Sunday Salon: Sitting Down with Serena Barton
Sunday Salon: Sitting Down with Nancy Bea Miller

Is it Talent, or Self-Actualization?

     Most artists, including myself, will rise to the bait when ever someone bandies about the "T" word.  What is it about the idea of talent that scares us?  Is it the idea that there is such a thing, leaving open the fear that we might not possess it?  What is talent, anyway?  Or rather, what do we think it is?

Most men, when either speaking or writing about talent, seem to see it as a black or white issue.  Recently, on Alyson B Stanfield's Art Biz Blog, commentator and artist Bob Hunt raised a storm of controversy when he dared to mention talent as the primary ingredient in success.  Barney Davey, in his extremely insightful book , How To Profit from the Art Print Market, also has a thing or two to say on the subject of talent.  In fact, it ranks number one on his list of critical attributes for a successful art career. 

Women, on the other hand, are more prone to talk in softer terms.  Technique.  Perseverance and relationships.  Style and personal taste.  In a way, trying to define talent for women is similar to trying to define beauty: it's always in the eye of the beholder.

I decided to research a little deeper to see where some of our cultural ideas of talent originate.  Webster's College Dictionary gives the first clue: "a special, often creative natural ability or aptitude."  Going back further, we see the Bible reference about talent being a gift from God for use and improvement.  Going back even further, we find out talent was a form of ancient monetary units.  Definitely, talent is a word with a lot of emotional baggage.

On the Internet, my investigation of "Talent" led me to another loaded word, "Creativity."  There are literally thousands of opinions on creativity, how to get it, how to keep it, how to develop it in your workplace, how to accidentally become creative -- actually that's a great site.  But the information that began to shed some light came from a psychology site on Personality & Consciousness, and an article titled "Maslow's Episodic Redefinition of Self Actualization." 

For me, this article brought a lot of clarity to the idea of what we perceive as talent and/or creativity.  But more importantly, it gave me a way to distance myself from the feminine emotional experience of creativity, and to understand how it differs from the masculine end-result, which we view as talent.

Maslow defines the self-actualizing individual as experiencing an "emotional-cognitive-expressive state" that produces not only "his happiest and most thrilling moments, but...also moments of greatest maturity, individuation, fulfillment -- in a word, his healthiest moments."  The original view of the self-actualizing person was the static pyramid, with this emotional experience at the apex.  In 1968, when this article was written, Maslow re-defines his position, stating that it was not an "all-or-none pantheon into which some rare people enter at the age of 60."  (And wasn't that a relief for this Ancient Artist.)  Rather, the new theory is that self-actualization is episodic, reoccurring throughout life.

Maslow states that " We may define ... an episode, or a spurt in which the powers of the person come together in a particularly efficient and intensely enjoyable way, and in which he is more integrated and less split, more open for experience, more idiosyncratic, more perfectly expressive or spontaneous, or fully functioning, more creative...."  That sounds like what goes on in every artist studio on a really good day, doesn't it?  In the zone?  With the flow? Comes and goes?

I believe this is the experience of creativity, not limited to artists, but to all humans, and it is why we are so quick to take exception to the idea that we might not possess it when -- while we often cannot define it  -- we know we have experienced it.

But this is not "talent", not if I label "talent" as the tangible end result, the "value" definition.  In the midst of my self-actualization, if what I create has no meaning to anyone other than myself, I have enjoyed a highly satisfying self-actualizing moment.  I am at the highest level of my creativity.  And for many artists, this is motive enough to do what they do. 

But for me, it's always been important for my art to reach a wider audience.  I realize that I often confuse the experience of creative self-actualization for a manifestation of talent, and therefore I do not always look critically at the end result.  This is not negative self-talk.  I know that at any point in time, I'm doing the best I can with the knowledge I have in that moment.  But by understanding more about the processes that go on internally, I find it much easier to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the finished artistic product.  With this view, I can comfortably evaluate the qualities successfully accomplished in my work and determine if my talent is sufficient to compete in the wider market.

Yes, I am more comfortable. 

And yes, I am afraid of what I might discover.

But hopefully, the art will improve.