Inherit or Inherent?


When we talk about the greats of the art history pantheon like Michelangelo, Picasso or Van Gogh, we commonly attribute their genius to be the result of some innate ability or god-given talent. Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists is a good example of the length of time that such a notion has persisted in our society. His narratives of the renaissance artists make it seem like these people were predisposed to greatness, and we often invoke this concept when talking about creative people to this day… It would seem from how we talk about artists that some very special people have it, while the vast majority simply don’t. It can be a damaging narrative to those who haven’t met with success: it tells us that if we aren’t already “naturally” good at something that we should just give up, that artistic prowess is beyond the realm of learned skills and practice.


This concept of inherent talent devalues the the role that hard work plays in the creative act and the communal nature of artistic knowledge and skills. In addition to the immense amount of time one must practice to achieve greatness, one must also have been exposed to the right influences. The old adage about standing on the shoulders of giants comes to mind. The individual genius of Brunelleschi might have been an utter waste had he been born a century prior; the cultural climate wouldn’t have been ripe with the infusion of eastern knowledge that made the discovery of linear perspective possible. The fact that (at least) two other individuals seem to have stumbled on this idea as well suggests the influence of the larger historical context of 15th Century Italy.


I had a teacher in school who claimed that we could never again paint like Vermeer because the skills and deference that 17th Century revered are simply not practical or important any more, and it is only under such societal conditions that such a fantastic talent would emerge. It is as though there are a small number of potential Vermeers in any given population, but it is only when the cumulative pressures of time and place exhibit the right demands that such an artist would emerge. It just so happened that Delft in the 1600s valued secular domestic paintings, had a tremendous store of technical painting knowledge and was laden with the wealth that could support an unusually large community of decorative artists.


I suppose this viewpoint advocates the school of historical theory that considers individuals to be almost irrelevant actors: from this viewpoint had Brunelleschi never lived, the cultural environment would have still inevitably produced linear perspective. I think this notion is mostly right, with a slight modification. Artistic movements probably happen in broad strokes irrespective of individuals, but these movements are also punctuated by the occasional true genius. It is true that Michelangelo could not have accomplished the Pietà without the Greek and Roman sculpture that preceded him, but it is also true that his individual accomplishments had a particular and long lasting impact on the history of art. Only the peculiarities history could have produced Michelangelo, but only his individual peculiarities could have produced the mannerism that followed.

So it’s pretty much a wash.

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2 Responses to Inherit or Inherent?

  1. Jon Wolfe says:

    Ah, Garrett, I love how your posts seem to be building up, taking the reader somewhere, and then, in so many words, you just sort of say “meh”.

    Thanks for another well-written and interesting piece.

  2. Alicia says:

    I recently read somewhere (dear me, was it in a Malcolm Gladwell book?) that what matters more than talent for many things is simply the number of hours you put into it, thus eliminating the idea that if you’re not naturally good at something you shouldn’t pursue it. I believe what he noted was that it takes about 10,000 hours to be great at what you want to achieve, and the sooner you start on that 10,000 hour cycle, the sooner you’ll achieve greatness. (Ah yes, a citation noting, “Throughout the publication, Gladwell repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.”)

    Does this relate to the arts? Surely it does. But it still does not account for innate talent. And it doesn’t say much to the fact that if you are slightly decent at a task, you’re ten million times more likely to put more hours into it. So an artist born talented will become even more talented and relevant as they work on their craft. And what about motivation – a mentor who says “Hey, you’re kind of good at this” and encourages you? Perhaps exceptional artists also had exceptional teachers.

    Words for thought in any event.

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