Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In Competence We Trust

The last year of my life has gotten me thinking about competence, in particular the relationships between competence and talent.

I grew up talented. By that, I mean that I was recognized from a very early age as being very good at something I also loved to do, namely writing. Because I loved both the activity and the praise I inevitably received, I continued my work, and turned out to be unusually disciplined in it—I have no idea how that came about, though I'm sure growing up among theater artists must have had something to do with it—which made me interested in learning more about craft, interested in improving. Because I attended a small school where we all knew more about one another than we might necessarily have cared to, my reputation as a writer preceded me, and even when I was an unpopular, devastatingly socially anxious adolescent much more involved in writing the story of her life than living the reality of it, I didn't have the depths of social rejection that some of my friends managed. Of course, I wasn't exactly aware of that at the time, but I wasn't entirely unaware of it either. In a period of my life where I was questioning everything else (okay, that period never actually ended), I never had occasion to question my talent.

I am learning, slowly, about what talent can and cannot do, for myself as well as for others.

We are accustomed, I think, to the notion that talent clusters—in Hollywood, or in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, or the Iowa Writer's Workshop, or wherever the current (and sometimes local) romantic imagination has placed it. To myself I have finally had to admit that hipster neighborhoods like Wicker Park or the East Village of ten years ago, in spite of my voiced and partially felt contempt, still hold a magical allure for me, and it has to do with exactly this over-advertised, romanticized, somewhat obnoxious notion: talented people go here and do this; going here and doing this is how I prove my talent and how I best use it. To be fair, it is kind of true: it is often useful to talented people to be around other talented people. And yet, there are many talented people who do not cluster in these enclaves. And the talented people who do cluster are not necessarily displaying their talents to the best of their abilities, and that is sometimes due to the cluster, to the allure of its social comfort. There are other factors there too, though.

An incredible number of people are talented; there is far more talent than we ever see. This lack of opportunity to see the talent is often due to a lack of competence on the part of the talented.

This is something I have seen over and over, within and without my family. Talent has nothing to do with whether you can live off of your talent (or off of anything else); talent has nothing to do with whether you are capable of sharing your talent with the world in a productive way, or even at all; it has nothing to do with any actions that don't relate to the actual art or science or work at which you are talented.

I am willing to accept the notion that talent clusters to a certain degree, though I also posit that in romanticized artsy neighborhoods the number of poseurs at least equals the number of actual talented people.

What is talent? I guess that's an important question here. And I am not positive I can provide more than a Potter Stewart answer. But the closest I can come in considering it is that talent is what extends beyond the everyday. Talent is what you put into the world with the expectation that it will last beyond yourself in some way; competence is what takes you from day today as yourself (I'm assuming your immediate dependents/loved ones as part of "yourself" here).

There exists, for that matter, a talent at competence, when you can bring that kind of solid ability to bear on the world, which not everybody competent can.

And there exists much more pretense to talent, even as talent sometimes clusters, than actual talent.

Then again, it's rare for us to see competence either. But that's because most of the time it's tremendously difficult to notice.

What does all this mean? I've been working on this post for months and I really haven't found a thesis, beyond the somewhat obvious things I've mentioned above. I don't trust talented people to be anything but talented; perhaps I over time have come to trust the competent more than I trust the talented. But the allure of talent—other people's, never mind my own—isn't gone for me. Which may be why talented idiots, as a matter of general principle, get away with so much.


At 7:48 AM, Blogger Lonin said...

you know, it's actually kind of astounding to me that "i know it when i see it" was ever considered a serious answer for anything. which i guess, come to think of it, is why the Potter Stewart incident is so darn famous in the first place. but i think what this discussion really *needs* in order to find its thesis is an serious unraveling of what talent actually is. i love your notion of talent at competence -- and although i've never managed to get more than 40 pages into Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, i think he hits the nail on the head here in the novel's second paragraph also by talking about the "Ability in the abstract" that a "ship-chandler's water-clerk" needs -- and i also like the idea that "talent is what you put into the world with the explanation that it will last beyond yourself" (especially as it seems like it'd actually be able to create some practical guidelines for determining if talent is actually present somewhere); but, however, i can't really see how "talent at competence" (which, again, i just *love*) fits in with that; and i conclude, thereupon, that talent has to actually be something else.

i guess i'd say that the difference between talent and competence is that a talent has to be an ability that you're good at out of proportion to how much you've trained in it, whereas competence treats your past history as invisible. which isn't to say that you can't learn talents; but i'd say that learning talent is more of an unlocking of something, whereas learning competencies (something you're competent in is a competency, no?) has no problem with an accrual of all sorts of extraneous spheres of knowledge around you as satellites. but the point i *really* want to get to with all this is that i don't think the talent/competence divide has much to do with Art as a whole; more, with abilities in general. and, i'd have to say that what i'm looking for in "artsy" neighborhoods generally is neither talent nor competence, but simply artsiness...

... and "artsiness", then, is another Ability, one that it'd be possible to have either talent or competence (or both) in. where more or less i can define artsiness as something like, the application of principles of art to everyday living. the creation of actual art, if artsiness isn't already considered art that is, seems a separate matter to whether artsiness exists in a person. as far as i'm concerned, artsiness just may be the most important genre of art, and, to me, art without artsiness seems kind of fake and held back. so what i'm leading up to is: are people whose only genre of art is artsiness, the "pretense to talent" you talk about?

... because, of course, people who have different definitions of art are going to consider different things to be artsy even if they all follow my "definition" of artsiness. the thing is that i can also definitely believe in a pretense to artsiness. using the example of a movie i know we've both seen: after Jimmy and i saw Into The Wild together, he ended up quite pleased at the character Rainey (and there's really practically nothing about Rainey, whose actual name appears to be Bob, in the book, so i feel all right with calling his movie version a "character") for being such a hippie. and, i was quite disappointed at that; even after he clarified that he didn't mean any kind of super-hippie but simply just such a good example of a hippie, i still felt that Rainey was far too much of the stereotyped American heterosexual male (not that i think Sean Penn was necessarily taking advantage of a stereotype, more that i think that, in the world of the movie, the character Rainey *himself* had been, in his own prior history, taking advantage of it as a model for himself) for me to be comfortable assigning him to be an exemplar of hippiedom. now, for all i know, Jimmy could be right, and real '60s hippies, let alone early '90s hippies, really might have been generally like that. but, even so, Rainey-as-a-hippie-exemplar still seems like a perfect example of a poseur, in your sense. and artsiness is what i'm saying he's a poseur to, but still, here, i'm certainly agreeing with you.

maybe it's because i find one of the most important features of art in general, and therefore of artsiness (including my idealized hippiedom), to be a questioning of the standard way of doing things (sue me, i just finished reading Brecht's "Short Organum for the Theatre"). and then, Rainey-like posing happens when people start mistaking the products of this attitude for its process, for the attitude itself. so the thing is that i do believe we have the same ideas about what pretense and poseurs, in the abstract, are. what i'm not sure about is whether we agree about *what* kind of poseur is really the important one to notice -- whether artsy-neighborhood poseurs to talent and poseurs to artsiness are actually, by some quirk of the constitution of artsy clusters, the same people, even if artsiness and talent themselves are certainly quite different things.


At 6:38 PM, Blogger Connor said...

This paradoxical notion of "clustering" is a large portion of my ongoing fixation with Flint, fwiw.


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