it’s liberating when you realize you don’t have to show your failures to anybody. Wad up your rough drafts, throw them out, and amaze your friends with what’s left. They’ll think it’s talent.

    28. Noah,

      I agree that the analogies I used are problematic. However- a few rebuttals-

      >>>Driving is not aesthetic, and it’s not something that you even are good or bad at in most cases; for most purposes, you can drive or you can’t.>>>

      And if we had basic skills tests in representational drawing, that required people to have a basic level of competence, we would have the same kind of goal-focused instruction, and we would, I argue, have a similar result- nearly everyone a “can”, eventually. Now, obviously I’m not advocating this, I’m saying that driving instruction is effective because a. it is goal oriented and b. it is assumed everyone can succeed, eventually. And hopefully we can agree that although for most people driving functions as a can/can’t binary, there are those gods among us who have a higher developed set of driving skills.

      >>>I don’t have any problem with people learning representational drawing if that’s what they want to do. But…I really do feel like there’s a lot more to art than that, and that a lot of the “more” could be interesting and meaningful to a lot of people.>>>

      I completely agree with you. But I’m telling you that everyone can learn representational drawing, and at a certain age, it’s one of the only things anybody wants to learn. But I certainly have some sympathy for your point. There have been certain students whose untutored figure drawings were so appealing that I really resented myself for instructing them- I had to remind myself that these skills are additive- once you’ve learned to really see, which is what representational drawing is about at its core, you have many more possibilities open to you, not fewer. I’m not replacing a student’s personal style with another by showing them how to use negative space to delineate the shape of an object- I’m helping them see what the world looks like, and helping them make a direct connection between their eyes and their hands.

    29. David T-

      Thanks for the kind words. I hope I can oblige you some day! I certainly have a lot more I’d like to say on these topics, so keep checking in.

      Wesley-

      >>>a major stage in the process was deciding that it was okay if I had to draw everything two or three or six times before it looked right.>>>>

      This is very much me. ^_^ I move a lot quicker now that I let myself erase a hell of a lot more.

      >>>Anyone learning to draw has to get over a mountainous scrap heap of awful drawings before the skills start to fall into place… but it’s liberating when you realize you don’t have to show your failures to anybody. Wad up your rough drafts, throw them out, and amaze your friends with what’s left. They’ll think it’s talent.>>>

      And thanks for this, too. The sweat and process involved in getting something to look the way you actually want it is really staggering, and misunderstood by most people. Very similar to the “Picasso as drawing machine” comments above….

    30. Jason says:

      ?”Is there any other skill besides music that an adult human being will completely dismiss the possibility of acquiring?”

      Actually, yes. Mathematics. I hear it every day. Endless variations on “oh, I was never good at math…”, uttered in a very cheerfully self-deprecating tone.

    31. “once you’ve learned to really see, which is what representational drawing is about at its core, you have many more possibilities open to you, not fewer.”

      I’m really not sure about this. I think you have different possibilities open. Unconventional technique is just so thoroughly part of visual art at this point…I don’t know. Practicing is good, and having more options is good, but I don’t know that being trained in representational drawing necessarily is the only way to see, or that it opens doors to all the other options.

      Isn’t explaining to kids that representational drawing is really only one option among many a semi-worthwhile goal? Or pointing out artists who do different kinds of things that maybe aren’t representational drawing?

      I do agree that if kids want to learn representational drawing, they should be taught representational drawing by all means. If somebody can’t do representational drawing, though, and says “I have no talent for art,” I think the response should really be, “anybody can learn representational drawing if they want to…but if you don’t want to, there’s really no reason why you can’t make all sorts of different kinds of art.”

    32. >>Or pointing out artists who do different kinds of things that maybe aren’t representational drawing? >>>

      Yes, and when I was a teacher I did do this. In fact, the first two assignments we typically had in an into to art class were a huge mixed media group project that involved a several-day process with some randomization and improvisation, gradually moving towards a more concious and refined surface with each layer, and an “adjective painting” where they designed and executed a completely non-representational design that nonetheless communicated their selected adjective.

      That’s one of the issues with writing what I hope are short, punch essays on topics this broad. I end up eliminating things that should probably be included for the sake of either clarity or a broader idea of the issues. So, yeah, I definitely made some of those things a priority in practice.

      >>>I’m really not sure about this. I think you have different possibilities open.>>>

      Well, the cliche example is Picasso, but he’s a cliche because he perfectly applies. He could produce representational paintings at age fourteen that were as skilled as almost anyone else currently working. It didn’t seem to harm him in the long run too much.

      >>>Unconventional technique is just so thoroughly part of visual art at this point…>>>>

      Well, it’s unconventional technique when the artist finds it useful to his ends, and that’s why every time I introduced a new tool the very first thing that would happen would be a time for playing around- seeing what kind of marks it can make. However, if someone’s holding a pencil in their hand gripping it like a claw, and because of this fact they can only make short dark lines with no variation in density, it’s debilitating. And if someone takes five to ten minutes to work with them on other ways to hold a pencil and make marks, then the tool user has a whole new range of marks to work with.

    33. Jason,

      Thanks for the comment!

      >>>Actually, yes. Mathematics. I hear it every day. Endless variations on “oh, I was never good at math…”, uttered in a very cheerfully self-deprecating tone.>>>>>

      Quoting myself from earlier in the day- “As for math- are there really that many people terrified by basic math- let’s say, addition through division and fractions? Because if basic draftsmanship were as common as those elementary math concepts, I’d be a happy man.”

    34. I think you’re underestimating how much people can’t do math, actually. I got my first job basically because I could add fractions. The vast majority of people can’t.

    35. Mike Hunter says:

      ——————–
      Sean Michael Robinson says:
      Mike,

      >>>>We’re supposed to cringe with horror at the insensitivity of this teacher, crushing the free expressiveness of children who don’t “stay within the lines.”>>

      Actually, you’re welcome to have any reaction you’d like. It’s a true story.
      ———————

      I’d no trouble assuming it was a true story; I had experiences of elementary-school teachers holding my response, and a drawing, up for mockery. The first before the entire school, which laughed heartily at the teacher’s witticism: “My goodness! We’re certainly not a metallurgist, are we?”

      The thing that stayed was that I was right, in both my answer (she’d asked “what are the ingredients of steel?” and I’d said “coal,” which she apparently didn’t know could serve as the same thing as one of the ingredients in her list, “carbon”) and the accuracy of my drawing. (The art teacher found fault with it because I drew a pig as it actually looked, instead of having a body which tapered to a slim neck, with a rounded head at the other end, like Porky’s; the approach she held up as superior.)

      Both actually valuable learning experiences: in what to expect from teachers (what an utterly uninspiring mass of mediocrity; what truly turned me on to art was finding an article on Salvador Dali in a magazine left lying on a shelf in an art class), and that in this world, as far as the ruling powers and ignorant masses are concerned, being right doesn’t mean shit.

      ———————
      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”?
      ———————

      How ’bout the detestable “Phys. Ed.”? A perfect example of the degree of attention paid to technique was how one day in high school, we were marched out to the field to discover rows of hurtles had been set up. (Nothing whatsoever had been done in our previous calisthenics to prepare us for this.) We were lined up before the hurtles, and told to run and jump over them. I knocked down every one, some (endowed with the “T-word,” no doubt) leaped over all, most did in between.

      And that was the last we ever saw of the hurdles. The coach, no doubt, checking “hurdles” off his Required Class Activities list…

      ———————
      Did you read the rest of the article? I’m advocating for a partial return to the type of instruction you’re link-lecturing me about.
      ———————-

      I certainly did read the rest. That “advocating” is actually as fuzzy as can be; I’ve read and reread trying to spot it. Could it be “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, your skills, your intelligences, are malleable…”?

      Come to think of it, you never specified what your “Intro to Art” class involved, either.

      ———————-
      I guess I’d like to think that every person that wants to draw well won’t necessarily pursue a career in the arts, in the same way that everyone that rides a bicycle on a summer day doesn’t neccesarily want to ride the Tour de France.
      ———————-

      I heartily agree with that, and mourn the passing of a time when, as you reported, “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.”

      Why not bypass the whole inhibiting “talent” and “Art” factors by having classes on “Developing Drawing Skills and Technique”? With drawing treated as a useful skill to have? (For instance, many a time, trying to explain to a store clerk what I was looking for, it was helpful to be able to draw the tool or device I was looking for.) Where all participants will end up with considerably improved rendering skills, and those who have the drive, ability, and interest, pushing on from there?

      (Not to mention, it would be more appealing to conservative budget-cutting politicos for teachers to push their classes as being aimed at developing useful skills, rather than airy-fairy “self-expressiveness” and such.)

      —————–
      Noah Berlatsky says:
      Mike H, I sometimes wonder if you read the things you write. It’s a conversation about young kids learning art, and you start attacking the evils of Sarah Palin. I mean, I don’t like Sarah Palin either, but her political megalomania has little to do with anything. Just because people overrate one skill doesn’t mean they overrate them all.
      ——————

      Alas, you read the things I write, and totally miss the point. Where Palin was brought in is that, contrary to talent being “practically a national obsession,” the masses end up thinking – as countless sappy well-meaning liberal parents and teachers said – “You can be anything you want to be!” and that any Joe or Jane Schmuck can take on the most difficult, demanding tasks and triumph.

      ——————-
      pallas says:
      …I believe there are scientific studies showing that children learn languages with a different part of their brain than adults….
      ——————

      What I’d heard is that children learn things – including languages – more easily is because their brain cells are in a more “fluid,” rather than more locked-down configurations.

      Google’ing for more info here…

      ——————-
      One of the most famous discoveries in biology in the last 50 years is that the brains of all young animals, including children, go through critical periods when they are particularly receptive to learning or mapping different forms of information…

      Babies and young infants can pick up new words and sounds effortlessly during the critical period of cortex development. After age one it gets more difficult, but it is still much easier for children to learn new words. Whether these words are all from one language or from two or more doesn’t matter. All of the words—English, French, Russian, etc.—are stored in the same brain map.

      After age 10, learning new words becomes progressively harder until, as adults, it is exceedingly difficult. The older you get, the more you use your native language and the more it comes to dominate your linguistic map. You still have brain plasticity, but your mother tongue rules. Your brain trains itself to not pay attention to foreign sounds, and the space in your head dedicated to language gets rather crowded.

      The exciting news about “critical-period plasticity” is that it may be possible to reopen it so that adults can pick up languages the way children do. Scientists have learned that the part of the brain that allows us to focus our attention, the nucleus basilis, is “turned on” and stays on during the entire critical period. Once it is turned on, we not only pay attention to what we are experiencing, we also remember it. Our brains are in an extreme plastic state.

      In experiments with rats, Dr. Michael Merzenich has reopened their critical-period plasticity by artificially turning on and keeping on their nucleus basilis using microelectrodes and an electric current. Someday (no one knows when) the same thing will be done with humans, using microinjections of certain drugs or chemicals…
      ——————–
      http://www.eldr.com/article/brain-power/why-it-easier-young-children-learn-new-language

    36. Mike,

      >>Both actually valuable learning experiences: in what to expect from teachers >>>>

      Yeah, I relate to your elementary school anecdotes pretty well. The primary lesson that I learned from my elementary classroom was that adults will lie when it is in their interest to do so, and that I would be better off concealing as much from them as possible.

      >>>That “advocating” is actually as fuzzy as can be; I’ve read and reread trying to spot it.>>>

      Maybe it’s too strong of a word- how about endorsing through implication. I’ve said that I believe the methods of instruction ushered in by changes in art education from the seventies on are part of the problem- I’ve held up a different era with a different kind of instruction as an exemplar- short of actually setting out an actual curriculum for a budding artist, I’m not sure what I can do to make it clear.

      >>>>Why not bypass the whole inhibiting “talent” and “Art” factors by having classes on “Developing Drawing Skills and Technique”? >>>
      >>>Come to think of it, you never specified what your “Intro to Art” class involved, either.>>>

      Okay. It was a one-semester class, required for graduation, and most typically taken by freshman and sophomores, although I would get the occasional senior that had put off taking it, or had failed it multiple times with other teachers. My goal for the students, which I set out in plain language at the very beginning of the semester, was that they would a. have a wide variety of projects and experiences in various media and b. gain some basic drafting skills, including drawing people and portraits, constructing in one and two point perspective, and rendering value in pencil, ink and paint. These two tracks (the “exploratory” and sometimes improvisational track, and the academic goal-oriented classical art educational track) would run parallel with each other for large periods of time, for instance, taking a raft of practice drawings and using various mixed media and collage processes to turn them into a finished piece.

      I can go into more detail if you’d like, but hopefully that brief sketch might give you an idea of where I’m coming from. You can rest assured there were no gold stars involved. :)

    37. C Lynn says:

      Your use of the word “talent” is somewhat undeserved. I agree with your larger, overall points — that anyone CAN learn to draw (or write, count, et. al.) and everyone should be introduced to it as part of an overall curriculum — but some people really do excel at certain pursuits, regardless of all else. There’s a fine line between the school of thought that seeks-out this raw talent and pushes it too far, too hard, too fast; and the school you seem to be advocating, which is the very nebulous and just as damaging, “ANYone can do it if they just REALLY want to and TRY!”

      Acknowledging talent in individuals for specific pursuits is important. It not only teaches the individual pride, it teaches others humility. And it should inspire rather than engender jealousy. Not everyone should be given equal attention in the same matters because certain individuals WILL excel in some, and should be allowed to do so. One in however many may excel at several, or all, of these, and that should also be acknowledged and encouraged. This is one reason we have so few leaders today!

      There IS such a thing as talent. There IS such a thing as inspiration. People should know how to spot these things and appreciate them, not why they are or are not important (they are). More important is the “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” truism.

      Along these same lines is the idea that basically anything can be Art. It cannot. Art has specific criteria which must be met and, while learning how to render, students should be taught these criteria, how to spot them, and what to look for in them. This is not “asserting structure” and what-not into some dirty hippy cult of free expression or however dirty hippies define “Art;” this is basic Art History and Appreciation and how to delineate between propaganda/commercialism and actual Art.

      Art is not this broad, nebulous ephemera; Art has been well-defined over thousands of years. Teaching people the fundamentals and showing them how to use them should be mandatory. Then they will be able to spot who among them is truly talented, and better appreciate those people and their work, as well as become better informed by knowing what to ignore, etc.

      Anyone absolutely can learn to draw, but they can also learn medicine or surgery, and any attempt at ANY of these things can be disastrous. Some people, due to genetics or environment or radioactive spiders, simply have insight into a particular subject and that should be acknowledged and encouraged, not dismissed or diminished. People who truly are NOT that good at Art, or sports, or medicine, or science, will naturally gravitate toward something to which they are better-suited, and this too is a good thing. Talent should be noted and encouraged, but not lorded over others, nor used to diminish their own attempts.

      Teaching people Art is fantastic and I fully support that, but there most certainly are talented people and that’s awesome! Learning to accept that you may very well “never” be as good as someone you truly admire is both humbling and inspiring and shouldn’t be denigrated, just as those with that Special Something should be acknowledged for having that. Too far in either direction is bad, but a little Natural Selection actually encourages diversity and eliminates a lot of this forced acceptance.

      The Process is *not* more important than The Work, and this is as true for education as it is for Art.

    38. C-

      Thanks for the comments.

      There’s a lot of different threads of thought here, so forgive me if I don’t respond to everything.

      >>>“ANYone can do it if they just REALLY want to and TRY!”>>>

      You’ll notice I didn’t actually say this in my post. That’s because I don’t happen to believe this. There are certainly many things that I personally cannot do, including but not limited to having babies (wrong gender), lifting a car with my bare hands (basic physics) and being a professional athlete (too old, too much competition). However, as I stressed in the piece, initial aptitude does not necessarily indicate the threshold of what’s possible for a person, especially when we’re talking about kids as young as four or five years old. That’s why it bothers me when you pull out this-

      >>>Acknowledging talent in individuals for specific pursuits is important. It not only teaches the individual pride, it teaches others humility. And it should inspire rather than engender jealousy.>>>

      Is this supposed to relate to the discussion of my kindergarten class? I hope I’m misreading this and you’re not directly addressing that anecdote- I can’t really see how the above paragraph could possibly apply to a group of kindergarten students, especially since, as I mentioned several times, at that age any skill difference will have little to no relationship to potential lifelong aptitude.

      >>>Learning to accept that you may very well “never” be as good as someone you truly admire is both humbling and inspiring and shouldn’t be denigrated, just as those with that Special Something should be acknowledged for having that. >>>>

      But, as I say in the article, implying, as the word talent alone does, that someone is good at something because they’ve been born with a Magical Power called talent diminishes and denigrates their accomplishment! Show me a “natural genius” and I’ll show you someone who worked their ass off to get where they are. To say they were born with it is worse than wrong- it’s insulting to their effort.

      As for the rest of your comment, you seem to be arguing with someone who isn’t me. I don’t believe that we are all unique and precious snowflakes (to paraphrase Mr. Durden). But I do believe that none of us, at least no one that I know personally, has reached the ceiling of their abilities in any particular area, and that ceiling has only the barest of relations to someone’s starting point.

      I also believe, as someone who was told from a young age what a “gifted and talented” young man I was, that those words were a debilitating burden for me almost into adulthood.

    39. Oh, and-

      >>>>The Process is *not* more important than The Work.>>>

      Well, I prefer to think that it’s all process until you’re dead.

    40. C Lynn says:

      Thank you for responding!

      >>>Acknowledging talent in individuals for specific pursuits is important. It not only teaches the individual pride, it teaches others humility. And it should inspire rather than engender jealousy.>>>

      “Is this supposed to relate to the discussion of my kindergarten class? I hope I’m misreading this and you’re not directly addressing that anecdote- I can’t really see how the above paragraph could possibly apply to a group of kindergarten students…”

      I am no educator, so I have no idea at which age this should begin, but no, I was not necessarily speaking about kindergarten-aged children. I prefer to think that kids are bright enough that these things assert themselves naturally over time. I know that by the time I was 7-8 or so, I knew that I was not very athletic and understood that some of my peers were, but I cannot say if that was due to some natural inclination or due to how I’d been handled, managed, and taught — I’ve no idea. It was also basically around this time that I discovered comic books and drawing and fell in love with them, despite constantly being urged to become more “active” and so on.

      I have no idea from kids; I understand they are clinically insane.

      “To say they were born with it is worse than wrong- it’s insulting to their effort.”

      No, I absolutely agree with this, 100%. I am saying the wording, the choice of the word “talent,” is unfortunate. Again, I agree with your basic premise, that no one NEEDS a magical gift to draw, write, or pursue the Arts in general — to learn the skills and processes involved, and (hopefully) learn to discern between wheat and chaff — I simply insist that some people really DO have a… gift, an insight into or handle on, some things and that should not be overlooked or dismissed for the betterment of the collective. Because it is for the betterment of no one.

      Saying, “There is no such thing as Talent; everyone is equally untalented,” is just as bad as saying, “EVERYONE is gifted.” Some people ARE naturally drawn to some things, and sometimes they have some insight into those areas the majority of their peers do not, and they should be encouraged. I have no idea when this starts becoming apparent nor anything along those lines, but gifted people should not be singled-out as paragons anymore than they should be dismissed.

      “As for the rest of your comment, you seem to be arguing with someone who isn’t me.”

      Perhaps, but the waters have become muddied in recent years, and your message *seems* to be reinforcing some of the causes. Everyone is not gifted; Art is more than just self-expression; and just really wanting/believing something does not ensure success.

      “I also believe, as someone who was told from a young age what a ‘gifted and talented’ young man I was, that those words were a debilitating burden for me almost into adulthood.”

      I also started to make this point and agree. This puts undue pressure on everyone for no good reason. However, there has to be a pleasant medium. I experienced both sides of this, as I was considered “talented” (I was not; I started early**) and so was often attacked by teachers looking to “take me down a notch” and make an example to others that I was nothing special, AND largely left to my own devices while these same teachers focused more heavily on others, who really were comparatively deficient. I just think it’s a lot of weight for a single word to carry, especially when such a phenomenon does exist.

      **I should mention that, for whatever reason, I actually was a gifted reader, and part of the reason I was better than my peers in things like Art is because I read a lot on the subject. So, although I wasn’t artistically “talented,” I was somehow a better reader than my peers and this lead to me pursue my interests on my own to a greater extent than they did.

      I agree with what I believe are your keystone assertions, I just want to caution that going too far in either direction is the real problem, and learning to accept one’s self and one’s limitations is an equally important lesson for children.

      >>>>The Process is *not* more important than The Work.>>>

      “Well, I prefer to think that it’s all process until you’re dead.”

      With all due respect, sir: Boo! BOO! The process facilitates the work; the work is the end product — the goal to be achieved. It’s this kind of thinking that got us reality TV.

      There *are* gifted people who, for whatever reason(s), simply excel in some areas or pursuits and everyone can learn from them if they know to look for them and what to look for. No real progress will be made, and what is will be stymied, if luminaries are doused and star players consistently benched.

      Accepting that I can never match the fine-lined photorealism of a Dave Sim, expressiveness of a Bill Watterson, or stylishness of a Berni Wrightson pushes me beyond what, at some point, becomes mere imitation. This is very healthy in these regards, but of course it can be harmful if taken too far. I believe we should be taught to accept this and given tools to handle it, instead of being told it does not exist or has no bearing. Inspiration also exists and can have amazing results which really do seem effortless and though you shouldn’t “wait around for it to strike,” you should be able to recognize the moment at which it does and have some idea as to how to pursue it.

      I can’t think of many of Michelangelo’s contemporaries.

    41. Alex Buchet says:

      You can’t? Do the names ‘Leonardo da Vinci’,'Boticelli’ and ‘Raphael’ ring no bells?

    42. >>>With all due respect, sir: Boo! BOO!>>>

      No, no, tell me how you really feel :)

      >>>The process facilitates the work; the work is the end product — the goal to be achieved.>>>

      Okay- I’m definitely with you- in fact, I’d say the biggest difference from the type of art instruction I’m critical of and the art instruction of the past is the latter’s goal-oriented nature.

      What I meant was that ideally we continually improve- our process is our striving for this unachievable ideal. Additionally, I can’t really help how posterity is going to view me (not at all being the most likely outcome), and so, rather than set goals for myself that are based on, say, publication or sales or recognition, I control the things I can control- my skills themselves. So in a sense, even when I’m working towards a goal and really swinging for the fences, it’s still process.

      Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    43. Mike Hunter says:

      ———————
      Sean Michael Robinson says:
      I also believe, as someone who was told from a young age what a “gifted and talented” young man I was, that those words were a debilitating burden for me almost into adulthood…
      ———————

      Humph. I understand being born into massive wealth can be quite a cross to bear, as well.

      I was raised by a mother who faithfully followed the advice in some male child-rearing expert’s book, which was “Never praise or compliment anything your children do; never give them any encouragement…or you’ll spoil them!”

      Far as schooling went, aside from getting excellent grades in all but Phys. Ed. and math, and a couple of academic-achievement trophies, I never received any personal attention, encouragement or praise from teachers; was just a “face in the crowd” to them.

      That, with my voracious hunger for reading and knowledge, studious behavior, and so forth, my years of schooling were such a dreary, uninspiring experience; that the average American is such an ignoramus, a clueless clod who swallows whatever malarkey the spin-meisters eject; that…

      ———————-
      * 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
      * 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
      * 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
      * 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
      * 57 percent of new books are not read to completion.
      ———————–
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy_in_the_United_States

      …gives, in the “by their fruits shall ye know them” fashion, a painful look at the sorry state of American “education” and its bestowers of wisdom…

    44. Caro says:

      Sean: I’m wondering especially in light of C. Lynn’s comments about the difference in the way you use the terms “talent” and “aptitude”. You seem to use aptitude as a measure of a ceiling in the piece, which is a little different from how I use it.

      My parents were educators and from a very early age they described my verbal skills as “aptitude” — other people (gifted and talented assessment, etc.) described the same thing as “talent” — but because my parents didn’t, it didn’t stick as much: my parents subscribed to the ed school notion that the components of competency are aptitude, attitude, knowledge and understanding.

      Aptitude can be acquired or innate (I learned to read so my verbal aptitude was acquired, but my hips turned out naturally so my ballet aptitude was innate), and my parents always emphasized that. If I wanted to do something, they would focus on figuring out the amount of work I’d have to do to be good at something versus something else, what I knew and what I had left to learn, rather than the net likelihood of my eventually being good at any particular thing.

      From that I developed a sense that if I had aptitude, already learned or innate, for something I’d probably have to work less at it, or differently at it, than things I didn’t have any aptitude for. I had to practice the piano more than I had to practice ballet (to even be mediocre at both); I never had to practice writing much, but drawing was going to be such a hard slog I never made the least effort. But it was obvious to me that I had been raised by writers but had never received any art instruction at all, so I never thought of it as talent-related. My lack of drawing aptitude surely had everything to do with that lack of instruction and exposure — not the same as the limits to how far my hips would turn out or the octave span of my hands, but it was still a lack of aptitude that attitude, knowledge and understanding alone couldn’t overcome.

      So for me the overemphasis on talent isn’t just a matter of pedagogy — giving encouragement versus identifying “the select” — it’s also an issue of how people think about what it means to do the work required for art.

      That ties into your notion of an ongoing process, but you also say this: “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”?”

      And I think that gets at what’s wrong here: this happens more often than not in writing classes too, and I think a big part of it is that the emphasis on “talent” that you describe has made people believe that art and writing education will never be successful in training artists and writers, that art and writing are things that people somehow just know how to do, because they’re “talented,” so all education is doing is helping them get better.

      The problem I see for writing education is that they’re not entirely wrong. You really can’t teach a non-reader to be a writer, and if you don’t start reading pretty young the learning curve is extremely high. You can’t teach the craft and inspire a love for the craft and produce even a passable writer if that writer doesn’t have a certain critical-mass familiarity with other people’s writing as a reader and a desire to continually increase that familiarity. It’s much easier to create a passable dancer who doesn’t watch dance because consuming the art is so significantly different from producing it. You understand dance with your body entirely differently from the way you understand it with your eyes, and you can be a superb dancer with just that embodied understanding. You will watch dance — you will watch yourself dance in the mirror — but you don’t have to, and it’s completely different watching yourself than watching as a non-moving spectator. And once you understand it with your body, you never watch it without your body involved. Your understanding involves your motor system, even if you aren’t moving.

      But nobody will ever have more aptitude as a writer than he or she does as a reader — the art you have sufficient aptitude to consume will set an absolute ceiling for the art you will ever have aptitude to produce. That’s why Kermode said reading is more important than writing.

      I guess I’m wondering: which is visual art closer to — dance or writing? The pedagogy you describe as what’s currently in practice seems very close to writing, yet the pedagogy you advocate for seems much closer to dance…

    45. “But nobody will ever have more aptitude as a writer than he or she does as a reader”

      That’s not exactly true. I just read Chuck Berry’s autobiography, which was pretty fantastically written, even though he didn’t read a ton. Oral culture can definitely produce interesting writing from people who are passionate about language but not necessarily about reading.

    46. >>>You seem to use aptitude as a measure of a ceiling in the piece, which is a little different from how I use it. >>>

      I largely agree with your definition of aptitude, including the division between acquired and innate, and it sounds like your parents provided you with a great set of tools by which to deal with the world. Part of the issue here is, both in the piece and the comments, I keep skating around the issue of innate ability. That’s because, as I mentioned in the piece, whatever role something innate plays in art abilities, and indeed most abilities where you can’t identify physical characteristics that directly impact them, it’s significantly less important than most of us think.

      So I acknowledge that there are probably innate factors at work. But they are a. generally overstated in importance, and b. counterproductive to someone actually taking the steps to improve their skills! Since we have no way of analyzing what this percentage of innate ability versus acquired ability might be in the visual arts realm, and since the distinction itself can be actually harmful, I choose to remain an agnostic who, when working with myself and others on acquiring new skills, ignores the possibility of the innate. I hope that’s a little more clear…

      Also, your comments on writing are really valuable, and, Noah’s exception aside, I agree with your view of the relationship between writing and reading.

      >>>I guess I’m wondering: which is visual art closer to — dance or writing? The pedagogy you describe as what’s currently in practice seems very close to writing, yet the pedagogy you advocate for seems much closer to dance…>>>

      There’s a few things to unpack here. Let me come back to this in a few hours, or let someone else take a crack at it…

    47. I presume with dance it’s somewhat akin to sports? I.e., it’s about performing certain physical acts, and the way you manage that is through fairly deliberate step-by-step instruction and practice, which improves physical condition and muscles memory. The repetition is painful and difficult, but it’s not conceptually tricky.

      The thing about writing is that the skill and the art are separated in a way that is important but not all that clear. Most people can write a grocery list. Going from there to writing a poem obviously involves something, but that something isn’t necessarily linked exactly to practice or even to broadening vocabulary, though it’s involved with both. Basically, writing is almost entirely conceptual; the skill set is there for (most people) early, but the extra bit isn’t easily captured through repetition or following step by step models.

      Art is maybe somewhere between the two? I think repetitive copying is a huge part of being able to manage representational drawing. On the other hand, making something that would be recognized as art usually involves concept as much as skill….

      Sean’s saying on the one hand that art is taught too much rote (like sports); on the other hand it’s too mushy (like writing.) So he’s trying to distance instruction from both of the extremes. Maybe?

    48. Okay, so I left off with-

      >>>>>>>I guess I’m wondering: which is visual art closer to — dance or writing? The pedagogy you describe as what’s currently in practice seems very close to writing, yet the pedagogy you advocate for seems much closer to dance…>>>

      I agree with your comparison here- and I would certainly argue that “dance instruction” (epitomized by how-to books and Bob Ross) has several advantages, as in, someone is actually more likely to end up with a skill as a result of very rote training, even if that skill is unreasonably narrow or inapplicable to other areas. However, as someone advances in their foundational skills, the “writing instruction” model can become a lot more useful, as long as there’s a sufficient level of attendant feedback and analysis.

      That being said, I don’t buy that writing can’t be taught, even though I agree with your view that writing emerges naturally from reading and thinking, assuming a baseline of early age reading experience. Just like art analysis, someone can be led to more complex reading experiences through careful introduction, expansive analysis, and relating the subject to personal experience. I’m not an expert in writing pedagogy, but certainly the mid-level instruction that meant the most to me personally as a student were the times when careful analysis of a piece of writing helped me see the seams, helped me peek into the craft, the process behind the edifice.

      As far as how it’s practiced now, both extremes are present in current situations- there’s no real consensus on the right way forward. But, as Noah suggests, I’m a pretty strong advocate for a middle road that takes the goal-oriented methods that are closer to dance in a certain way, while encouraging an ever-expanding theoretical framework.

      But, on a practical basis, with the level of most of the instruction I’ve done, it’s almost all about confidence building through practical skills, with emphasis on personal goal setting. I’d love to teach a class at some point where everyone comes in having tackled the issues of craft and really wants to expand their conceptual limits- but until that happens, I’m pretty satisfied with helping give people the tools to say what they want to say.

    49. Nate says:

      Like Caro, I couldn’t help but apply some of the thinking in the post to writing pedagogy. I’m hitting this from a somewhat different perspective, however, as someone who taught writing to college freshmen while earning my degree. My experience was that students out of better schools wrote well, i.e. they had basic competence w/r/t grammar and mechanics and style, regardless of whether they read at all, or ever write outside the classroom. Students that came from lousy schools but read and wrote constantly, often because they were tagged as talented by the way,often couldn’t piece together a coherent essay.
      The difference came down to whether they’d learned the basics of the craft, which brings me to my next point. You can teach the craft of writing to someone who is more or less indifferent to the art of writing or the activity of reading. And, at the risk of taking all the magic right out of it, the curriculum for this consists of style exercises, lessons in grammar and mechanics, and lots of revision (and plenty of feedback and workshopping). I did this once a year for four years when I taught professional writing to designers. What’s funny is that most of those kids were motivated, like a lot of professional writing students, by practical (read fiscal) concerns.

    50. Nate-

      Thanks for the comments!

      As someone who came from pretty decent (i.e. well-funded) public schools, I sometimes have a tendency to gloss over how much early instruction I had into mechanics of writing. By the time I entered high school I could already diagram sentences, identify parts of speech, and had many hours of feedback, practice and rote memorization on a great many writing tasks. All this craft-level instruction, and an awful lot of reading, meant that my very basic craft was out of the way. And so it’s tempting to say, because of this, that I was a “natural writer.” Middle school is a blur at this point, at best something that happened to some other version of myself, but I’m young enough (31) to still be connected in some ways to my high school self. So, he was this guy that could always write, was fairly adept at mimicking other people’s styles and constructing what seemed like a reasoned argument on just about any topic. And because he’s as far back as I go, it’s tempting to see myself as always having these skills, that base line of craft.

      This is a pretty clear illustration of the surprises that await real strong believers in talent. He’s so well known as to practically be a cliche in education circles, but I was shocked the first time I read a Jonathan Kozol book- really understanding that one of the primary determinants of someone’s educational success is the income of their parents, followed closely by the budget of their school! Just shocking. And yet, once someone’s aware of that, it’s hard to not see those type of hidden factors active all around us.

    51. Max West says:

      To be honest, talent will not do any good without drive or will. I remember reading about this in the book “Art and Fear”. You probably may have read stories in the news about five-year-old child prodigies giving solo music recitals but you rarely hear about one going on to be a Mozart. Talent can help, but if you don’t have the willpower to develop that talent into a viable skill, then you’ll peak quickly.

    52. vommarlowe says:

      I’m not sure this will be any help in explaining the writing versus dance thing, but as an artist, one of the tensions I experience a lot is between having an idea/concept/emotion that I want to convey (the gooshy stuff) and whether I have the craftsmanship skills (representational drawing, pen shading, color theory, etc) to bring that vision to life.

      I mean, yes, some kinds of ideas can be expressed with more fluid materials (abstracts, collages), but some can’t (or I suck at them, etc). I feel that, for me, speaking only for me here, the more tools I have in my kit, the more options I have for bringing ideas to life. OTOH, having nothing BUT tools means I’m just a Xerox machine, and not able to do art. I’ve been in classes that were strictly technique focused and they sucked, but I’ve been in the squooshy only and felt inadequate to the task at hand. *scratches head* Kind of a left-hand, right-hand thing? At least that’s how I see it. Not to jump in, but I love Sean’s mixed approach, I guess is what I’m ultimately trying to say.

    53. Marcus says:

      <<<>>>
      Your knowledge of ‘basic Art History’ appears to be so basic that it stops around the early 1800′s, if it even gets that far.

      <<<<>>>>
      Actually the definition of art has been constantly changing and shifting definitions over thousands of years, if it’s defined by one constant it would be its own inconstancy

      <<<>>>
      Of the many many art movements, eras and ideas you seem to be ignorant of, one of them is process art, a canonical historical art movement that postulates the exact opposite of what you claim there.

    54. Marcus says:

      Apparently the formatting deleted the passages I was quoting of C Lynn’s, this is what should have been in the previous post.

      “Along these same lines is the idea that basically anything can be Art. It cannot. Art has specific criteria which must be met and, while learning how to render, students should be taught these criteria, how to spot them, and what to look for in them. This is not “asserting structure” and what-not into some dirty hippy cult of free expression or however dirty hippies define “Art;” this is basic Art History and Appreciation and how to delineate between propaganda/commercialism and actual Art.”

      “Art is not this broad, nebulous ephemera; Art has been well-defined over thousands of years. Teaching people the fundamentals and showing them how to use them should be mandatory. Then they will be able to spot who among them is truly talented, and better appreciate those people and their work, as well as become better informed by knowing what to ignore, etc.”

      “The Process is *not* more important than The Work, and this is as true for education as it is for Art.”

    55. Thanks for the comments, Marcus. I completely agree with your points- sometimes when I get a comment like C Lynn’s that’s very dense and has a bunch of potential side arguments I could step into, it’s easier to just unpack the ones that directly relate to the article. So I’m very grateful when other people want to step into the breach :)

    56. Yasmin says:

      Thank you so much for this article. I’m studying “Applied Language Sciences” as it is called in Germany, which means in the best case I will be working as a translator or interpretor after finishing my studies, and I stopped counting the times I heard the word “talent”.
      Whenever I tell somebody that it doesn’t matter how much knowledge you have at the beginning of your studies or how much success you had learning it in school as long as you’re just really interested in what you do and are willing to work hard for it, these people answer it was really easy to say this as I am talented. At first I thought it was a compliment, now it’s just annoying.
      Nobody listens to me when I’m talking about how hard it is to learn 150 to 300 new Spanish words every week or how long it took me to remember a new grammar rule the way I have to know it. The answer can usually be shortened to “well, if it’s easy for you it’s absolutely impossible for me” or something quite similar. I highly doubt anyone really understands why it is driving me mad to be asked again and again why I’m only studying two languages, “considering your talent”.

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