I Don’t Have the Gift

The artist hears the compliment “you have a gift”.  As if the hours and days and decades the artist has invested in the self-taught study and development of his craft are somehow received by him in some manner which he cannot possibly apprehend.  Whatever struggle, whatever time, whatever his life-long devotion—none of this is in any way a measure of his ability if it’s nothing but a gift. But such concerns are not his to reason why.  None of this can be laid at his command, as his own achievement at all.  All of it is just an unasked-for gift.  The sentiment is well meaning, but God forgive those who offer that compliment, for they know not what they say.

The most beautiful way it’s ever been presented to me is that “you have been a tremendously good steward of His gifts.” Whatsoever things are of good report, this is one that weighs that “gift” against my own real achievement.  It brings the gift down to earth where I actually live and work, giving me some control over it all—at least for the duration of my lifetime, albeit as God’s property, not my own.

What if the artist rejects that “gift”?  What if, instead of saying “oh, it isn’t my achievement, it’s just my job.  I was just doing my duty”, he says “I’m damn proud of my achievement!”  Wouldn’t that be a refreshing admission that one never hears.

Leonard Peikoff shows the proper way to look at the artist, in his book “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand”:

“The artist is the closest man comes to being God.  We can validly speak of the world of Michelangelo, of Van Gogh, of Dostoyevsky, not because they create a world ex nihilo, but because they do re-create one.”

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, “Art”, p. 417 (HC)

Ayn Rand writes,

“Style is the most complex element of art, the most revealing and, often, the most baffling psychologically.  The terrible inner conflicts from which artists suffer as much as (or, perhaps, more than) other men are magnified in their work.”

The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand, “Art and Sense of Life, p. 41 (SC)

One might suppose that Michelangelo, perhaps the greatest artist in history, thought of his talent as a gift from God.  After all, he was under the thumb of Popes as employers, even though payment from the Church was often slow and minimal. The style of his unfinished “St. Matthew” shows his struggle, his melancholy triumph.

Michelangelo St. Matthew

St. Matthew
107 x 29′

I accept the compliments, albeit misguided, of “you have a gift” as earnest heart-felt admiration for my work.  But the accumulation of them over the years compels me to qualify my acceptance with a bit of admonition to those who so lightly offer them:

It is not in any way a gift that I unwrap around myself that enables me to create a work of art.  I would never accept such an unasked-for gift for I am responsible for whatsoever things might be true, might be lovely in my artworks.

I don’t say that my work is new or great.  I do not compare my talent to the great master, Michelangelo.  I offer here only a caution.  To those who believe my Art is a gift, I plead they give it a second thought.

“Have you heard the moralists and the art lovers of the centuries talk about the artist’s intransigent devotion to the pursuit of truth? Name me a greater example of such devotion than the act of a man who says that the earth does turn, or the act of a man who says that an alloy of steel and copper has certain properties which enable it to do certain things, and it is and does—and let the world rack him or ruin him, he will not bear false witness to the evidence of his mind! This, Miss Taggart, this sort of spirit, courage and love for truth—as against a sloppy bum who goes around proudly assuring you that he has almost reached the perfection of a lunatic, because he’s an artist who hasn’t the faintest idea what his art work is or means, he’s not restrained by such crude concepts as ‘being’ or ‘meaning,’ he’s the vehicle of higher mysteries, he doesn’t know how he created his work or why, it just came out of him spontaneously, like vomit out of a drunkard, he did not think, he wouldn’t stoop to thinking, he just felt it, all he has to do is feel—he feels, the flabby, loose-mouthed, shifty-eyed, drooling, shivering, uncongealed bastard! I, who know what discipline, what effort, what tension of mind, what unrelenting strain upon one’s power of clarity are needed to produce a work of an—I, who know that it requires a labor which makes a chain gang look like rest and a severity no army-drilling sadist could impose—I’ll take the operator of a coal mine over any walking vehicle of higher mysteries.  The operator knows that it’s not his feelings that keep the coal carts moving under the earth—and he knows what does keep them moving. Feelings? Oh yes, we do feel, he, you and I—we are, in fact, the only people capable of feeling—and we know where our feelings come from.”

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, p. 783 (HC)

Neither my art nor my feelings nor my life is a gift.  My life?  My Catholic parents made babies out of a sense of duty; mine was practically accidental.  My feelings?  These are expressed for all the world to see—in my art.  All of this has been kept alive by me over a period of some sixty years of hard labor.