Artistic Ability Is As Much A Birthright As Language Ability

Jason Gots, editor and creative producer over at Big Think recently wrote about “The Upside of Amateurism.” He is troubled by the perception that so much value is being placed on expertise that it is stifling curiosity and creativity, a concern shared by many in the arts, business and education world, among others.

…I fear that the present day is a place/time where expertise is so valued and specialties so specialized that people are shamed out of experimentation and curiosity, the only two impulses other than love that (as far as I’m concerned) make life worth living. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin could be a printer, fiction writer, inventor, scientist, and statesman and end up a hero of the age. Today he’d be an eccentric dilettante with branding problems.

Let’s take the example of music. The Japanese educator Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998), creator of the world-famous Suzuki method of music instruction, believed that we do violence to children when we teach them that music is a “gift” you’re either born with or not. We ought to be teaching music, he believed, the same way we teach language — as a birthright.


But we don’t teach kids to worry about whether or not they’re “talented” in their native language. Or to give it up by adulthood if they haven’t yet won a scholarship. Yet how many adults do you know who play, sing, or write music on a regular basis? If it’s more than a handful, you and your friends are a cultural anomaly. And that’s a real shame, isn’t it?

I have often heard about the Suzuki Method, but I really wasn’t aware of the philosophy before reading this article.

When Gots pointed out that we don’t worry about whether kids are talented in their native language, (grammar and spelling criticisms on social media notwithstanding), it immediately reminded me of Stephen McCraine’s “Be Friends With Failure” webcomic I wrote about a few years ago.

In one of the panels of that comic, McCraine says we don’t tell kids to give up if they don’t master language immediately so we shouldn’t tell ourselves to give up if we don’t master some artistic form within a short time.

I was also reminded of Jaime Bennett’s TEDx talk where he notes that we easily identify ourselves as tennis players and golfers, but not as having artistic talent.

“why we can so easily see ourselves on a continuum with Serena Williams and Tiger Woods, but we don’t think anything we do has anything in common with Sandy Duncan.”

This all ties back to the general effort by organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to disseminate a message that everyone has the capacity to be creative. In the case of the NEA, one of the steps they have taken toward this is widening the definition and scope of what constitutes participation in an artistic experience.

To a degree, the idea there is too much focus on expertise ties into the Hewlett Foundation study I wrote about yesterday that reported there was a concern that the professionalization of the arts management field may be narrowing access to those jobs.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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