This morning’s offering from my unfathomable brain, Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More
Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard times, come again no more
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh! Hard times, come again no more
The full, original lyrics here. I imagine a psychologist would have a field day with these, but I’ve no idea why this stuff pops into my head.
From Terry Teachout’s About Last Night:
“It is the immemorial dream of the talentless that a sufficient devotion to doctrine will produce art.”
David Mamet, Theatre
I like Mamet’s work a lot, both stage and screen. But I disagree with this statement for a couple of reasons. Or maybe I agree with it but think it means something different from what a lot of folks think it means.
I’m a big believer in Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, which he explains in his book Outliers. Simply put, the rule is that in order to get really good at something, you have to put in about 10,000 hours working at it. It doesn’t much matter what the something is: playing guitar, or making photos, or writing novels, I suppose. Ten thousand hours. Sounds like a lot, but if you spent 10 hours a day on something, you’d tick over the 10,000 hour mark in under three years. That’s a nontrivial effort, surely, but it’s by no means impossible.
I suspect that what people call ‘talent’ is actually one of two things:
- ‘Undeveloped talent’ – what people show when they’re quite young – is an interest in a subject that might be sufficiently strong to carry them over the 10,000 hour mark in their pursuit of that subject.
- ‘developed talent’ – what people are usually talking about when they say ‘Oh, she’s so talented’ – is more a recognition that they’ve climbed over the 10,000 hour mark.
So I read that Mamet quote, and I’m thinking a lot of people read it as “If you haven’t got talent, forget about it”. But what Mamet is actually saying is that if you haven’t got talent, no amount of blindly following the rules will produce art. And, yes, I agree that this is probably true, if by ‘Art’ you mean ‘Art that will be viewed with widespread acclaim’.
I guess my point would be that if you’re putting in your 10,000 hours to get good at something artistic (photography, or playwriting, or playing violin, or chainsaw sculpture), you’re engaging in artmaking. It may be that what you crank out won’t win widespread acclaim, at least not until you’ve paid your dues and put in the 10k hours. But your experience – what really matters in the personal sense – is still that you’re making art.
And that doesn’t magically change when you hit 10,000 hours. You struggle with things after 2 hours. You still struggle with things at 1000 hours, although they’re probably different things. And you struggle with things at 20,000 hours, too, because the struggle is part of the process. You don’t wake up one morning and think “Oh, now I’ve paid my dues, and I’m on the gravy train! From here on, making art is as easy as breathing.” Oh, no, life isn’t like that.
Are there inherent differences in ability? Sure. Lance Armstrong is a genetic freak; he can perform at an aerobic level higher than the highest I can achieve, and his heart rate will be lower than mine is when I’m strolling down my driveway. No amount of training is going to make me able to compete with Lance Armstrong. The same is true in any field of endeavor – music, or mathematics, or weightlifting. Some folks just have more inherent ability than others.
It’s easy to look at Mozart and Da Vinci and Carravagio, Newton and Einstein and Liebniz, and say “Oh, well, their achievements all happened because of their inherent ability.” But this doesn’t really help much, because it’s utterly unhelpful in deciding how to arrange your own actions and your own life.
Maybe you’ll never write plays like Mamet, or make sculptures like Michelangelo. But you probably won’t know that for sure until you’ve put in a substantial fraction of Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.
Lest anyone suffer from the delusion that when my brain does the thing where something pops into my head for reasons I can’t identify, it always offers up something that’s deep and significant, this morning the thing that’s floated to the surface is a Cab Calloway tune:
Folks, now here’s the story ’bout Minnie the Moocher
She was a red-hot hootchie-cootcher
She was the roughest, toughest frail,
But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale.
I have no earthly idea why. (full lyrics here)
I’m constantly amazed at how much connection I see between seemingly unrelated fields of artistic enterprise, in this case poetry and photography…
‘Why do you want to write poetry?’ If the young man answers ‘I have important things to say’, then he is not a poet. If he answers ‘I like hanging around words, listening to what they have to say’, then maybe he is going to be a poet.
-W. H. Auden
Or, if I might translate this across into the world of photography, there’s a certain kind of photography you get when you pick up the camera with an agenda, and a different sort of photography you get when you pick up the camera because you’re curious.
I’ve often said that when I’m making photographs, I’m trying to figure things out, not convey some idea. I’m not coming to the camera with answers, I’m coming to the camera with questions. From my point of view, this is really good news, because in the final analysis I have a towering mountain of questions and an almost non-existent little ant-heap of answers. If I had to rely on answers to make photographs, I’d make one or two, and then I’d be done.
I see that Adobe have just started letting folks who have ordered Photoshop CS5 start downloading it. And here, just today, I installed PS CS4 on my newly upgraded to Snow Leopard Mac Pro. I am clearly behind the times. I suppose I’ll have to budget for paying the Adobe tax in the not so distant future, unless I can figure some way out of the Photoshop trap.
A more urgent need, though, is my need to pay the Canon Tax.
Once again, those evil bastards at Canon have used their remote mind examination ray and peered into the recesses of my brain. The result, alas, is that they’ve introduced (some while ago, actually) the Canon EF 24mm TS-E II and the Canon EF 17mm TS-E. I’ve mentioned both of those lenses before. Just recently, though, I had a chance to use a rented 17mm TS-E.
It was, in a word, awesome. Somehow or other, I need to make sure that from now on, when I go into theatres, this lens is in my bag (or in Bill’s bag). It’s an amazing lens. It’s an incredible optical performer.
This throw the harsh light on my current 24mm TS-E, which is the old model. Compared to the new model, it’s a slouch. I suspect that in the not very distant future I’ll sell the old one and buy the new one.
Canon tax. I would hate it, but they just keep offering stuff that’s better and better. I can sometimes resist the siren call to upgrade, but both of these are enough of a leap that I’m probably past the point of no return already.
Well, it might not be wise, but I’m in the process of upgrading all our computers to Snow Leopard. First up is the Mac Pro, on which I do all photo work. I have just a few more things to do to get it all done, although I’ve not yet tackled getting printing working. That may be the big hurdle, I don’t know.
To my amazement, getting Photoshop and InDesign activated went without a hitch.