Brady Russell wrote this piece. My reply to him is below.
I read your recent post ("On Merit") and I just wanted to drop you a quick line. Mainly because I so passionately disagree with you it's almost mind-boggling.
The problem I have with your post is this: by putting forth the argument that artists are "born and not made" (which, y'know, you are when you phrase things like, "The truth is, most of the hardworking people we admire in this world succeed primarily on virtues they were born with whether they want them or not. You can enhance your brain power with study, but you have to be born smart to rock the Chem Lab."), you are making an elitist argument from where I sit. Why? Because you presume, with this argument, two critical points. The first is that being popular is somehow a measure of artist merit. The second is that opportunity touches everyone in an equal-handed way. I'm going to address both in just a sec.
First up is opportunity. Artists, especially artists that come to their craft at a very young age, often have more opportunity than others. Often times this opportunity is financial (there is a world of difference between the upbringing that an artist like Alex Ross had in comparison to someone growing up in, say, bombed out Lebanon). Having the financial wherewithal to pursue art is a major factor in the ability to get better and develop one's artistic skills. It's difficult to grow as an artist when one is simply struggling to survive. Other times, the opportunity is more abstract. Some kids have the self-esteem to get over the tough times as they learn their particular craft and others don't. In addition, I believe strongly that some children get the right type of support at the right time to give them enough confidence to keep going. That support could come from a parent or a teacher or someone else. It could even come from within themselves with their own inherent stubbornness. Regardless, something keeps them going and they get over their inherent "terribleness" to become fantastic artists in whatever medium they choose. This is even true when it comes to sport and athletics. When you factor these two points together (the financial opportunity to learn a craft combined with the self-esteem issues to get over the bad days), it becomes very clear that artistic opportunity is not egalitarian.
You also said this, "If you showed me a selection of drawings from their high school years, I am absolutely positive that I could pick them out. No question. What I’m saying is this: as much as their diligent cultivation of God-given powers has made them legends in our time, it’s all built on the foundation of a peculiar talent that came into this world with their very fingertips. The essential draughtsman was there at the beginning. That’s the talent. And the talent is what we really admire." I don't want to be mean, but this is utter nonsense. First, this is a Straw Man argument: we clearly can't go into the past and see sketchbooks from artists before they made it. But for your argument to have weight, we'd also have to see the sketchbooks from the artists who did NOT make it. Without, of course, having any idea of what the final career outcome of all the potential artists would be. It's one thing to argue, as you basically are doing here, that you would have been able to spot a "John Romita Jr." a mile away. It's another thing to see, say, 100 sketchbooks with only Romita's destined to be from a future professional artist. Would you have been able to point out Romita without knowing what his future would bring? 'Course, my point here is that no one could know. No one is that prescient. That's the problem with Straw Men; they seem logical 'til you start hammering away at them.
That aside, I'm going to go with some examples that shoot this argument to pieces. Andrew Loomis, one of the most gifted visual artists in the past century, was asked to leave art school shortly after joining it (from his Figure Drawing For All It's Worth, page 17, "May I confess that two weeks after entering art school, I was advised to go back home? That experience has made me much more tolerant of an inauspicious beginning than I might have otherwise have been..."). Not to be too crass, but if Mr. Loomis' art instructors could not see his talent, why would anyone else? Why would you? Perhaps someone else in a different school would have, but this, of course, is my very point. The aesthetic of art and what someone considers to have merit can vary widely between individuals and institutions.
Roger Kahn, a gifted writer in his own right, had this to say in Boys of Summer (page 81), "'I always knew,' Robert Frost said one day in his cabin at Ripton. He had been talking about obscure years and how he had held on.
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbid that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.'"
Kahn continues, "I wonder if anyone always knows - you, me, Jackie Robinson, even Robert Frost - that we will cross to Safety. Or is it rather that when we are There, we think we always knew?"
We don't know. That's the point. Artists like Vincent Van Gogh, now considered legendary, could barely make a living at their art in their own lifetimes. Van Gogh in particular was close to starvation just before he'd eventually die (take a look at his stay in Antwerpen in 1885-1886, four years prior to his death). I'm curious how Van Gogh fits into your thesis? From your essay's point of view, Van Gogh's position was the same as Joe Schmuck. Very few people at the time considered he had talent at all. Or, to rephrase your own words, the popular opinion of the time would have been that "Van Gogh doesn't have it." This is, of course, utterly false. The irony is that this public opinion changed after he died. And in the approximately 100 years since he died, he is now considered an artist genius. Popularity and public opinion, when discussing art, means nothing.
To drive home my point further: The National Gallery of Canada is this country's preeminent arts gallery. Despite this, there has never been a comic book artist in its halls. Only Roy Lichtenstein even comes close. The National Gallery is considered to be the be all and end all of what's considered to be art. And yet the four artists you refer to (Dean Haspiel, John Romita, Jr., Lewis Trondheim and Tim Sale) have never ordained it's walls. By the measure of your argument, they do not have merit. Comics, from the Gallery's point of view, are clearly not art. That may change (and a number of us are working to change that), but as it stands right now that's the case.
The only point I'll add is this: to be an artist, you have to be courageous. The aesthetics of art are so broad and tastes can change so often that an artist can easily become flavour of the month. And just as quickly forgotten. It takes courage to do art. To have the courage of your conviction and do art when perhaps no one else believes in you. When it comes to art, that's the only talent there is. The courage to overcome. By conflating populism with artistic merit (or Talent or whatever word you choose to use), you are undermining the inherent nature of what art is. There is nothing God-given about art at all. There is the work. And there is courage to do the work.