When Talent Isn’t Enough


For the past week, I have been having several interesting conversations about creative artists with some friends who asked the question ‘is formal education needed to become a creative artist?’ While my initial, knee-jerk reaction was to say, absolutely not, I think it is important that a difference is made between formal education and training. There are many well known, and unknown, artists who have had no formal education. However, you would be hard pressed to name many artists who have not had any training whatsoever- be it with an independent teacher, on the job training or an apprenticeship. I readily admit that there are some artists that are so naturally talented, they did not require any formal education or training (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ella Fitzgerald). However, these artists are the exception, and not the rule.

Igor Stravinsky said, ‘Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.’ I believe this to be very true. An artist’s raison d’etre is to express themselves through their artistic output. Without the basic tools of their craft they will be limited in their self-expression. When you borrow something, it is, and will never be, yours. When you steal something, you make it yours. An artist receiving training is borrowing the techniques and rules. They will never be able to call these their own. Once an artist has had training, they are able to use those techniques and rules to create something in their own voice (that’s the stealing bit, just in case you didn’t realise). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t subscribe to the ‘one-size-fits-all brigade’ (although as an aside, I do subscribe to the ‘shut your face, you silly dumbarse brigade’ – they’re a fun group). I do think that one shouldn’t be a creative artist if one doesn’t have respect and a desire to learn the foundation of their craft.

Some believe there is an argument that a creative artist can develop without being informed or constrained by the classic forms; that passion and talent is enough. I clearly don’t hold this view, and would demand that anyone with such base ideas be summarily shot at dawn (harsh, I know – that’s how much I care). Why? That kind of thinking doesn’t take into account that the foundation of the creative arts – be it film, street dance, hip-hop, etc – is built on the history (classic forms) that came before it. We wouldn’t dream of disregarding what we learned from the great masters and allow a skyscraper, no matter how passionate or talented the builders are, to be built without tried and tested building techniques being used, so why would we not accept the same for the creative arts?

So going back to the original question – ‘is formal education needed for those wishing to enter the creative arts?’ No, it’s not needed. But having it, along with passion, talent, and hard work, wouldn’t hurt.