What is Talent: which is a similar question to What is Truth

A. Leon Miler’s Hop Canyon New Mexico 1886

Nathan Bransford posted this blog rant on low literary aspirations yesterday, and it struck a definite chord with me. We are living in an enlightenment-run-amok world where expertise belongs to anyone, as well as the mighty pen, which is mightier than the sword, or so we’ve been told. It’s true. Information is out there. It’s cheap. In many cases, it’s even free. And we can arm ourselves with it, call ourselves experts on anything.

By the same token, almost anyone can be published, even if publishing means forking up the cash to use a vanity press. In school, our access to information and our ability to express ourselves in words have been likened to power (mightier than the sword, and all that). How powerful, though, are billions of voices all ranting different things? And through all the racket, nobody can be heard. Gone is the idolized expert and, in his place, stands the idol of the individual.

Talent is elusive. I know when I don’t have it. For example, I simply have no artistic abilities at all, and I can claim that with a fair amount of certainty. It’s more difficult, however, to pinpoint talent than to witness the extreme lack thereof. I believe that I’m still on firm ground when I claim that my father is a talented painter. For a start, he has well-honed skills. He mixes his own paint, rather than painting straight from the tube, and primes his own boards, rather than buying pre-stretched canvases. In his younger years, he apprenticed with a master painting restorer.

In addition to all of the above, he has style. The combination thereof, craft and style, must be talent. What a relief it is that I can spot talent! But, wait; in walks your aunt Maude, who wants to rent a space next to my dad’s in the gallery. You’ve told me she has talent; she’s always painting. She’s so creative! When I look at her paintings, though, I see right off that her pigments don’t match. Her painting of a mountain looks like a mountain, I suppose, and the other artist are oohing and aahing over a hummingbird she’s painted.

I shrug. I guess I don’t know what talent is, after all. Aunt Maude has more artistic talent than I have. She can paint things and actually make them look like what they’re supposed to, which I certainly can’t. In the style category, her talent points fall to zero in my opinion, but what do I know? Her execution just doesn’t seem to scream talent, either. Then I start wondering whether my dad is as talented as Rembrandt. Rembrandt clearly had talent. If I were to ask his opinion (my dad’s, not Rembrandt’s–I’m not in the habit of talking to dead artists), he would say it doesn’t matter; he has no idea; only time will tell.

But it does matter. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to my dad because he’s too busy painting, but it matters to our society, which is made up of persons who are stars in their own mini universes. Besides, we don’t want to be wrong. We want to hedge our bets, and so we ask the question, what is truth? Sadly, like Pilate, we don’t want to hear the answer.

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