Talent and potential

by Paul Burmeister

"I might have been a good painter," wrote a mature painter to his friend, the writer John Berger. This quote is tucked into Berger's essay, "On the Difficulty of Being an Artist." (Permanent Red, 1960, 1979) This essay is followed immediately by another, "Artists Defeated by the Difficulties," in which Berger used Naum Gabo, Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock, Jean Dubuffet and Barbara Hepworth as examples of people whose art demonstrated wasted talents and unrealized potentials. Berger explained the self-imposed isolation of Pollock's genius: "Finally in desperation he made his theme the impossibility of finding a theme. Having the ability to speak, he acted dumb. . . . If a talented artist cannot see or think beyond the decadence of the culture to which he belongs, if the situation is as extreme as ours . . . His talent will reveal, in other words, how it itself has been wasted."
Berger, a Marxist, is taking the long view of the artist's relationship with culture. He is writing from the perspective that sees artists being obligated to their public and community: the artist must be a whole person who recognizes what all people have in common and who possesses confidence in the optimistic desires of his species.

I remember my painting professor, Robert Grilley, dismissing notions of potential, asserting that people and their talents are what they are. In the realm of teaching and learning, I tell my own students that I agree and disagree with my professor's assertion, appealing to my positive experiences with coaching in the broadest sense and qualifying Grilley's remark by applying it to the student's mode and not that of the teacher. Grilley was correctly suspicious of the individual's reliance on feelings about their unrealized potential; I don't think he was strictly advocating for an elitist judgment held in the power of the teacher—in fact, he was patient with the results of my own naive optimism.