I’ve just finished a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers. Fascinating stuff. If he’s right – and he cites many studies to support his argument – we need to overhaul, radically, how we train and educate. For the moment, though, one figure has stuck with me – the ‘10,000 hour’ rule. This is, according to Gladwell and others, the amount of time you need to put in in a given field to become an expert. Forget talent – given that you have some ability, apparently all that matters is how dedicated you are.

So what? Well this: in art, we deal constantly with the impression that some artists have ‘got it’, that they are the ones, and that the others haven’t ‘got it’. But maybe it’s mostly or all about time. Gladwell would say, for example, that anyone who has a slight edge that allows them to put in more time in an area that interests them – maybe parental encouragement, maybe other resources – enters into a ‘positive-feedback loop’ (my term). An example Gladwell cites a lot is sport: if you make the team, you’ll get a lot more playtime than if you don’t, and so your advantage will increase, etc. (Gladwell makes a fairly devastating critique of school team-selection policies in some countries, where selection is age-based; he then transfers his critique to schooling itself.)

So you’re motivated or lucky enough to be able to put in a little extra time on art-making, perhaps when you’re all of two years old. Parents will mostly cotton on to this tendency extremely quickly – a child who self-entertains is a much valued commodity. Some sort of innate talent in action here? Gladwell cites a German study of pianists at an academy. Apparently what differentiated the best from the rest was purely down to the amount of time they put in – there were no ‘naturals’ to be found, just those who worked more or less hard. Can the same be true of artists? I’m inclined to think so, at least for the majority of cases. As a sort of (mean) example, there are a few specific, quite well known artists around ‘the scene’ in Ireland at the moment; years ago I’d written them off in my mind because I didn’t see much merit in what they were doing, but they persisted. I don’t think my take on their early work has changed; instead, I think they have put in enough time to absorb the rules of contemporary art as practised here, and now they’re functioning just fine.

I didn’t think this is what contemporary art was about, but maybe it is – just putting in the time to learn the rules, like kicking a ball. So the next time you’re admiring an artwork, should you really be thinking “Yep, they put in the time, mastered our rules, yay!"