Is True Talent a Hoax?

by Fiona Haze

(A crowd at the Van Gogh Museum waiting for Chagall to perform. Photo by Fiona Haze. )

On the 29th of November, I found myself wandering through the doors of the “Vincent on Friday” exhibition in Amsterdam, entering a warm, crowded room to shelter me from the bleak autumn night. On the wall to the left of me, an enormous banner depicting his famous sunflowers caught my attention. As I continued down the escalator to reach the coat room, my eyes located a few of Van Gogh’s other famous paintings, spread out across the walls. All of the colors were vivid and the strokes were bold and urgent, expressing movement and emotion. It is no wonder that his paintings today are recognized as some of the most valuable possessions a person can own. But what were these paintings a result of? I couldn’t help but wonder: Did Van Gogh have any true talent or are all these paintings just a result of endless, restless practice? 

It has long been debated if art relies on talent or skill: are some born with an innate natural creative mind or is art something that has to be taught, learned and practiced? Some say that talent is a real phenomenon and is what differentiates us from one another. Other people argue that we all are born with a creative side but that some simply are more in touch with the right half of their brain. But which is more accurate: is true talent a reality or a hoax? 

From the entrance, I snaked my way past the horde of adults sipping on their welcome drinks, and discovered a small room with a variety of self-portraits that Van Gogh had created. Some were detailed oil paintings, and others were gestural, briskly-made watercolor sketches. However, something stood out to me as I strolled around the room. The dates. Van Gogh had a very short career, lasting only a decade! This made me think: Are artists born or taught?

Personally, I think that artists are both born with an innate talent and taught. Van Gogh fits this theory perfectly: when he started painting, he was at the late age of 27. He only painted for a decade until his early death at thirty seven. Due to his lack of art education, Van Gogh had to have an inborn talent, a natural ability to create. 

The tranquil environment, only disturbed by occasional chitchatter, was suddenly broken. On a stage behind me, Chagall ( instagram: @chaggylalala) had started her performance, unique in the fact that she is a digital artist who uses a glove gestural controller system to create her music. Chagall stood out to me immediately: her music was original and she was clearly gifted. 

As Chagall proves, talent can be found all around us, so there has to be some truth in the idea of it. From a young age, some are effortlessly good at delivering speeches, solving complex mathematical equations, learning new languages or creating a landscape painting. To prove this, next time you walk in the elementary school hallways, stop by a classroom. You will see without doubt which student is caught up in their own little bubble of passion and talent, may it be art or math. 

I shifted my attention from the stage and found a pair of stairs leading up to another floor, leading the crowd through Van Gogh’s early paintings to the ones produced just before his death. Here again, the museum pointed out that Van Gogh had no professional education — he was self taught. All of a sudden, I needed to get an answer to my question. So I did what any other would do: I googled. 

As a result of my googling later at home, I came across an article titled: Probing Question: Are artists born or taught? published by Penn State News, in which Nancy Locke, a professor of art history at Penn State had been interviewed. She discusses the idea of “vision” and its relationship to talent. She states that vision is also innate: while an artist can be passionate about creating, he or she can have less talent when it comes to vision — meaning the composition and idea of an artwork before she/he has started to paint. Taught the right skills, anybody can copy one of the great artworks we know of today, like Starry Night. However, art truly isn’t all about skill. Artists have to be real innovators, meaning being able to have the vision that creates great artwork. 

But of course, artists are also reliant on technique, says Locke. Skills are also developed by the artists environment. The artist, like Van Gogh, has to be aware of their time and place, the surrounding artistic tradition, have training and life experience in order to challenge the current art era. 

On the middle floor, I found a painting that I had become transfixed by, called The White Orchard (1888). Even though the painting looked very true to life, it was far more expressive in color choice and vibrancy. Just by looking at the painting, you could smell the fragrance of the flowers, feel the texture of wet spring grass between your toes: you could sense the feeling of content that Van Gogh once felt while surrounded by such nature. I found a label on the left-hand corner that explained Van Gogh’s altered art style. 

When Van Gogh relocated to Paris in 1886, he became greatly influenced by Impressionism and Post-impressionism. He met artists like Gauguin, Pissarro, Monet and Bernard, who influenced his technique and color choice: they were artists who helped Van Gogh develop his skill set. As a result, he started using more vibrant and brighter colors and altered his artistic technique. 

Over time, Van Gogh also taught himself more about the skills within art education, like color theory, in order to master the art of painting. However, Van Gogh was not known to follow the rules. What the artists of the Impressionist era accomplished was to break the rules of traditional art: they had both talent and a vision for their art, which forever changed the approach to what was, and is, seen as acceptable and valued art. 

As I walked back into the bleak autumn night and looked up at the sky to observe my own version of Starry Night, I felt satisfied. I thought that I had found the answer to my question. 

So is there such a thing as talent in art, or is it simply a concept used to deceive? I would argue that there is truth in talent. Very few can simply sit down and create works such as “Sunflowers”, “Guernica”, “Campbell’s Soup Cans”, “Impression, Sunrise”, “Mona Lisa” or “Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” out of thin air. Like Van Gogh said himself: “great things are done by a series of small things brought together”. You need both the talent, a variety of different art skills, the vision and the surrounding environment to paint a masterpiece. 

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