We forget that artistic talent — whether in writing or in painting or in music — comes from hard, grueling work. We tend to imagine that people like Michelangelo merely materialized and, once “inspired,” began producing great pieces. Or we assume that there exists some sort of theory that, if studied, will allow us to all become geniuses.
Robert Pinsky, the poet laureate from the United States, reminds us that this isn’t true.
Back in 2010, he wrote a blog post for Slate in which he discussed Michelangelo’s talent for poetry. The artist penned a depressing poem, one that details the struggle of undertaking such a large project as the Sistine Chapel. We can see how agonizing it was. I’ll post the first stanza below:
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
This does not sound like someone who effortlessly and breathlessly put together one of the finest pieces in Western civilization. In fact, he sounds like the rest of us: annoyed, tired, sick of the task at hand. We imagine that he probably screwed up and had to start over.
But he kept pushing. He overcame his misgivings, his stresses. And he left us with something eternal.
The Internet has given us a hyper-democratic age. Suddenly, everyone has declared himself an artist or a writer or a musician. But the key to greatness is not a blog or the empty praise of family and friends. It is not the five-subject notebook purchased at the local convenience store.
No, it is work and effort and failure and perseverance. And a lot of it.
Just think of Michelangelo.