Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Art as Gift

I find myself bemused by people who want to assert that art is a gift, rather than an achievement. Often, these are the same people who work hard at their chosen profession, keeping up on the latest developments, honing their skills, looking for ways to be more efficient, productive, and successful. Or, if they play a sport, they know that regular practice will allow them to run faster, hit the ball with more accuracy, or stay in the game longer, no matter how much natural talent they may have been blessed with.

Somehow, though, when it comes to art, the benefits of education and practice are often unappreciated. We say that a person is gifted, talented, a genius. To paint a picture, to compose a tune, to choreograph a dance—these things seem marvelous, magical, the result not of work as it ordinarily understood but rather the product of a divine gift.

I do not, of course, deny that some people do seem to have more innate talent than others. However, it is important to recall that even those who are more gifted than most still must work hard to develop that raw talent into something that others will recognize as great. I am indebted to my friend, John Morris, for pointing me to the following story by Alan Jay Lerner, in his memoir, The Street Where I Live. Noting that every great star he had ever worked with never rested on talent alone, but worked harder, cared more, and had a greater sense of perfection than anyone else, he wrote,
I remember when I was doing a film with Fred Astaire, it was nothing for him to work three or four days on two bars of music. One evening in the dark grey hours of dusk, I was walking across the deserted MGM lot when a small, weary figure with a towel around his neck suddenly appeared out of one of the giant cube sound stages. It was Fred. He came over to me, threw a heavy arm around my shoulder and said, “Oh Alan, why doesn’t someone tell me I cannot dance?” The tormented illogic of this question made any answer sound insipid, and all I could do was walk with him in silence. Why doesn’t someone tell Fred Astaire he cannot dance? Because no one would ever ask that question but Fred Astaire. Which is why he is Fred Astaire.
Such a story might be told of any talented, disciplined artist who strives continually to move towards a vision of perfection.  The gift of talent is only a beginning, perhaps a necessary—but never a sufficient—condition of artistic achievement.

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