What it takes to be an artist

Think of the stereotypes. Artists are loners, wild and unruly, enthralled with themselves, beholden to no norms, egoists above all. Whether you approve or not, artists are held to different standards. Think of Picasso, Warhol, Morrison, Joyce. The #MeToo movement has put some cracks in this image, but, I think, without doing any serious damage to the stereotype. Is there a kernel of truth to it?

Maybe. Or better, in part. I think the image of the self-possessed and self-obsessed seer of things the rest of us can’t may be a caricature of a small subset of artists as a whole: those who are successful enough to rise above the mass of humanity and become visible to us. In a word, the famous.

I know a lot of artists — painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, novelists, musicians – who will never be able to quit their day jobs but ply their crafts with as much dedication as anyone. Is it because they’re not as good at it? Some part of it is no doubt that, but who is as good as or better than whom is an elusive quality to pinpoint. I suggest that more of it has to do with precisely those personality traits that make up the stereotype.

Doing art involves rejection and ridicule. A lot of it. A little Googling will turn up dozens of famous writers who collected numerous rejections. As for painters, the term impressionist was first used as a term of ridicule. It’s not hard to find any number of inspirational essays citing these facts and exhorting the artist to stick to it, that perseverance will eventually pay off.

This isn’t one of them. It may payoff, but most likely not much, and that’s not the point. The point is that all the artists you know about had, in addition to the basic skills (and occasional genius) required of their craft, an ability to face up to rejection and ridicule, to keep close an image of themselves as important people with something unique and valuable to contribute to society.

It’s an attribute of character that’s more about success in general than peculiar to art. Think of Steve Jobs, whose self-confidence about knowing more about cancer than cancer researchers actually killed him.

Still, being a little bit wacky doesn’t hurt.

Okay, it hurts, but it’s a gas.

Why we’re (not) all brilliant

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By Africa. freedigitalphotos.net

It seems to me that the proliferation of know-it-alls (I have to include myself, unfortunately) in world culture is directly traceable to the rise of Wikipedia.  There’s the obvious point that we can get information on almost anything at a click, but there’s also the less obvious inference from the fact that it’s crowd-sourced.

Anybody can add his/her two cents worth, or so the myth goes.  That may have been true at the inception, but try it now, and see how far you get.  That whole wisdom-of-crowds thing got a pretty good thrashing, as it became clear in the early days of Wikipedia that a lot of garbage was being put up.  Eventually, the Wiki-editor was born, and now you need credentials to post, or even revise.

But the myth lives on, and the prevalent, if dubious, implication that one opinion is as good as the next.  Politically attractive as such egalitarianism is, it just ain’t so.  Ironically, everyone seems aware of this in regard to someone else’s opinions; we’ll have to look elsewhere for the root of our narcissism.

The other part of this illusion of expertise is the instant accessibility of information.  This goes back to a very common misconception of long standing: the idea that an expert is nothing more than a repository of data.  There have always been two stereotypes of genius.  On one side is Einstein, standing before a blackboard filled with utterly incomprehensible symbols, and on the other is Ken Jennings, the record Jeopardy winner.  To me, the two represent complementary aspects of genius: Jennings the large working memory, and Einstein the ability to see patterns and implications.  Somehow, in the popular mind, this has gotten reduced to access to large databases.  Presumably, in this view, Einstein simply knew the encryption key which made all those facts available to him.

A recent cartoon has a character saying, “I’ve outsourced my memory to Google.”  Would that it were so simple.  Having all that information accessible in your brain is inherently different from being able to look it up quickly on your computer.  It is where the Jennings and Einstein stereotypes merge; you simply cannot see the pattern in a dataset if you can’t see the dataset all at once, and that requires a large working memory, inside your calabash, not on your desk.  Worse yet, you can’t see the fallacy in any given proposition if you can’t quickly compare it to other propositions.

My students used to ask me how you can choose between two plausible, but contradictory propositions.  Well, googling it will not help.  You need to closely examine the underlying assumptions of the two ideas, as well as the implications.  You also need to see how compatible they are with other propositions.  This is possible without a good working memory, but very difficult.

Much easier to pick a side, and stick with it.  You see this mirrored all the time in online “discussions.”  A makes an assertion; B makes a counter-assertion.  From that point, it’s either alternating re-assertions, or ad hominem, frequently both.  There is an appalling scarcity of any relevance from one comment to another.  If an adversary’s point is acknowledged at all, it is only as a prelude to insult.  “You say x; you’re hopelessly naive.”

Internet knowledge is very broad, but shallow as a puddle, I’m afraid.  Add to that the fact that most search engines will give you what the algorithm says you want, and online genius can be summed up in one word:

Fool.