Sunday, 14 December 2008

Art and competence

Silence here has gone on longer than I expected. Curiously, a long silence is harder to break than a short one (I find this in personal correspondence, too). It seems as though you have to write something important, not just the usual trivia.

So, a few days ago when out for a walk in the sun at midday (trying hard not to be SAD this year) I was very pleased when a really good idea for a profound and fascinating posting popped into my head. And of course the predicable then happened.

I can still remember what was going to be the second half of it, which was (I do distinctly recall) the less interesting bit. This was about Malcolm Gladwell’s recent idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to attain world-class competence at anything. The question that occurs first in reaction to this is: why only 10,000 hours and not even more? The answer seems to be: because nobody ever has more than 10,000 hours to spend. So in fact, if you turn his statement around, you get the answer to a more interesting question, which is: how do we decide what world-class competence is, or what it should be? And it seems that our definition of world-class competence is: “That degree of competence that can be attained by the most able individual after spending as much time practising as anyone can ever find the time for”.

The corollary is that our concept of world-class competence is not an absolute – if the world changes in such a way (for example by the invention of new technology) that an able individual can attain a higher degree of skill in less than 10,000 hours, then we will cease to value competence at the level that we previously judged to be world-class.

Ah, now I remember what the first half was about! There’s nothing like starting to write for unblocking the memory, after all. It was about realistic visual art and its relationship with graphic-arts technology.

Think about Vermeer. He put in his 10,000 hours, for sure. Achieving the effects that he achieved in paint on canvas is slow. But what would a modern-day Vermeer be doing now? I’m certain that he’d start with a camera in his hand, and use Photoshop and a graphics tablet. And that means that he’d be able to produce his results so much quicker. Anybody with a reasonably good eye for composition and colour, and a taste for arranging objects and lighting, can get halfway to producing something like a Vermeer these days by using those tools. The competence that he worked so hard to attain is now pretty easy to come by. Perhaps he could have got it in 1,000 hours of practice. What would he have done in the following 9,000 hours? What would our understanding of the possibilities of art now be?

I will go hundreds of miles just to look at an original Vermeer. I don’t quite know why, when I can look at a reproduction any time. This is another piece of the puzzle, though.

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