By: Tom Hess
The Pursuit of Artistic Greatness has been among us for thousands of years, yet it has eluded most of us. It seems almost impossible to pursue that which we can hardly define.(artistic greatness). It’s not surprising so many people, who may possess all the potential they need, still fall short because they didn’t realize they already possessed the single most important element. But what is it? Is it something that can be changed or acquired? Probably not. But that is not necessarily bad news. It only needs to be awakened and realized.
There are many common misconceptions surrounding what it takes to achieve true greatness as an artist of any kind. Obviously there are multiple factors involved, but there is a single common element which all great artists have in great abundance. A good friend of mine and I were talking about her past frustration as a musician. She was once both a very talented young pianist (one of the best in her city) and also a touring guitarist. She quit music entirely a few years ago (before I knew her). I asked her why she quit after already achieving so much. She said, “I thought I could never be truly great because I am missing something, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know it is not something I can learn or acquire. You either have this ‘something’ or you don’t…… and I do not have it”. I said, “But you DO HAVE IT! You have it in massive quantity and quality! You just don’t know what it is.”
She continued to tell me all about her weaknesses as a musician. I commented that all of the things are learnable and teachable. I asked her to take a few days and really think about truly great artists such as: Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Wagner, Michelangelo, Renoir, Delacroix, Picasso, Goethe, Shakespeare, etc. . “Sure there are many differences between them, but there is one single thing that everyone of these artists had in abundance?” The one thing above all others which was most important. It is the one thing which enabled all their other talents, skills and knowledge to bloom. “Is it creativity?” she asked. “No. It is much more basic and simple than that.” I replied. “Keep thinking about it.” When we spoke again, I told her the answer (which is really a two part answer).
The first part is “simply having something to say”. Even if the meanings of what one wants to say are intentionally obscured or left vague, the underlying driving force behind all that is necessary to create great works begins from what it is that the artist has to say. Sure, it is possible for everyone to have something to say, but some of people have “more” to say than others. Some experiences in life, thoughts, and emotions may simply be more vivid and intense than in other people. This was certainly true with my friend. She is a very deep person and has endured and experienced things in her life that are unimaginable to most others. There is an enormous wealth and depth of things in her mind to be expressed. She just hadn’t tapped into it, nor did she know how to acquire the creative skills to express them.
The second part of what makes a true artist is simply the “need” to express one's self. In all art, the fulfillment of that need is very often imperfect because all artistic mediums are imperfect (not to mention any limitations within the artist). Regardless of the realities of art’s imperfections, it is the intense need to “try” which drives us. There are people (perhaps most) who don't have that need or recognize its fulfillment - even among many musicians.
But these things were/are not her problem. She had/has both of these an enormous amount to say and certainly has an incredible need to express it….. to be understood. In her case, as is the case with so many others, she had never developed the creative skills she needed to manifest what she need to say. As a classically trained pianist, all her teachers and professors were training her to be a pianist – one who plays the pieces of music written by others. Certainly one can feel self expression indirectly through playing music of others (more on this later), but that is not what she needed to do. So she never truly felt the power of music as it relates to self expression and therefore her needs remained unmet.
As a “self taught” guitarist, she had many “creative” limitations (even though she had some success as a pro while touring in Europe). Being self taught, everything was trial and error and although she did reach a respectable level, she remained unable to ever feel truly “artistic” or “great”.
As a result of all of this, she began to believe what so many others do, that she simply was not born with the natural talent needed to be a great musician (or even an artistic one). In disappointment and disillusionment, she gave up and quit (like so many others).
Had she simply known the TRUTH, that the true starting point of a truly great artist is to have something to say and an intense need to say it, all the other things she needed could have been learned and developed.
An additional point (that I personally do not subscribe to, but is relevant to some people) is that the expression need not be “original” .Our common humanity makes it possible for you to take others' artistic expressions, and discover that they may also express you and that you can make use of them as your own. I’m not talking about stealing others’ ideas and calling them your own, I am talking about playing/performing them that is deeply personal to yourself.
Another friend of mine, described it this way: “Expression can be non original if a composer's expressed emotions are enough for someone, Beethoven's expressed emotions may be something you can relate to perfectly and you may never feel a need to take matters further into your own hands to actually originally express yourself in your own words or music, (perhaps it's like the pre printed greeting cards people buy and give to others, they just sign their name at the bottom (personally I like writing and receiving the hand written original messages (even if the words are not always as eloquently written as a Hallmark card.”
No matter where you are now or where you want to be, if you have something to say and a strong desire to say it, you are in good company – among the greatest artists in history. Each of them “started” in the same place you are (with something to say and a need to say it). Without this, we would not know today who people like Beethoven or Chopin were. The good news is, all the other stuff - including creativity CAN be learned, and because it can be learned it can be (and is) taught. Acquiring and developing the skills you need is actually the easy part. Any GOOD teacher can help you with that. But no one outside yourself can give you “that something”. For that, you may need to dig deep inside your life memories, pains, loves, fears, moments of personal triumph, etc. Focus in on that first. Then you will be ready to learn. study and refine the rest of the skills and knowledge you need. For that I strongly recommend finding a great teacher.