What Does it Take to Be An Artistic Legend?

Great artists awe us with their seemingly superhuman ability to create extraordinary new experiences that can move us to tears, give us goosebumps, and experience pure joy.

What does it take to become such an exceptional talent, like Mozart, Michelangelo, Picasso, Elvis, Lagerfeld, and many others? Is it a genetic gift from parents, the result of hard work, or a blessing from gods? The answer will surprise you.

Genetics

Many studies have been done on whether artistic ability and talent can be inherited. It’s very likely that there is a minor genetic component, especially when the art form requires a certain physical feature like long fingers of a piano player, or a strong voice of a singer. However, despite the intuition, so far no study has managed to prove that creativity is inheritable.

Legendary artists’ offsprings tend not to become legends themselves. We can find examples where children followed in the footsteps of legends, however it’s more of a curious rarity rather than a typical event. Even when it does happen the children usually do not match or supersede their parents in their fame.

Environment

Is the environment a child grows up in an important factor perhaps?

Parents and educators do influence kids to become artistic, because they expose them to the arts in their childhood years. The experiences give kids familiarity and confidence to practice arts. It opens up the possibility for the young minds to consider arts as a profession or hobby.

Early experiences with arts can even give children an advantage over their peers, because their brains and skills can develop in a way that makes them a better skilled artist.

But, despite all these things, there is no evidence that even the perfect environment can result in greatness.

Hard Work

Perseverance and hard work is also an element to consider for sure. Most arts require a certain level of technical ability that can’t be acquired in any other way but with long hours of training and repetition.

Unfortunately the reality is that completely devoting yourself to an art form even on the highest educational levels doesn’t guarantee legendary status. It’s not a game where you can win by sticking it out.

There are two components to becoming a legend that can not be learned no matter the amount of effort one puts into their art. These are neither predictable nor can be induced artificially. This unpredictability and unteachability is what gives extraordinary talent a special kind of magic.

Extraordinary “Disability”

The first component is a lucky genetic or physiological difference.

We all have genetic variability. Some genetic differences are meaningless for arts like the shape of your pinky toe nail. Others can be dramatically important. A lucky mutation, which can sometimes be seen as a disability at early years can turn into an extraordinary ability later on.

When one’s brain is different from the rest of the population it can be disorienting. Many times artists are not fully aware of the condition and they may be bothered by the difference as it interferes with regular life. Other times they learn to live with them, and even embrace the difference. Such deviation from the norm is one of the key components to extraordinary artistic ability.

The difference can be a result of random genetic mutation, the result of an injury, or can be developed as a result of some extreme circumstance that forms mental development during formative years.

The condition allows the artist to see things differently. Sometimes literally, other times figuratively. There are dozens of different ways this lucky deviation can play out. Artists may spend more time on certain aspects of reality giving them a deeper understanding. They may be able to make unique connections between things others would miss. One may have the dramatic ability to see sounds as colors, or have a subtle ability to notice how micro emotions reveal the inner thoughts of an individual.

Memetic Lottery

The second element required to become a legend is to win the meme lottery.

There are likely hundreds of potential legends who have the lucky difference for every known legend out there. Yet, not all such extraordinary artists get famous. Why is that?

Research trying to discern what makes a song reach the top of the charts identified a strange phenomena. The top 10% of songs that are objectively good will reliably and predictably always end up higher in the charts, but the the top hit that will stay number one for weeks is impossible to predict. The study showed that reaching the very top is a matter of pure luck related to how the work gets discovered and shared, and unrelated to the inherent value of the song.

Social and peer recognition works like a self reinforcing system. If as an artist you’re lucky to be in a place where there is space for a new hit, and a few people with social influence give you their approval, the song as a meme (a cultural equivalent of a biological gene) may start to spread within the community. This initial approval of a few gives confidence to others to give the song a listen. This initial exposure starts a fire, but one needs to be lucky several times at different levels of popularity to spread the fame further out, and eventually hitting a tipping point. Once the top is reached the hit song gets an unrealistically high amount of praise and recognition. Huge number of people fall in love with the song and it becomes a well known cultural meme.

The artistic product needs to be experienced at the right place, at right time, by the right people in a specific right mindset, and do this several times over and over. This lucky component is nearly impossible to predict or influence, because it’s in the intersection of many random events. The artist has to be extraordinarily lucky like a lottery winner to get such recognition.

Da Vinci was an amazing artist who I admire greatly, but the incredible world fame of his painting Mona Lisa can largely be attributed to luck of circumstance, which created an ongoing story around the painting for centuries. It’s not the inherent value of the painting that makes it stand above all other art ever created.

How Can You Increase Your Chances for Success?

One sure way to increase one’s chances of success, is to learn the given artistic skill to the highest possible level. While not all legends are masters of their skill despite being legends, most of them are very good at their craft.

Interestingly, many artists nowadays discount this piece of the puzzle. Many think it’s unnecessary to do the hard work to learn how to draw real well before becoming a famous painter. You can’t blame them when one considers all the conceptual modern art that is sold nowadays for millions. But it’s important to remember that Picasso learned to paint realistic portraits before he invented cubism. Prince could play dozens of musical instruments to perfection despite being mostly known for being a singer.

One can also increase their chances by making more products of great value, sort of like buying more lottery tickets. This, like learning the skill, also takes hard work over long periods of time. Persistence is key. However, despite the statements given by legends who suffer from survivorship bias: trying hard and not ever giving up is indeed a pre-requisite for success, but it’s not a guarantee for anything.

Another thing one can do is to expose themselves to extreme experiences that may induce a different pathways of thinking. This is an avenue many artists took in the last centuries. Self induced poverty, travel, psychedelics all have been experimented with. Again, no guarantee for success, but luck favours the bold. However, one has to be sane when choosing the extreme experience to try. Self destructive activities decrease the chances of eventual success. Tens of thousands of wannabe rockstarts didn’t benefit from abusing substances, but ensured their productive years have been reduced by a significant amount, sometimes all the way to zero in the event of death by overdose.

Finally, one should surround themselves with opinion leaders, people who matter in the world of arts and can give one the required career kick-start. Such people are other artists, curators, collectors, fans, etc. The relationships are also beneficial to cultivate a motivating environment. However, one must remember that this is an open secret of the trade. Many artists are trying to break in by making friends with influential people, so the competition is tough. Unfortunately as with all the other advice given above, you can have all the friends in the world, one still can’t bet on reaching legendary status.

Conclusion

An artist aiming for greatness should explore the ideas above, but they should also accept the reality that the most important element for great success is just pure luck.

The artist should also realize that experiencing the process of learning / discovery and making art / creation is the most important reward in itself to have a fulfilling professional life.

To finish on a somewhat grim note, if becoming a legend is something one really wants as a legacy yet can’t reach it within their most active years, it may give them comfort to know that many masters became legends and made a huge impact with their art on society long after they expired.

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