I want to become an artist – but I don’t have any talent or artistic skills. Will I have what it takes? v0.3

Sometimes it feels as if certain people are meant to be artists, while others could never ever become one. A lot of people still believe in the notion of pre-existing talent or excellence; in their world view, artists are often thought of as rare geniuses. This is outdated. In actuality, the idea of talent is mostly used as (self-)mythologizing marketing strategy – or even as defense strategy by those who don’t want to fail, or even start trying: “If I can’t do something today, for sure I’ll never be able to do it. After all, others can do it so well already: why bother starting?” If this was true, life would be static; we wouldn’t ever be able to learn something new: another language, a new hobby or craft. People couldn’t ever change jobs or raise children – simply because ten years ago they didn’t know how to do it either. Life wouldn’t feature change.

At the same time, people rarely talk about talent when discussing less romanticized, more down-to-earth activities (like learning to cook or how to ride their bike). Yet in the arts, especially by outsiders, it’s often used as metric of excellence. Considering the many hours required to master any complex craft, the reality of “talent” becomes obvious: while it can be a kickstarter, it will never outweigh someone’s sheer power of will: whoever truly wants to become a chef, skateboard pro or jazz guitar player, for sure won’t be hindered by their perceived lack of initial talent. Rather, they’ll approach the new field according to their character, and find ways to turn alleged shortcomings or flaws into their signature style – with a mixture of humbleness and boldness. In addition, remember that talent can at times be problematic: if it creates arrogance and a wrong sense of security about a field’s complexity, and one’s position within it.

If discussing talent and arts, here’s a controversial idea: Contemporary art is an especially amazing field for those without talent, simply because it doesn’t feature a unique, static set of expectations towards content or form. Resultingly, there isn’t (and can’t be) a specific set of skills required to become an artist. If you’re blind but want to paint, if you want to film but can’t afford camera or editing software, if you’re insensitive but want to sculpt, then for sure there can’t be a better place than the arts. Don’t misunderstand: the arts are not a place for dilettantes. Amateurism and incompetence will always stand out as signs of bad quality – but the arts even have room for these: Since tastes are subjective and temporary, what might be perceived as “bad” by someone at some time, will feel like actual bliss to others, or the same person at another time. For an artist to make proper “bad art”, they need to embrace and expand on specific ideas of that quality – which is far away from operating naively. As long as you pursue your work authentically, continuously questioning and expanding it, and ignoring destructive criticism, then your work can thrive – entirely independently of preexisting talent or skills.

That’s why in today’s world, the most general requirements to becoming an artist are 

  1. your will to be curious, and 
  2. the endurance to establish your own work processes, based on your curiosity.

Instead of the cliché sufferings, artists should expect the hardships experienced by any emerging entrepreneur or business person: slow recognition and sales, a lack of structure, all sorts of financial worries, the requirement to do side jobs, the doubt of whether it’s all worth it. 

Because of fine arts being such an open field, there can be an additional depth to the fear of failing, of not being good enough. This fear can manifest itself by frequent, irrational comparisons to everything done before, done now, or yet undone. While you slowly deepen your understanding of the art world, you will at times see art through a tainted, stained filter – there’s always the danger of becoming cynical, to start despising the art world you crave to get accepted by. It can become difficult to appreciate or enjoy someone else’s works and achievements – including your own. By expecting this potential danger, cynicism becomes a choice: it’s possible for you to instead engage the world with a realistic kind of positivity.

To transcend these fears of failure, you first need to face them. For this, let’s not define the artist’s job by what you might like and enjoy about it – but by the hardships you’re willing to endure: are you up to face the challenges listed above, and find your own path through them? While this book suggests many strategies, the meta-advice is to 

  • stay utopian (“I know I can manifest this feeling/thought/idea!”),
  • while firmly being rooted in the realities of our world (“I know I have to work hard doing x/y/z to make my work visible!”).

Artistic skills and traditional notions of talent really have nothing to do with these.