Can Art Be Taught?

Art is a gift, right? You’re either born with innate artistic ability or you’re not. Well that’s what we are led to believe, and even Morgan Freeman would agree with that notion. So when many people are asked, can art be taught, they will answer with no. This toxic perception that artistic ability/thinking is granted by invisible magic fairy dust and only sprinkled on few is responsible for the lack of artists today and why it’ll be a long time until anyone truly experiences anything similar to the Renaissance.

Before dispelling the myth of art as a talent or a gift, here is the transcript of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s interview with Morgan Freeman on StarTalk which inspired this post.

Neil: From the highest levels of society to the lowest, you are portraying characters convincingly, compellingly, with warmth, with compassion—can somebody learn that?
Morgan: No, I don’t think so. It’s like art. I don’t think acting is an art, but it’s like art. You can teach painting.
Neil: The mechanics of it.
Morgan: The mechanics of it, but you cannot teach art. You cannot teach someone to do Starry Night.
Neil: Van Gogh, Starry Night.
Morgan: Yeah, I can look at it now and I can do it line for line but I can never dream it up.
Neil: Okay, so in the purest form of art, that’s got to come from some place deep within that no one can teach you?
Morgan: Yeah. Not that I’m saying acting is an art. I don’t think it’s an art, it’s just a talent. You know, I got into the discussion with people about my art and it’s like, I think to be an artist you’ve got to start with nothing. And no actor does that, we always start with a script. That’s somebody else’s art.

Morgan Freeman had argued he could learn the mechanics of art or painting—essentially, he could learn to recreate Starry Night stroke for stroke—however, he claims he would never be able to be an artist like Vincent van Gogh was. The issue here is, he’s coming at it from the wrong perspective.

There’s more to art than just the mechanics, which it seems as though he is acknowledging, yet he neglects to address that directly because he believes he’s inherently incapable of being an artist. Do you think van Gogh started with a similar perspective? It’s likely that van Gogh didn’t start by learning to stroke by stroke replicate the masters. He learned to paint from the ground up.

Creative thinking evolves out of the process of learning. When you go into something with the inherent mindset of, “they’re different from me,” then you’re never going to understand the creative process because you’re writing yourself off. You’re putting up arbitrary barriers that don’t exist; you’re not allowing yourself to be curious, to learn, and to evolve into an artist.
Suggesting that an artist has to start with nothing and that their thoughts have a sense of divinity to them, one must admit to be entirely naive to all of art history. If we look back to some of the earliest forms of art (or what we project the title of art on to, such as The Hall of Bulls in the Lascaux Cave of France or even ancient Egyptian art, and compare them to later works of art or even present day art, progress is indubitably clear.

Art and art thinking are subjected to evolution just as we are. It’s an intellect which has developed over thousands and thousands of years. To suggest that artists start from nothing is to suggest that modern civilized humans sprung up overnight. Every era of art was influenced by the ones that preceded it, and so modern day artistic thinking is entirely evolutionary and so it is not possible to start with nothing. Furthermore, that thinking disregards the power of influence and learning through observation.

If we look back at the Mona Lisa, did Leonardo da Vinci start with nothing? No! This is arguably one of the most famous pieces of art in history. Everyone knows and praises the Mona Lisa, but the painting didn’t surface from thoughts conjured in isolation, instead it’s an observational still life painting. In this case, is the individual that da Vinci was painting the art, and we are misappropriating credit? I don’t think so, but that’s what Morgan Freeman’s argument would suggest.

The biggest issue with assuming artistic ability is the result of luck, is that it creates a tainted binary. We are left to assume that we either have the gift or that we don’t, and in doing so we are robbing individuals of their untapped potential. We don’t say someone is born a plumber. We don’t say someone is born a shoe-maker. We don’t say someone is born an astronaut. We don’t say someone is born a doctor. Yet we time after time, say someone is born an artist and everyone else has to go about their ways and learn a skill for themselves.

We are arbitrarily writing ourselves off.

Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller conducted a study to see the effects of different kinds of praise on fifth graders. After completing some easy math problems, half were praised with an emphasis on their natural ability (i.e. You must be really smart) and the other half emphasized their effort (i.e. You must have worked really hard). The next set of problems were extremely difficult so much so that almost no one could answer them correctly. All of the students were told they had done a lot worse this time around. After experiencing this failure, the students were given another set of easy problems similar to the first. Those who were praised for their natural ability did roughly 25 percent worse. Those praised for their effort did roughly 25 percent better and were said to actually have enjoyed it more.

So the example above is about math, isn’t that the polar opposite of art? Who cares! Let’s imagine the same scenario but with art as the subject matter. Imagine what kind of effects it would have on students if they were told they were naturally gifted with artistic ability compared to those who were told they worked hard and produced great work. When things don’t go as expected, those who imagined they had an innate artistic gift would simply think they actually didn’t have the gift all along or have lost it. Those who recognized that their hard work produces results would continue to push on. The problem is, we aren’t telling kids that it’s not a gift, and so very few people push through and continue living a life of creativity.

“The truth is, creativity isn’t about wild talent as much as it’s about productivity. To find a few ideas that work, you need to try a lot that don’t. It’s a pure numbers game.” —Robert Stutton

And that’s why Morgan Freeman will never be able to come up with his own Starry Night, because he’s afraid of failing. He’s skipping over or ignoring the inevitable failures that litter the trail to creating one successful piece of art.

“Pablo Picasso created somewhere between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand works of art in his lifetime. He did not have the ability to simply decide that any given piece of art was going to become a masterpiece, such as Les Demoisselles d’Avignon. Instead, he set himself up for great success by rolling the dice over and over.” —Frans Johansson, Making Purposeful Bets In A Random World

That’s the problem, people aren’t setting themselves up for success. They’re scared to roll the dice over and over, or they’re at least discouraged from doing so. No one is allowing themselves to be artists. Imagine if Morgan Freeman decided to pick up painting. And he committed himself to working on his paintings every day. Would he go the remainder of his life thinking he was incapable of artistic thoughts or being an artist? I doubt it. Accepting that you are an artist comes over time. It’s a part of the numbers game. No child is born an artist, it isn’t until they’re given the tools to experiment in which we see them as artists.

We all have artistic thoughts and ideas every day, but we continually tell ourselves that we are not artists and so we never allow those ideas to surface. Art is not a gift you must be born with. Art is not a talent you must be born with. Art can, in fact, be taught.