Talent versus Skill

When someone walks up to an artist, looks at their work, and exclaims, “You’re so talented!” they mean to compliment the artist. But it’s important to pay attention to our words and the impact they have. 

Talent is something you’re innately better at than the average person.

Skill is an ability you’ve studied and practiced until you are better at it than the average person.

Many artists do have talent–it’s why they bothered to develop skill. If you notice you’re good at something and you’re proud of it, it makes sense that you’ll be drawn to it.

But complimenting someone on their talent is much like complimenting them on something else they were born with, like their eye color. You’ll never be as satisfied by someone saying, “Wow, i’m impressed by how beautiful your eyes are” as you will by someone saying, “Wow, i’m impressed at how well you can play soccer/write code/draw the human figure.”

It’s also more complex, of course, because there isn’t a way for you to learn to make your eye color even better. But if there was, if you could learn to change the color like an octopus or a chameleon, then wouldn’t it be even weirder for someone to say, “The eye color you started with is so impressive!” It even implies that the work you put in isn’t nearly as impressive as the talent you started with.

If you’re talented and skilled at art, the two are closely related, and once you pass the novice stage, it’s difficult for anyone to tell how the art you make is divided between talent and skill. Who can look at something i drew and know whether i was always able to draw cute fat cats, or whether i spent hours drawing different shapes until i figured out which ones were cutest? That’s why it’s often excusable to compliment talent, and why most artists don’t actually get huffy about it, at least not to individual people.

But when you compliment their talent, you are implying that they didn’t work for what they have and that they’re simply lucky rather than determined, observant, relentless practitioners of their art. 

When i bring up the meaning of talent versus skill, often people (especially non-artists) get annoyed and exclaim that i’m splitting hairs and that the words don’t really matter if i know what they meant. Well, yeah i guess, but if words aren’t a big deal, then why do they care about me correcting them so much? Why not just use the right ones in the first place? 

Unless it does bother them to value on the time and effort an artist puts into their craft. Many people seem to think artists should work for free or for low pay, that “exposure” is acceptable payment. Anyone who is willing to downplay the work an artist does is propagating the fallacy that art is easier and less important than other skilled professions. 

It’s true that there are self-taught artists (i am one), but there’s a reason that many working artists attend school (i wish i had). Learning art, especially in a timely manner, is so difficult it requires rigorous instruction, and not everyone can be the student and the teacher at the same time. When someone relegates all artistic ability to “talent,” they’re making a claim that the instruction is unnecessary. 

And for some reason, art programs keep getting minimized, canceled, and/or have their funding cut in both public and private U.S. schools. Partly this is an effect of the general dismissal of arts and humanities, an assertion usually made by people who haven’t bothered to look around and recognize how much commercial art and design is present in their environment. They expect that someone can’t get a “real job” doing art anyway. Statistics (and the furniture, news sources, products, and entertainment media you’ve used today) make that a laughable position, though, which brings us to the other half of the reason art gets canceled:

While accountants get to start learning math when they’re in kindergarten and practice it all the way until it’s time to work, and same for learning about biology until you become a lab tech or a doctor, or learning English until you become a journalist, artists are expected to just magically have “talent” that grows without any instruction or opportunities. This fabled “talent” is a poisonous concept when conflated with skill, because it erodes the societal understanding of how art skills are acquired. 

I’m not suggesting anyone stop using the word talent, only that they apply it accurately and appreciate the value of learned skills instead of using words that erase them and their importance.  

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