I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between talent and skill.
A talent, the world seems to suggest, is something that is God-given, perhaps from birth, for some of us. A skill, however, is something that you have to work at. For many artists, their daily grind is to hone a talent into a skill over time. This is where practice comes in, of course, and with it the tricky matter of discipline.
I appreciate that nothing about the above paragraph is exactly mind-blowing, and yet it is only now at the age of forty-five, with 30 years of work as a creative behind me and the backdrop of the last long ten months of coronavirus-induced career paralysis, that I have really had the chance to unpack these notions and ask what they mean for me and my art.
Until relatively recently, I had been in Survival Mode. Most certainly this was the case since moving from a sleepy village in Kent at the age of nineteen, to study musical theatre at a London drama school. Survival Mode means grabbing. Saying yes to every opportunity, no matter how ill-advised. Survival Mode is filling your pockets with canapés at that event where you are supposed to be impressing people, because you don’t know when you’ll next eat. Survival Mode demands that long-term goals are approached, when even possible, via the circuitous routes of day-jobs, side-hustles, rash decisions and less-than-perfect compromises. And outcomes.
For isn’t that what we seek through art? – The Perfect. Something genius.
‘They were a genius’
Were they? Or did they work really hard, stay focused and instil their artwork with a depth and richness that wholly satisfied the consumer? Maybe that is genius for some?
Survival Mode does not give the artist the luxury of genius. Of perfect. There is nothing romantic or aspirational about being a struggling artist. The hungry painter in a heat-less garrick high above the eighteenth arrondissement will starve. Or freeze.
For some, the survival mode period comes to an end. Sometimes this ends with the artist in a ditch, looking up at the stars. I know. Isn’t it a wonderful life? I’ve always wanted to sit in a pool of other people’s dirt on a filthy pavement in the freezing cold and gaze up at the passers-by in their new winter coats that I cannot afford because I am an artist.
And sometimes, if you work hard enough – duck here, dive there, get given a lot of support and love from believers of what you do and who you are – sometimes Survival Mode morphs into a more comfortable, less perilous daily existence. After decades of chipping away at debt, doubt and disinterest. One where there are opportunities to breathe. One day, filled with daffodils, you realise you have the luxury of saying ‘NO’ to someone. Or something. Anyone. Any thing. But the option to say no. The very option. Mind-blowing.
And the strangest thing about moving from survival mode to what we might then call Denial Mode is that it can take years for you to notice you’ve shifted modes, and longer still before adjusting your relationship to practice, to skill, and to art and how they fit in to your new, breath-taking, option-laden life.
It would be easy for me, at this point, to suggest that the last ten months have been a gift from the artist-Gods. The longest ‘Artist’s Date’ in history; divine intervention with collusion from Julia Cameron herself. But the reality of the situation is that we have been scared. We have been blind-sided. Days and weeks and months that should have been filled with the dusting off of our teenage acoustic guitar; that long-awaited self-imposed internal yoga retreat for your soul; or the tenacious goal of sitting down each day simply to write, have instead been punctuated by fear, by being disenfranchised and told we are ‘unviable’ and should ‘retrain’ and, for some of the unluckiest, a lack of financial government support so total that it has destroyed the artist within us completely.
If the arts and artists are unviable, it is purely due to the decisions taken by our government during this pandemic that have made them so. An artistic genocide amidst a global pandemic. You have that on your hands, Messers [sic] Cummings, Johnson and Sunak.
And so, it has been only in the past few weeks that I myself have managed to hack my way through the emotional brambles of self-doubt, financial worry, health fears, loss of worth, mixed messages, contradictory signals and blanket disregard for our artistic death at the hands of this mis-managed crisis to emerge, slowly, cautiously and with no track record whatsoever for practice; skill-honing; art-perfecting.
There is an opportunity here. This is a moment we won’t get back.
Hack through the thorns and twisted, blood-soaked vines to find your art.
And always remember to never confuse output with input. With creating content vs building something significant. This month I will ask what my art is worth, and not what I can get for it.
I shall leave the final word to the British screen and stage actor Katherine Parkinson, on giving advice to her younger self from a recent article in the Evening Standard:
‘It is not fanciful to try and do something you love; you are not being indulgent to try and pursue something that fits. Any truthful voice is valid.’
See you next time, if we’re saved.