Thursday, 19 January 2012

What separates Hockney and Hirst is talent + that initial 10,000 hours

In journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating 2008 book Outliers, he talks about the 10,000 hour rule at some length. The theory is that the most reliable way of becoming really stupendously good at something is to do it for approximately 10,000 hours. Among many examples, he cites Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who, through a combination of determination and luck, both had access to rare and expensive computers in their early years, which allowed them to clock up the magical 10,000 hours of coding practice – a combined 20,000 hours which changed our world (I’m writing this on an Apple Mac using Microsoft Entourage).

Gladwell’s point might seem trivial – the longer you do something, generally, the better you get at it – but Gladwell’s real point is that we often undervalue the role of perspiration when we try to explain achivement. He cites the success of Jewish lawyers in New York in the down-and-dirty area of litigation and hostile takeovers. Smart young Semitic law graduates couldn’t get into gentlemanly WASP law firms back in the ‘50s, and goy lawyers considered litigation and hostile takeover “proxy fights” to be beneath their dignity: the result was that Jewish lawyers became experts at the bare-knuckle end of the legal spectrum, and when the preppy types woke up to the opportunities they were missing, it was too late – Jewish lawyers had got their 10,000 hours in.

The same rule applies to the creative arts: when the Beatles and the Stones came to record properly for the first time, those endless hours playing live at joints like the Star Club and the Marquee really paid off. Yes, I hear you say – but what about all those one-hit wonders? They’ve rarely put the hours in! And that, one suspects, is one of the reasons they're one-hit wonders - pop record producers are the ones who've learned their craft the hard way, and that's why they tend to have longer careers than the fluffy little non-talents whose records they produce. Talent can, of course, get you an awfully long way – but it’s endless practice that delivers the mastery which ensures longevity. 

I was reminded of all this by an interesting Peter Oborne article in this morning’s Telegraph, in which he praises David Hockney while lambasting Damien Hirst (whose work, he points out, is already looking old hat). 
Hockney is a craftsman as much as an artist. I once read an interview in which he described how as a young man he worked 16 hours a day improving his draughtsmanship. A total mastery of drawing from life, achieved over a lifetime of dedication to his calling, is at the heart of his artistic achievement.
Oborne is magisterially dismissive of Hirst's pitiful spot paintings ("spot" is an apt name for them - a dog could have done them) : "Skill is not required: no late nights at life class for Hirst, who gained an E grade at art A-level and scarcely knows how to draw."

Of course, you could argue that what really separates Hockney from Hirst is that one has a talent for art, and the other for marketing (although Hockney’s no slouch at the latter). But I’m pretty sure the fact that Hockney did 10,000 hours porridge learning his craft at the start of his career (and has no doubt put in at least another 100,000 since then) is as important as his innate talent. That’s why people will still be enjoying Hockney’s work in a hundred years time, while Damien Hirst – if he’s remembered at all – will be a figure of ridicule. (The other things Hockney has in his favour – apart from talent and technique – is that he isn’t a charlatan or a CAUC.)

Since reading Gladwell's book, I've often wondered what I might usefully have slogged away at for 10,000 hours early on. I must have got a third of the way there writing novels. It certainly feels as if I spent a lot longer than 10,000 hours attending BBC meetings, but I'm not sure that really counts as learning anything useful.  Mind you, at the present rate, I only need to write this blog for another eighteen years and it might get good!

1 comment:

  1. The golfer Gary Player was once told he had played a lucky shot and replied: "It's funny. The more I practise the luckier I seem to get". But it's all about innate talent really. I know that if I were to practise playing the piano 5hours a day, I would never be as good as half the people I hear playing musak over the elevator tannoy. On the other hand, it's some comfort to know that even if Hirst had bothered with the 10,000 hours he would still be no Hockney.