General question about talent

5star's picture

So is it fair to say that ' talent' is a product of the instrument being used and not of the person using the instrument?

Remove the piano from the hands of Mozart, paint from Van Gogh, etc., would the individual still be recognized as a talent via some other means?

John Hudson's picture

The word talent suggests an expressible skill that is most often presumed to be inherent in the person and contrasted with the kind of skill that is developed with hard work and experience. It follows that if you remove the means of expression, an inherent skill remains in the individual, just as it does if that individual chooses not to express the talent. This is what makes it possible to say that someone is wasting his talent.

5star's picture

This is what makes it possible to say that someone is wasting his talent.

Yes there is that, I'd forgotten all about that phrase.

PublishingMojo's picture

For a definition of talent, flip your example around: Remove Mozart from the piano, remove Van Gogh from the paint, and what have you got? Lots of other perfectly competent people who composed music and painted pictures, but whose names we have long since forgotten. We remember Mozart and Van Gogh because their talent set them apart from their contemporaries.

John Hudson's picture

Inateness is usually presumed in talent, a kind of built-in advantage or proficiency that makes it relatively easy for someone to excel at a certain skill. However, in use we are frequently judging talent on the basis of output, rather than input, and don't always know how much effort has gone into developing a skill.

PublishingMojo's picture

Neil cited the example of Mozart, the poster boy for innateness of talent. He was composing music before his first Communion, so we can reasonably rule out extraordinary effort as the sole explanation of his proficiency.

5star's picture

Ya so I think it is the instrument that made the man ...give paint to Mozart and the piano to Van Gogh and they would be as well known as what's his name?

JamesM's picture

In the case of Mozart, I'd agree that innate talent was probably a huge factor, maybe the biggest factor, but he also had a father who was a musician and composer who started teaching him at an very young age. When you look at most folks who had a famous talent you'll find years of study and hard work.

LexLuengas's picture

Talent is not the innateness of a skill, but the innate ease of learning such a skill. As such, it is still dependent on the time spent training that skill (i.e. effort), which is again dependent on the personal emotional value (i.e. motivation). However, talking about a built-in skill is pointless.

Talent is of course as well a relative term. It only means something when contextualized within a certain social environment and within a certain time lapse. The top athletes of the 1896 olympic games may have seemed plainly untalented put next to today's top athletes. From this point of view, "Am I talented?" is less a question about yourself than a question about which people you consider talented.

But it's a good question, Neil.* What would have been of Van Gogh if you'd only given him a piece of chalk? Does the tool makes the artist?

(As type designers, it's essential to keep asking ourselves whether the tools we use are nourishing our ability of expression or not. Bézier curves are the most numerically stable representation of an outline, but they are surely difficult to handle (pardon the pun), as smoothness depends on the position of two Beziér handles. On the other hand one has the constraint of in-extrema point-placing. Therefore, at least to me, it makes an enormous difference to draw sketches by hand before working with Beziér curves, one reason for this being that with a pencil I'm able to sculpt the glyphs into paper.)
* A kind of question which is more easily answered with a beer in hand on a saturday afternoon.

5star's picture

Ah yes, the theory of relativity.

Queneau's picture

Don’t confuse talent with genius. I know a lot of talented people, I think I also have some talent, as do most people. If one chooses to use these talents is a different matter.

The prototypical genius like Mozart is not a normal situation, it is more like a myth: only those with such huge talents are worthy of making great art, others just have to work very hard to even stand in their shadows.

Don’t believe in the myth to much as this will make it impossible for yourself to use and develop your talents and interests and value the work of your own hand and spirit.

William Berkson's picture

There is a lot of recent research on this issue. I believe that they hold that a factor called 'grit', which is devoted persistence practicing the task, even the face of difficulty, is also necessary. That ability to focus and persist, which is fed by passion for the task and other factors is as important or more important to high achievement as raw talent.

But raw talent is important. One of the coaches at my high school used to say "you can't win the Kentucky Derby with a mule." In the case of Mozart or Van Gogh, I think the 'instrument' misleading. Mozart would have been a great musician with a different set of musical instruments. And Van Gogh could have been great with water colors. What is pretty clear is that musical talent and artistic talent—or talent in poetry or mathematics—are rather specific endowments, which don't necessarily carry over to other aspects of life. I was reading recently that Van Gogh was, outside his huge artistic gift, a sadly inept and psychologically fragile individual, who was regularly taunted and bullied by cruel young men.

The real geniuses in my view always have both: a rare gift for what they do, and a huge passion and devotion of time to exercising and cultivating the gift.

JamesM's picture

> a sadly inept and psychologically fragile individual

Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime, spent time in a mental institution, and committed suicide at age 37.

But he produced amazing paintings which today sell for tens of millions apiece.

Nick Shinn's picture

Buster Keaton’s career as a physical comic began as a child in his family’s vaudeville act, in which he was dressed as a miniature version of his father—and quite literally kicked around the stage.

William Berkson's picture

On Van Gogh, I found the source of my memory about him; it's a TV story, based on a recent book. The theory is that it was murder or manslaughter, but as he lay dying did not want to ruin the lives of the young men who killed him. The story is alas very plausible. You can see it here.

JamesM's picture

It's an interesting theory (Van Gogh's shooting wasn't suicide), but he talked to several people (including his brother) after the shooting and never said that he was shot by someone else. And it's well documented that he was suffering from depression.

There's a good movie based on his life called "Lust for Life" starring Kirk Douglas, who received a "Best Actor" Academy Award nomination for it. It shows up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies and can be rented on iTunes.

eliason's picture

Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo is a better movie if you ask me.

kentlew's picture

Craig — I can totally see Tim Roth as Van Gogh. I’ll have to put that one on my list. Thanks.

Nick Shinn's picture

The Van Gogh affair is the prime example of the romantic myth of the artist as outsider, serving to marginalize art and artists as mentally other and not requiring remuneration, with the value of their work transferring to dealers, curators, collectors, publishers and investors.

Artists have been complicit in this, e.g. The Death of Chatterton (a young poet, in 1770), by Thomas Wallis, 1856:

An aspect of this cultural split is the way that gallery artists support themselves doing commercial work, which is rarely included in their oeuvre. René Magritte sheet music cover, 1925:

phrostbyte64's picture

I hate the term talent. Like so many artist terms, it is subjective to the point of being meaningless.

John Hudson's picture

I think it is more the case that the term 'talent' is used in a variety of ways, some of which are highly subjective (especially so when it is used simply as a term of praise: "He's so talented".) The notion of an innate facility, however, is not meaningless, and far from being subjective it is quantifiable in various ways, mostly involving the amount of time it takes for an individual to become proficient at a learned skill. So, for example, I have a friend who has a talent for language acquisition, by which I mean that he finds it easy to learn new languages and does so in short periods of time.

phrostbyte64's picture

I see your point. However, for most of the term's usage it demeans and denigrates the effort needed to make use of one's talent. Mozart, for whatever talent he may have had, was still preoccupied with making music. Despite his excesses, it was the center of his life. Van Gogh painted tirelessly for hours on end, insanity and poor vision not withstanding. They may have been talented. They may have been geniuses. But, it was still a boat load of work. People tend to see the talent and downplay the actual work involved.

Karl Stange's picture

People tend to see the talent and downplay the actual work involved.

The body of work is often the demonstration of the talent. There are always exceptions, for example, Bertrand Russell proclaiming Ludwig Wittgenstein a genius based primarily on their verbal exchanges, Wittgenstein having published relatively little in his own lifetime.

William Berkson's picture

Wittgenstein was brilliant, and did publish two works that had a huge influence, his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and Philosophical Investigations. Russell wasn't wrong about his brilliance, but he was not only personally tortured, but also philosophically on a fundamentally wrong track, and tied himself in philosophical as well as personal knots.

Russell after being deeply impressed with Wittgenstein, rejected his views and lost patience with him. In the infamous incident of the clash between my late teacher, Karl Popper, and Wittgenstein, Russell took Popper's side. (The book on this incident doesn't quite get right the argument at its core.) I have Popper's and Russell's bias on Wittgenstein, but a great number of people idolize both him and his philosophy.

I think Nick Shinn is right that the picture of the tortured genius, which Van Gogh represents, and Wittgenstein fits, is unfortunately overemphasized. There are happy geniuses like Benjamin Franklin and Richard Feynman.

Karl Stange's picture

My point was not to emphasise the tortured side of Wittgenstein, merely use him of an example of someone considered to be a genius without having a great body of work to show for it. Indeed, there are no such colourful stories (that I am aware of) where Franklin or Feynman brandish pokers or dispense medicine and advise patients not to take it.

5star's picture

To me I see a phrasing, a voice if you will, and to me that is the talent to interpret a chosen subject matter.

Over at Christie's auction house Wednesday last, Jackson Pollock's Number 19 sold for 58.4 million US dollars ...not bad for a canvas that most everyone here thinks they can do. And that's fair. It's fair because we all can see the phrasing Pollock clearly stated.

No matter how hard talent is pushed ...until a clear concise voice is achieved the work will sound/look like background noise. I'm guessing within type design that that is even more so?

These masters, Mozart, Van Gogh, Pollock etc., seem ...and I hesitate to say this... destined to be who we see what they are.

Honesty is rare. And perhaps that that is what talent only is ...the ability to be true to yourself.

timd's picture

Magritte is an example of the blending of commercialism and art. Working within advertising while painting, where would his pipe or apple paintings be without his commercial background, and where would so many album covers be without Magritte?

Van Gogh produced drawings in chalk (among other media) that show an ability that is not limited to paint.

And you could make the point that Pollock had less conventional talent for paint than many other artists, there is a sea-change between the abstract expressionism of Blue or Shimmering and the drip paintings – a separation from the canvas.

Is notoriety a talent?

Nick Shinn's picture

No more than any other art medium.

Nick Shinn's picture

Beckham retires!

Nick Shinn's picture

I wonder if it could be argued that artists such as Magritte, who put text into their paintings, did so because they were familiar with putting it in their commercial work.

dezcom's picture

I don't think that you can deny the existence of talent. You can deny the proper attribution of it, though. Because someone has never been made famous by their talent, does not mean t does not exist. It just means that they were not discovered. The odds are that there have been plenty of talented folks who never made it into the Who's Who of the human race. Imagine 3rd World countries with little media exposure. I am sure that there must be some very talented folks from the Amazon jungles and elsewhere.
Cultivation and exposure brings fame, but talent is a prerequisite before we can apply the cultivation and exposure. I am sure Van Gogh would have also slipped between the cracks into obscurity if it were not for certain quirks of fate and certain speculative art collectors as well as greedy opportunists.

JamesM's picture

Yep, there are lots of factors besides talent.

Many artists are lacking in business sense. That's not a criticism, it's just that they are focused with other things.

Thomas Kinkade and Leroy Neiman are examples of painters who were often panned by the critics but had fame and fortune because they had business sense and knew how to promote themselves, while other artists with more talent lived in relative obscurity.

Té Rowan's picture

A lot of folks want to bend it like Beckham; maybe for the money, maybe because he has a usable talent for footie (and could exploit it).

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