Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

The myth of mastery

Mark Bernstein argues today that "artists need to master everything," specifically that they need to master programming and other technologies. The issue seems to have struck a nerve:

The hope that we can be excused from mastering programming is the child’s plea to the teacher, "Will this be on the exam?" It's the hope that we may be permitted to fail, and that our failure will be overlooked because we're so cute and wonderful. We don't need to master programming (or hardware, or graphic design, or information architecture): we're just artists and either someone will buy us an expert to do the work or they'll simply ignore any shortcomings because we are so intrinsically wonderful.
I understand his bristling at the idea of artists wanting to avoid learning their tools out of either laziness or a sense of entitlement—I have similar feelings toward academics who can't be bothered to figure out how email works—but I still disagree with the basic argument. Certainly any artist (or academic) who wishes to be taken seriously should endeavor to know as much as possible about the tools of his or her trade, but to suggest that anyone could master everything needed for his or her work is to return to the tenacious but naive, Romantic ideal of the solitary artist (or ivory tower intellectual).

I would argue that it is more important, and more difficult, for artists (and academics) to learn to collaborate than to pursue self-sufficiency. Mark argues that artistic collaboration—most evident in filmmaking—is an accidental outgrowth of economic circumstance. "If film people could work without all those specialists, most of them would." But is there any artist who does not depend on "specialists" to handle technologies that are beyond his or her expertise? Few musicians are qualified sound engineers; playwrights may know nothing about lighting or set construction; painters no longer make their own brushes or grind pigments. It might seem that writers come close to being autonomous artists, but that is only because we conventionally (but wrongly) regard the technologies of publishing as being so mechanical and trivial as to be beneath an artist's concern.

There have been a few artists, such as William Blake, who came close to producing their art entirely by themselves, but their rarity only underscores how difficult such polymathic mastery really is. And even with a Blake, there are limits. He didn't make his own paper (I don't think) or forge his engraving plates. Division of labor has been a fact of human existence since the dawn of civilization. No matter what our endeavors, at some point, we always depend on others to enable our success.

And yet still further pondering—while I jerked him now and then from between the whale and ship, which would threaten to jam him—still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg's monkey-rope heedfully as I would, sometimes he jerked it so, that I came very near sliding overboard. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had the management of one end of it.

We would do well to remember this dependence and learn to talk to the folks at the other end of the rope. To have that conversation, artists do need to learn something about programming, but asking them to become masters may achieve nothing more than driving them away.