Is the notion of “talent” hurting artists in the long run?

I recently came across the YouTube channel of Stephen Silver, a professional artist based in the UK whose character designs can be found all over the animation world including such series as Kim Possible, Danny Phantom and Kevin Smith’s Clerks. In addition to being a great artist, he’s very passionate about the idea of helping out up-and-coming artists and his channel has a slew of advice videos with topics such as how to protect your artwork and work toward financial success—or at the very least, survival.

What has always had me scratching my head though is how have we, as artists, got ourselves into this position in the first place? Why is it that we frequently end up trying to scratch out a meagre living?

tech-art-splitMy current day job is working as Web Developer—or someone who stares at nothing but reams and reams of code all day. When I landed this job last October it was the first time in almost a decade that my day job didn’t involve any kind of design. Over the years I’ve always billed myself as a “Designer/Developer”, which I thought was a fairly useful thing, but all it ever seemed to do was confuse people who might potentially hire me.

Still, the web is a marriage of artistic design and hard-core code and if the site fails in either arena it’s going to fail as a whole. So, again, why was it when you stood a design job up next to a developer job, that one consistently gets paid less than the other?

Worse than that, why is it considered okay to approach a designer or artist and ask for a free character design? A $5 logo? A $25 website template?

Then, the other day it hit me… it’s because no one leaves the womb knowing Javascript.

You’re Just So Talented!

Yes, artists, I’m here to tell you those four words are the kiss of death.

The myth of talent is that we are born with some crazy skills locked up inside our brains. One day, when we’re probably about three years old, we pick up our first crayon and–oh my! Our parents stand in awe at the sight of the Mona Lisa rendered perfectly in blue crayola. After the adults in the room pick themselves up off the floor, they hang the little artist’s first masterpiece on the fridge and nod sagely to one another, “yes, our baby has talent!”

After that things move at a pace and, before we know it, we’ve grown into adulthood and are ready to make our way in the world. Sure, maybe we took some art education after high school, but it wasn’t really to improve our skills, simply to attach some accreditation to our natural talent. This training would’ve been a lark for us. Fun! After all, drawing all day couldn’t be anything except funright?

Contrast that to someone we might consider a talented programmer. In the context of something like a web developer, saying that they’re “talented” is more like saying that they have an aptitude for programming languages. A programmer has the ability to learn languages like HTML, CSS, PHP, Javascript and so on and then use those languages to build out the guts of a website. No one assumes that you could scribble out a computer program in crayon on pure talent alone—extensive time and effort were still needed to learn those languages.

What a programmer does is work.
What an artist does is play.

Of course this is completely ridiculous. It takes just as many hours to learn how to draw as it does to learn how to program. I find it interesting right now because in my day job I’m focusing on improving my Javascript programming skills and then when I get home I’m putting in the time to work on my nightly face for 100 Days, 100 Faces.

There are days when the programming is fun and the drawing is a slog. There are days when the reverse is true. Either way, I consider both work and both equally demanding.

Because what an artist does is so often seen more as play and that their abilities were something given to them as opposed to something gained through blood, sweat and tears, this becomes the seed from which the lack of respect for creative work grows. Stephen Silver is absolutely right that so many desperate, creative people are willing to feed into the stereotype of the ‘starving artist’ and that isn’t helping anyone, but I think its this notion of easily-attained, God-given talent that started it off in the first place.

To close out with one of the most “talented” artists there ever was…

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all. — Michaelangelo