Most people fit art into this mysterious and undefinable space. In our modern scientific age art is often attributed to the subconscious. The ancient Greeks thought art came from a sort of possession by the gods in the form of a Muse, from which we get the word music. Arabian lore had that same idea but gave a different external source a different name: Jinn, which became Genie and from which we get the word “genius.”
I was working with my amazingly creative friends Amy and Jennifer Hood at Hoodzpah Design Co. on a documentary about various artists in different creative spaces. During the filming of the documentary, Jennifer and Amy concluded that even most artists don’t know how they create what they do.
Some artists take this creative moment into an almost mystic space where they won’t probe their own process lest it change and whatever magic makes them creative vanishes.
I’m way too analytical for that. I probe, analyze and modify, optimizing my own process to best suite the task in front of me. As such, I ask other artists how they work. Check out my essay, Not Just a Coaster for a case-study with one artist and his process.
I was part of an artists group for a little while. During my time there I asked the question, “What is art?” We were able to break it down as small and concise as I believe is possible at this time.
Some people are better at some things than other people. Albert Einstein’s mind worked differently than most and that difference enabled him to come up with some physics theories that changed the world.
My friend Lewis Wall has Asperger’s Syndrome. One of the symptoms of Asperger’s is the inability to automatically filter out all the sensory information we get just by being alive. For years Lewis was socially awkward. But, that flood of information forced his brain to adapt to the flood, which made it exceptionally powerful. Lewis directed that power to the problem of what constituted the self and he’s now one of the most profoundly insightful and self-aware people I’ve ever met. He’s also one of the best coders around.
My friend Nathan James started playing guitar around the same time I did. I started a guitar club in my hometown of Fallbrook and Nathan joined. It quickly became clear that Nathan had more natural talent at guitar than I would ever achieve. He’s now a world-famous traveling blues musician and will be helping me compose music for Intelligent Design.
Talent is that thing you’re born with that makes you exceptional at something. We’ve all got a talent. Many of us have no idea what that talent is, but if we can find it, we tend to excel.
Talent is what you’re born with. Skill is what you learn over time. It’s why people who have natural talent attend Juilliard. They’re not content with the raw talent. They know it could be more. They have enough talent and enough wherewithal to know the difference between what they can do with their raw talent and the greatest artists throughout history. To bridge that gap, they study, hard!
Nathan James didn’t stop with his natural talent. If he had, he’d have a normal non-musician job and wouldn’t be nearly as good as he is today. Instead, he practiced guitar for hours a day, every day, for years. The result of which is that he got much better. I’ve taken my other musician friends to his concerts and every single one of them is blown away by Nathan’s skills.
Some people take the time to develop a skill without the natural talent, and it’s often these people who succeed at art beyond those with the initial talent. The downside of talent is that early on success comes easy, which promotes a lack of work in the talent because winning takes little to no effort. For that reason, having raw talent can be very dangerous.
DIALOGUE WITH CULTURE
When talent and skill are combined, extraordinary things are possible, far beyond what either by themselves might accomplish. But, there’s one other required component. The problem with this final component is that to do it best, it almost has to be done accidentally.
We often idealize the lone artist who is totally about self-expression. They may have the raw talent, and they may even have spent the time to cultivate it into a refined skill. Most artists do this. And most of them will die in obscurity and never resurface because they’re missing this key component.
Dialogue with culture. This is when refined self-expression talks about what’s happening now (now being a dynamic term referring to the present).
SLOW TRAIN COMING
The best example of this happening is Bob Dylan, as presented in Marin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home. No Direction Home is a profoundly awesome exploration of Dylan’s life with a level of access that only Scorsese could get.
But, that’s not why I bring it up. I bring it up because of a single realization that hit me while I watched it: The vast majority of Bob Dylan’s famous song were created during a four year period. And Dylan is still writing new songs. And he’s still touring.
Dylan grew up in the midwest. Then, after high school, he went to New York and got good. This is the skill phase. Of course, Dylan’s primary skill wasn’t his musicianship. In fact, on that level he’s not great. But as a poet, he’s a master.
In NYC Dylan connected with the poet scene. Then, he came back to the midwest, with talent and skill and almost instantly went stratospheric. After making it big in the midwest he went back to New York because that’s where the artists scene was. That’s where information was flowing through. That’s where you went to hear about the latest thing, and to participate in the dialogue of the time.
Eventually Dylan left his folk-rock foundations and went into a more rock style, and quickly faded from popular culture.
There’s a common cliché in the art world that an artist has to die in order to become famous. A really good example of this is Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh was deeply troubled, emotionally, exemplified by his cutting off his ear and sending it to a woman he liked. But, to limit Van Gogh to that moment would be foolish.
My wife and I were walking through the Getty Center, in the impressionist section, and before we even saw the name placard, Van Gogh was clearly, obviously better than his contemporaries, or any impressionistic work that has come since.
The problem is, impressionism wasn’t recognized until society had become so complex that only impressionistic perspectives about it were possible.
As with my friend Lewis, it’s possible that Vincent’s disability was his inability to deal with chaos, which then facilitated his conceptualizing it in a way that compressed the data into manageable components, no longer the seemingly infinite complexity of a fractal reality, but stripped down, less data, less trees and more forest. Each brush stroke visible, each moment of creation captured, but from a distance, the details vanish and a picture emerges.
Perhaps it’s that emotional distance that Van Gogh’s complex and cluttered mind intuited and abstracted in the form of his paintings. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, the world was still ordered. It would take a world war for the true chaotic nature of the world to be revealed to itself, thus forcing everyone else to recognize the awesome complexity of things and see the need for compression in the form of impressionism.
WHAT ART IS
I don’t know if this definition is prescriptive or descriptive. I don’t know if it’s complex pattern recognition and application. The answer to that question is both, it’s “Yes, and…” in the same way that Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is both descriptive and prescriptive. It’s like science. It’s analysis for the purpose of prediction and application.
Suffice it to say, Art is the synergy of talent, skill, and a dialogue with culture.
Are there other kinds of art? Sure. I doubt that other kind of art will have the universality of Art. And since my goal is impact, that’s what I’m after.