The Myth of Talent
If there's one comment that is made more often than any other on any decent piece of artwork it's "you're so talented."
It's also the one [positively intended] comment I've seen the most artists bristle at, sometimes even retort. For some of us, it's a pet hate. Why?
We know it's meant as a compliment, so we smile and say thank you and try to resist the urge to insist that 'talent' is the biggest myth there is. Not only is it a myth, at its worst the use of the word is potentially destructive to the artistic community.
What's so wrong with the word 'talent'?
You might not realise it, but calling someone talented can often feel like a backhanded compliment. No skilled artist woke up one day just being able to do what they can do. We were all born completely unable to do just about anything useful. But through daily practise we learned how to use our limbs for motility, our voices for words, and our hands for creativity.
When you praise an artists talent, you are ignoring all of that. You make out like their work is some innate gift that got magicked out of thin air. You boil down all their artistic achievements into a matter of being a lucky recipient. The artists ceases to be the agent of their own creation.
The artist knows how much hard work they have put into a piece, how many years of practise and experience got them to the point of where they are. All the mistakes and feeling like you weren't getting anywhere, the lessons learned and the eventual breakthrough. All if that is discounted the moment we pretend artistic ability is a gift.
What's destructive about calling someone talented?
We have a really terrible habit for praising people for 'natural' abilities. This is something that extends beyond just art and into everything thing there is. You're good at something? Wow! You're so gifted! You're so smart, so athletic, so talented.
Study after study after study has shown that praising someone's apparent innate ability to achieve something can be destructive to their development. Kids in particular, but it is true of any person in any stage of learning.
People praised for being innately talented come to depend on this ability being innate. When they hit a hurdle, they are more likely to give up. They take it personally, they see it as being a failure of self: "I'm not smart/talented/good enough for this." Let's face it, it's an easy way out. Once you decide you're just naturally not meant to do a thing it's easy to stop trying.
Conversely, people praised for being hard workers understand that hitting a hurdle means jumping higher next time. They know they have to work harder, work longer, and that their next attempt will end in a different result. And as a result, they are able to reach greater heights because they push themselves to them.
Countless scientific and social studies have demonstrated this effect. There are even more countless anecdotes of these experiences. Perhaps you have one of your own? Talk to anyone who, as a child, was constantly told they were gifted at something, only to give up on that thing when they could no longer sustain being accidentally gifted in adolescence. It's an enormous problem in school classrooms and is one of the many failures of our reward-based learning methodology. But it's also just as important in any learning environment, personal artistic learning included.
Why are the words I use on deviantART important?
We are a community that prides itself on fostering artistic growth. The best thing about dA is how readily we can help and be helped, teach as we are being taught, inspire as we are being inspired. To grow together as a community, we ought to provide the best learning environment possible. The language we use is a powerful tool that shapes not only our psyche, but how we learn as well.
The next time you promote an artist in a feature, try substituting the word 'talented' with 'skilled'. When you fall in love with an art piece, praise the artist's hard work. Talk about their eye for detail, their choice of colour, their neat stitches, the perfect choice of shutter speed, their wonderful concept or their incredible realism. Try talking about all the extrinsic things about the piece, all the things they did to make that piece happen.
Not only will you probably make the artist feel better, but when you realise that the level of artistic brilliance you dream to achieve happens through something we can all control, you'll feel better about your own artistic journey too.
Still don't believe talent has nothing to do with it? Check out these improvement memes. Now, to my knowledge none of the following artists received a visit from a fairy godmother who bestowed upon them to gift to art. They worked hard and nurtured their skill. The results speak for themselves.