Why talent by itself is not enough for art

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Artistic genuis may be extremely rare, but artistic talent is quite common. What is rather difficult to find is such talent combined with intelligence, sensitivity, a sense of cultural relevancy - and creative drive.

These qualities are crucial, for without them talent will wither and die, or will remain, at best, a source of private pleasure or family entertainment.

We all have talent in one form or another, creative outlets through which our most inner thoughts and feelings wing their way out toward others - and receive approval and respect as a result.

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For most of us, occasional recognition and appreciation are enough. We know - or at least sense - that what pleases or entertains family and friends will not necessarily impress total strangers. And if we don't realize that by ourselves, there will most certainly be a parent or a friend ready to point that out - and to remind us of the risks involved in trying to make a career in the arts.

They will be quite correct - not only with their statistics, but also with their wish to prevent future frustration. Art, in all its forms, is without doubt one of the glories and pleasures of life. It can also, however, if overly fantasized upon and unrealistically pursued, be the source of some of life's greatest pain.

Talent in the very young should be encouraged and nourished for its own sake, and not because it can be a quick route to fame, wealth, and glory. Just as there are few things more delightful to watch than children happily splashing away with paint or trying to draw a cat, so are there few things more unpleasant to see than a parent pushing a young talent into premature commercial or professional directions.

One of the most interesting things about talent is that it is not necessarily coupled with intelligence - nor with ambition, or a sense of what is important. It is a rare talent indeed that finds itself functioning fully in tandem with what else is best about a particular individual - that finds itself a crucial part of a well-conceived and clearly focused long-range creative plan.

One of the greatest misconceptions held by some doting parents and altogether too many daydreaming youngsters is that true talent will always be recognized by an ecstatic public. That just isn't true. Talent by itself amounts to very little. For it to be of any interest to the world it must be pointed and shaped to answer a need, to give the world something it wants - even if the world isn't as yet fully aware of that need or that want.

At such a point, genius, with its instinct for what is crucial in a culture, will move ahead unswervingly. Talent, on the other hand, must weigh the alternatives before pulling out all its stops. It cannot, for one thing, act alone, but must call upon every special quality its owner possesses for help - from his most sharply honed intelligence, intuition, sensibility, and imagination to his shrewdest reading of his culture and his times. Like the sharpest politician or the cleverest financier, the ambitious artist of talent must understand his resources, study the situation, weigh the alternatives - and strike with all he's got.

Now if this sounds callous and cold, let me say only that this is often precisely what it takes to succeed in art. Especially today when there are thousands of ambitious ''applicants'' for every position at the ''top.''

I bring all this up not to be discouraging, but to put the value and nature of talent into proper perspective, to lay the groundwork for a discussion of talent's proper use and function.

Talent, as I see it, is a less imperative and more beclouded form of genius. If genius perceives reality transparently and with a driving necessity, talent does so translucently and with only a modicum of need. Talent perceives its goal dimly and achieves it only partly. Genius seeks what it must have, and finds it whole.

Talent, if well handled, can startle - but it cannot jolt us out of our habitual manner of thinking or seeing - and can seldom, if ever, cause us to alter our beliefs. It is gentler, slower-moving, and more uncertain. It is easier to love and to accept because we see it as no better than ourselves. Genius, on the other hand, stands so firm, is so implacable, uncompromising, and clear, so insistent that it alone is right, that we can only love and respect it from afar.

Artistic talent reflects the ability to ''lose'' oneself in an activity, to become one with colors, sounds, ideas, movements, etc., to direct oneself and one's resources toward the realization of a creative goal above and beyond immediate gratification.

Talent represents a hunger, an ache for something richer and clearer than what we have or seem to be. It makes its demands upon us -- not as imperiously or as imperatively as does genius -- but powerfully and often maddeningly nevertheless.

The problem with talent is that it is often so small, represents only the briefest gush of spirit, the tiniest crack in our personal world of insecurity, dogma, prejudice, and habit. We can often only give over to it briefly - and then often without conscious control - before its impulse and expansive force diminish and once again submerge within our everyday lives.

We are fortunate, however, that talent can be nourished and taught how to bloom. And here we are particularly fortunate that 20th-century modernism has challenged many narrow and more traditional attitudes toward the nature of talent. This is especially true of the belief that talent manifests itself primarily as a clearly defined manual skill -- that only a boy or girl who can draw ''correctly'' and get the colors ''right'' has talent - and that those who splash about wildly with paint are merely ''expressing themselves,'' something that might be fun and emotionally important, but has little if anything to do with talent, let alone art.

We have moved away -- at least in the visual arts -- from the position that talent is largely a matter of dexterity to one that sees it more as a matter of clarity of perception coupled with the ability to give visible form to what is intuitively sensed. Even so, talent must still include sensitivity to medium and material, to color, line, texture, shape, etc. And it must engage itself with issues and ideas that are so intrinsic to art that they can find no better expression elsewhere.

I wish this were better understood by the vast hordes of youngsters storming into New York year after year in search of a career in art. The number of those who really know what art is all about is relatively small. Most of them go to New York in the vague hope that their particular abilities will somehow find critical approval -- and a market. Or that their reading of what in art is currently fashionable and ''in'' is correct, and that their derivative versions of it will land them in the Whitney Museum -- or at least in a major show in SoHo.

The problem is one of applying talent, of knowing how to make the best and most significant use of what each of them has. And that demands intelligence, self-knowledge, awareness of his culture's issues and priorities, and a passionate desire to succeed -- either on one's own terms, or on someone else's.

No one understood this better than Roy Lichtenstein, who has fashioned an extraordinary career for himself in art by utilizing all his creative and professional resources to the hilt. His self-knowledge, intelligence, professionalism, shrewd reading of recent art history -- and talent -- all combined to create one of the most impressive reputations in American art today.

He totally and unequivocally committed all his eggs to one basket -- in his case, Pop Art. (He was, in fact, one of its original figures.) He has remained professionally constant to that painterly premise ever since, although he has modified and ''purified'' it considerably. And the result, as seen most dramatically in the St. Louis Art Museum's recent survey of the most recent ten years of his work , is an art of first-rate pictorial effectiveness and impact.

He is, in every practical sense of the word, a success, and he achieved it by a shrewd application of every facet of his creative and intellectual being. He didn't wait for success to happen, he made it happen.

The fact that his art is cold, detached, and somewhat shallow is the price he had to pay to achieve the kind of success he wanted. He has been, in my opinion, too calculating, shrewd, and pragmatic about the application of his creative resources, and trivialized his art by overly manipulating and overextending his talent.

But talent need not go that route. It can move slowly and at its own pace, and do so with both integrity and effectiveness. And it can also then succeed. If anyone doubts this, let him examine the paintings and etchings of Giorgio Morandi. He devoted a lifetime to painting a few bottles, vases, boxes, and bowls lined up in a row - as well as a few florals and landscapes. And ended up with some of the finest paintings and prints of the 20th century.

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