Craft Skills vs. Artistic Talent

This is like­ly to be a paired blog entry, as I am cer­tain Susan will have some­thing to say on the mat­ter.

I strong­ly believe that almost any­one can be taught a skill — which is not the same as being taught an art. Given enough prac­tice, most of us can mas­ter any­thing we are phys­i­cal­ly capa­ble of doing. Malcolm Gladwell, sci­ence and psy­chol­o­gy writer for the New Yorker, has found many experts agree that the “mag­ic num­ber” is rough­ly 10,000 hours of prac­tice to be among the best at any par­tic­u­lar skill, from play­ing a musi­cal instru­ment to pro­gram­ming com­put­ers.

However, a skill is not an art. Every artist, regard­less of innate tal­ents, has to prac­tice the craft aspects of his or her medi­um. Art depends on craft.

I’ve met gift­ed painters who can “forge” clas­sic works. They have paint­ed for 10,000 hours and can recre­ate almost any image in any major style. But, only a few of these artists can cre­ate some­thing orig­i­nal, a work that stands alone. I have no idea why this is, but the world needs craft as much as orig­i­nal art.

Susan read a research arti­cle that con­clud­ed most peo­ple can be taught to sing. I have no rea­son to doubt that most of us with aver­age hear­ing can be trained to adjust our voic­es, com­pen­sat­ing for the dif­fer­ences between what we hear and what oth­ers hear when we sing. Yet, there is a dif­fer­ence between those who sing and those who man­age to inter­pret songs in new ways.

This is not to dis­miss craft­work, which is the expert recre­ation of a work. What I am sug­gest­ing is that being a great tech­ni­cal painter or singer is not the same as being an artist. Creating some­thing is key to art, in my opin­ion. Duplication, gen­er­al­ly, is not cre­ative.

There is a mag­i­cal line that sep­a­rates cre­ativ­i­ty from skill mas­tery. Since few of us ever take the time to mas­ter some­thing, and I do mean tru­ly mas­ter, the expert musi­cian leaves us in awe. Yet, it is the com­pos­er who stands apart from oth­ers in my mind. The com­pos­er is prob­a­bly a “good” musi­cian, with some­thing extra. He or she might not be the absolute best musi­cian, but is good enough to envi­sion new pos­si­bil­i­ties. That imag­i­na­tion gives rise to art.

The craft of writ­ing should not be con­fused with the art of writ­ing.

When we teach writ­ing, we can teach the craft and nur­ture the art. We can hope that stu­dents devel­op into mas­ter writ­ers, able to com­pose spe­cif­ic gen­res in the class­room, work­place, or dai­ly life that are nec­es­sary to suc­cess.

Art is beyond craft. We can and must nur­ture art, which means iden­ti­fy­ing the cre­ative writ­ers among stu­dents and giv­ing them an envi­ron­ment that is both chal­leng­ing and inspir­ing. Nurturing art includes the prac­tice of skills, since you can­not ful­ly artic­u­late the cre­ative with­out mas­tery of the skills.

Today I heard a teacher repeat the old stand­by, “Everyone has a sto­ry to tell.” Yes, but not every­one can tell that sto­ry in an inter­est­ing, enter­tain­ing, and artis­tic man­ner. It’s not enough to accu­rate­ly write your sto­ry in tech­ni­cal­ly cor­rect gram­mar. There is more to being a writer than know­ing gram­mar and mechan­ics. I know many writ­ers who require edi­tors; this implies the skill of writ­ing is less essen­tial to being a writer than some peo­ple might assume.

Most of us expe­ri­ence the dif­fer­ence of craft vs. art among our friends. We all have those friends who can turn a rou­tine trip to the bank or depart­ment of motor vehi­cles into an uproar­i­ous­ly fun­ny tale. These are “sto­ry­tellers” who sim­ply know how to cap­ti­vate an audi­ence. Another friend might tell more accu­rate sto­ries, report­ing on events like a jour­nal­ist. Another friend might speak in rigid­ly prop­er English, care­ful­ly avoid­ing the slight­est gram­mar faux pas. But, most of us pre­fer to hear the sto­ry­teller.

I could have five stu­dents write the exact same sto­ry from a pro­vid­ed out­line and yet the odds are one would stand apart. All five might have excep­tion­al form. There might not be a sin­gle spelling error in any of texts. Most of my stu­dents would write “A” papers by any tech­ni­cal met­ric. Yet, some­one will com­pose a bet­ter sto­ry.

Maybe every­one has a sto­ry, but some peo­ple need assis­tance, or at least guid­ance, to make the sto­ry inter­est­ing.

I hope every stu­dent becomes a good writer, tech­ni­cal­ly. That tech­ni­cal mas­tery alone is not enough to be con­sid­ered an artist. An artist stud­ies com­pul­sive­ly, then mix­es and merges the tech­ni­cal aspects of pre­vi­ous mas­ters to become some­thing new. What I hope is that we encour­age stu­dents to explore, so every­one has an oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cov­er if he or she is an artist. We must not assume to know who is or is not des­tined to be an artist.

- Scott

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Author: C. Scott Wyatt