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An essay by Hamilton Wright Mabie

Special Training

Title:     Special Training
Author: Hamilton Wright Mabie [More Titles by Mabie]

It is a very superficial conception of workmanship which sets it in conflict with originality. There is often an inherent antagonism between the impulse for freedom and spontaneity which is characteristic of genius, and a conventional, hard-and-fast rule or method of securing certain technical results; but there is no antagonism between the boldest originality and the most complete mastery of craftsmanship. There is, rather, a deep and vital relationship between the two. For every art is a language, and to secure power and beauty and adequacy of expression a man must command all the secrets and resources of the form of speech which he has chosen. The power of the great artist rests, in the last analysis, upon the freedom with which he uses his material; and this freedom does not come by nature; it comes by training. It is fatal to the highest success to have the command of a noble language and to have nothing to say in it; it is equally fatal to have noble thoughts and to lack the power of giving them expression. Technical skill is not, therefore, an exterior, mechanical possession; it is the fitting of tools and material to heart and mind; it is the fruit of character; it is the evidence of sincerity, thoroughness, truthfulness. In his characteristically suggestive comment upon the Japanese artist Hokusai, Mr. John La Farge gives an interesting account of the training established and enforced in the school of the Kanos, a family of painters which survived the vicissitudes of more than four centuries. The course of study in a Kano school covered at least ten years, and the average age of graduation was thirty. The rules of conduct were rigid; the manner of life simple to the point of bareness; the discipline of work severe and unbroken. During the first year and a half of study the pupil devoted his entire time to copying certain famous works in the possession of the school; making, in the first instance, a copy from the picture set before him, and then reproducing his own copy again and again until every stroke and detail was thoroughly comprehended and mastered. In the course of eighteen months sixty pictures were studied with this searching thoroughness; the secrets of skill in each were uncovered, the sources of beauty or power discerned; and the eye and hand of the pupil gained intelligence, quickness, penetration. Month after month passed in what seemed to be a monotony of mechanical imitation; but in this arduous and literal reproduction of the skill of others was laid the sure foundations of individual skill. This devout attention to methods secured for a considerable number of men a technical expertness for which we look, as a rule, only in the work of the greatest artists. The result of this training was not mechanical skill, but truth and freshness of observation. The signature of the artist in question reveals not an imitative but an original nature, not a faculty absorbed in accuracy but in passion for expression: "Hokusai, the Old Man Crazy about Painting."

The arduous patience of these Oriental students of painting bore its fruit in a tradition of skill which was in itself an immense stimulus to the aspiring and ambitious; it established standards of craftsmanship which made the possession of expert knowledge a necessity on the part of every one who seriously attempted to practice the art. Mr. La Farge comments upon the level of superior artistic culture which these Japanese artists had attained. They had advanced their common skill so far that a superior man began at a great height of attainment, and was compelled to exhibit power of a very rare order before he could claim any kind of prominence among his fellows.

The establishment of such a standard in any art, profession, or occupation has the immense educational value of making clear to the student, at the very beginning of his career, the prime importance of mastering in detail every part of the work which he has undertaken to do. There is no place in the modern working world for the sloven, the indifferent, or the unskilled; no one can hope for any genuine success who fails to give himself the most thorough technical preparation, the most complete special education. Good intentions go for nothing, and industry is thrown away, if one cannot infuse a high degree of skill into his work. The man of medium skill depends upon fortunate conditions for success; he cannot command it, nor can he keep it. In the fierce competition of the day the trained man has all the advantages on his side; the untrained man invites all the tragic possibilities of industrial and economic failure. He is always at the mercy of conditions. To know every detail, to gain an insight into every secret, to learn every method, to secure every kind of skill, are the prime necessities of success in any art, craft, or trade. No time is too long, no study too hard, no discipline too severe for the attainment of complete familiarity with one's work and complete ease and skill in the doing of it. As a man values his working life, he must be willing to pay the highest price of success in it,--the price which severe training exacts.

The external prosperity which is called success is of value because it evidences, as a rule, thoroughness and ability in the man who secures it, and because it supplies the ease of body and of mind which is essential to the fullest and most effective putting forth of one's power; and the sane man, even while he subordinates it to higher things, never entirely ignores or neglects success. The possession of skill is to-day the inexorable condition of securing this outward prosperity; and, as a rule, the greater a man's skill the more enduring his success. But skill has other and deeper uses and ends. Thoroughness and adequacy in the doing of one's work are the evidences of the presence of a moral conception in the worker's mind; they are the witnesses to the pressure of his conscience on his work. Slovenly, careless, and indifferent work is dishonest and untruthful; the man who is content to do less than the best he is capable of doing for any kind of compensation--money, reputation, influence--is an immoral man. He violates a fundamental law of life by accepting that which he has not earned.

Skill in one's art, profession, or trade is conscience applied; it is honesty, veracity, and fidelity using the eye, the voice, and the hand to reveal what lies in the worker's purpose and spirit. To become an artist in dealing with tools and materials is not a matter of choice or privilege; it is a moral necessity; for a man's heart must be in his skill, and a man's soul in his craftsmanship.

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Hamilton Wright Mabie's essay: Special Training