Monday, March 22, 2010

The limits of the will

Did you read the review of David Shenk's new book in The New York Times this past Sunday with the same sense of infuriated interest that I did?

Shenk's "The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ Is Wrong" (Doubleday) is part of the mind-over-matter school that holds if we just try hard enough, we'll be able to achieve our wildest dreams. This, of course, appeals to America's Horatio Alger sense of itself as well as to our underlying mediocrity. It is reinforced by mediocre people who have succeeded.

Sandra Bullock looks like the girl next door, she seems nice and she won an Oscar. Ergo, I, too, could do that, people reason. Never mind that Bullock — who is neither a great actress nor a great beauty — came along at precisely that moment in the mid-90s when Julia Roberts went into a funk and decided to become a character actress. (We Julia aficionados refer to this as her "Mary Reilly" phase, a movie I actually like a great deal.) Bullock filled the America's Sweetheart niche temporarily vacated by Julia. By the time Roberts returned, Bullock was well-positioned to bide her time for the role that would play to her particular qualities. So forget discipline and talent. It could be said that successful people owe just as much to luck as anything else.

But according to the review of Shenk's book, he holds that discipline not talent is what drives greatness and has the scientific research to back it up. I'm not going to go there since I don't have access to his studies. Still, I always worry when science tries to explain art. And I wonder about research that can be preempted by anecdotal evidence.

I went to school with a girl who was built like a fullback but longed to be a pianist. She played with a facility I have rarely encountered, her fingers flying across the keyboard. She practiced diligently, which only increased her speed and agility. Put it this way: She could play the "Minute Waltz" in 50 seconds flat.

But she could not make music out of it or any other piece. She didn't have a shred of musicality or talent. There was no sense of phrasing, that music was a kind of conversation. No matter how many times teachers diplomatically suggested this, she just didn't get it. What she was was a very gifted typist. The other girls all snickered about this behind her back. I remember well the day we all auditioned for the music department of this particular school and the horrified look on the teachers' faces. It was as if they had encountered a freak of nature they didn't wish to deal with.

I tell this story not because I want to be cruel. Notice I haven't named her though I well remember her name. I tell it rather because I think of her every time someone debunks talent in favor of practice, practice, practice. Listen: The torch songs of the world are littered with stories of people who had great gifts and threw them away or at least, misapplied them. (I do think that if Johnny Weir had Evan Lysacek's discipline, he and not Lysacek would've won the gold medal in men's figure skating at the recent Olympics.)

But this implies a level playing field. Lysacek is very talented, and when you combine that with discipline, you have a delightful combination. Doesn't mean you're going to be a worldly success though. That takes opportunity, and opportunity takes luck. Nevertheless, you can be a success in yourself.

But when you discredit the role of talent in favor of discipline, it's as bad as thinking you can skate through life on talent alone. Those who intimate that all you need is focus and intensity do a disservice to the public. And they follow a dangerous precedent: Remember that the Nazis thought that you can will anything to happen. How'd that work out?

The truth is that life is limited. It's only when you acknowledge life's limits that you can take the first step in transcending them.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

First love

When you look back on your life, you realize that most of the significant paths you've taken were the result of a seemingly accidental series of events. And yet, most of us can probably pinpoint the moment that led us to a decisive transformation.

I don't remember when I decided to become an arts writer but I can certainly recall what made me fall in love with art. It was the "Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry," an illuminated Book of Hours filled with private prayers and calendar pages for Jean de France, duc de Berry (1340-1416), one of the most important patrons of the late Middle Ages.

Now The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan is preparing a facsimile edition of the "Riches Heures'" sister Book of Hours, the "Belles Heures," which is part of its collection. The need to unbind the book for reproduction has given The Met an extraordinary opportunity to display all of its 172 illuminations. It is an opportunity that viewers should not miss.

What drew me to the "Riches Heures" and by association, the "Belles Heures," also created by the Limbourg Brothers -- Herman, Paul and Jean? At first, I think it was the palette -- lapis-lazuli blue, pink and gold, with accents of red and green. It reels you in and then envelops you.

There's something sheltering, too, about the medieval world the "Belles Heures" depicts, even though its subjects may be the lives of Jesus and saints from ancient times. The castles, turrets, slithering roads and lack of perspective cloister the viewer, reminding him of an age when war, plague and everyday hardships were the norms. Sometimes it's good to be indoors, or at least, tucked into your little corner of the world.

But what's most striking about the "Belles Heures" is its tremendous humanity. The story of St. Catherine of Alexandria -- which is told so that it mirrors the Passion of Christ -- is filled with pathos. Just the way that her hair falls over her blindfolded eyes, exposing her downy neck as she waits prayerfully to be beheaded, well, those tresses are just like a cascade of tears. (That same humanity is evident in the accompanying show, "The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures From the Court of Burgundy," through May 23.)

FYI: The duc de Berry was the son, brother and uncle of three successive kings of France. The throne was not his destiny. Yet today, he is the one we know and remember.

It pays to patronize the arts.

"The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry" is on view through June 13. 212-535-7710,

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Late-winter warmth

First off, apologies to readers for the dearth of posts recently. The Feb. 25-26 storm temporarily took out some wires in my neighborhood and thus, my e-mail. Technology: Ain't it grand?

Civilization may be man's heroic, Promethean response to nature, but it has been my general experience that in the end, natural always reclaims its own.

Anyhoo, now I'm back with a vengeance, or at least some thoughts on a show that offers late-winter comfort. It's "Patterns," an exhibit of quilts at the Arts Exchange in White Plains, home of my partner, ArtsWestchester.

These works by members of the Village Square Quilters Guild bring a contemporary sensibility to a traditional folk art. The intricate designs, arresting colors and cottony textures envelope you in warmth. Plus, the boutique in the vault of the Arts Exchange's Grand Banking Room Gallery features vibrant tote bags and other handy gift items. I bought two totes, one of which is for me, because you have to treat yourself every now and then.

"Patterns" is on view through March 20. 914-428-4220,