Why has coronavirus unleashed a wave of creative talent?

It seems many of us have been frustrated artists, potters and poets until now

From livingroom gigs, live-streamed from the homes of the famous, to practically every cultural organisation under the sun sharing tips for make-and-do; it seems that Covid-19 has unleashed a wave of creative talent that was lurking and supposedly pent up, in all of us. But was it? Were we all frustrated artists, potters and poets, just waiting for a little enforced downtime? Are schools so mind-numbingly stultifying to children’s minds that it took home-schooling to let their inner artists run free? And what is creative talent? Is it a tautology, or are the two terms very different?

In one sense, and forgive me if the comparison is grim, lockdown is a little like any break in routine, for example a holiday – but only in the sense that change knocks us out of our daily patterns, and encourages us to reach for the person we always felt we wanted to be. At the start of a holiday, we may resolve to go for morning runs, eat salad and read War and Peace. It seldom lasts. The change enforced by Covid-19 has brought out something similar, hence the dash to bake bread, and Ireland’s version of the toilet roll shortage – the yeast crisis. This is not to be flippant about the situation we’re in, it’s grim but, at the same time, our minds tell us: this is a different time, how am I going to use it to be different?

My own temporary move to Co Waterford has ended up being more permanent than I’d planned. I had arrived in January to work on a project, as Covid-19 was a distant, though troubling whisper from the other side of the world. And with me I brought a box of oil paints from the middle aisle in Lidl. The change of scene had made me decide that I was going to paint stuff instead of watching crap on telly, but the paint stuff stayed in the cupboard until the day the Government finally closed the schools.

When Picasso said "every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up," he was talking about how children don't filter their creative expression though the lens of "how is this meant to look?" and "what if I'm not good enough?" Conversations with friends as we all struggled to adjust showed how right he was. They ranged around the themes of: I'd love to write / paint / draw / sculpt, but I'm afraid of being rubbish at it. So is creativity simply an absence of fear? Can you enjoy creating without talent, and what is talent anyway?

Writer Alannah Hopkin, whose memoir of her late husband, Aidan Higgins, will be published by New Island in February next year, says "it's important to remember that talent is not necessarily just artistic. There are people who have a wonderful talent for living, for being happy and making others happy. And people who have a talent for healing, and for nursing and caring  … and that was why they wanted that not very glamorous job. My mother, who was a nurse," she continues, "had it too".

If talent is an ability to do something well, is it innate? Are we born with it, or can we develop it? The answer is: a bit of both. As any athlete will tell you, inborn ability without practice will only get you so far. The steady honing of skills, the endless hours of building fitness and perfecting reflex are what you need to excel. The same is true for musicians. So where does creativity fit in?

Drive and ability

If talent is (perfectible) ability, creativity is a more nebulous combination of desire, drive, and the ability to see that which doesn't yet exist and to make it come into being. Artist Katherine Boucher Beug describes it as "a hard-to-name connection, or relationship with something we might call the shadow, the subconscious, the home of intuition". This, she says is "something 'other', which not only allows transformation, but which is essential to life," not least, she adds, because it prevents us from being too literal about everything. (See oliversearsgallery.com / katherineboucherbeug.com)

“I had absolutely no talent in drawing,” she continues, with unnecessary and possibly inaccurate modesty. “I had a great need to learn to draw. But I did have some kind of innate talent around colour…” Finally taking out my paints in my kitchen, I started to realise what she meant. I can paint a daffodil that looks like a daffodil (more or less), but Boucher Beug’s paintings of flowers feel like you’re in a storm of nature, and I find they echo those occasional storms I can feel in my own head.

I enjoy painting, I find it soothing and calming, and I’m not afraid of being rubbish at it (after all, who’s looking?) but I have no burning desire to create. Perhaps having some talent, but little creativity makes it more relaxing? I don’t have anything particularly to say through paint, and therefore no need to be brilliant at it. Nevertheless, I got bored with flowers.

In an email conversation, Boucher Beug suggested drawing dogs with my eyes closed, to get over any residual need to be accurate, and to start to actually feel what an animal might look like. My best dog had strangely human back legs but I did start to get a sense that a door might be opening to another side of my brain. Without the drive of creativity, I decided to see if love would work to keep me going, and embarked on a project to paint my horse, Bosco.

As I can’t do horse’s back ends – possibly the same problem I have with dogs? – I opted for a small head-and-shoulders portrait, in the style of a Regency miniature, and happily lost hours in the project. Although you’re not meant to be proud of yourself, I am proud of the results, even if it doesn’t really look (or feel) exactly like the horse in question. That’s another function, I think, of having some talent, but no creativity in a particular area: you’re not your own worst critic, because you don’t have the urgency of desire to translate the felt into the real.

In many ways our view and value judgements for art have shifted from the talent side of things, to sit more squarely in the creativity camp. Back in the days of Regency miniatures, art used to be a desirable social accomplishment for refined ladies, creating landscapes and good likenesses; but it wasn’t seen as creative. Perhaps creativity is a talent, but talent itself is not creativity.

Thinking and making

With the Impressionists and the Romantics, things changed. Now, art sits at the cutting edge of creativity, although it is telling that the exponents of new movements are frequently derided as “talentless”, before the aesthetic values of society catch up. Creativity doesn’t always team up with talent, but when it does, the results are game-changing. If you think of talent and creativity on a continuum today, you have the forger at one end, and perhaps the purely conceptual artist on the other. One is all making and no thinking, and the other all thinking and no making.

The same balance between talent and creativity, and the move towards the valorisation of the latter, ranges across the art forms. A major function of the arts had once been the recording of events and stories. Storytelling used to be the repetition of known stories, and the talent of the seanchaí was in the retelling. Shakespeare's talent, and his creativity, lay in his shaping of existing stories, but better. James Joyce changed what stories do altogether: creativity going beyond shaping the stories, to reshaping the form.

In music, the talented can pick out a tune after hearing it just once, but the creative can improvise, like the best jazz musicians. In classical composition, the cadenza was there to give the soloist scope to let their creativity sing, although over time, composers have come to control that space too. Even within the bounds of the written notation, the talented can play a score, while the creative can bring it to new depths, and heights of feeling.

But as Hopkin reminds us, talent and creativity don’t only exist in the realms of the arts. “Why is it so annoying?” she asks, “when people say ‘I could never do anything like that, I’m not artistic/creative?’ We are all artistic and creative in some way.” Artistic or not, spending time trying to get Bosco’s nose down on the page in paint brought me a great sense of peace and perspective, so maybe now is the time we ditch the fear. However you feel about your own abilities, and whatever realms they lie in, we’re all having to do things differently, so it’s up to us to decide how we shape the reality we’re living in. What brings you peace, what might even go to shape a new future. Talent, creativity, whatever you’d like to call it, it doesn’t have to look like what’s gone before. Let it shine.