Technique and Truth

I often get caught up in a debate, both in my mind and in the world of art, about whether or not technique matters (or matters very much). Those who say that the most important thing is not technical skill have an excellent point, and can give examples of amazing artists who don't have tons of technical skill and convey what they feel so deeply and heart-wrenchingly. In fact, their art is often more emotional because of its raw simplicity. Somebody like Daniel Johnston, who doesn't employ much complex composition in his visual art or his music, is an example. Try to listen to the song "True Love will Find You In the End" without feeling the heartbreak behind it.

On the other hand, there are voices that say that a lack of technical skill presents a whole host of problems. First, technique can set you apart and make it clear that you have a dedication to your craft. Ultimately, those on the side of studied and mastered technical skill will say that it's lazy to abandon the pursuit at being truly good at what you do. Those who create less technically masterful pieces, then, are serving to allow people who really aren't good at what they do to slip by as some kind of master.

This debate becomes difficult for me, and the feeling of being torn between two very valid points. But where both of them rest is that ultimately, everyone wants to make art where what the artist is trying to say will be said as intended.

A few years ago, I was sitting playing the guitar and staring at some notebook paper, trying to write music. I don't know why it came across my mind, but I thought to myself, I don't want to become a guitarist. I want to become a musician.

That was a pivotal point in the way I started to make music. Up until then, all my energies had been going toward making myself better at the guitar. I wanted to learn how to play faster, how to play longer without my fingers aching for a couple hours, and how to play the guitar solo from Van Halen's version of You Really Got Me.*

But when I decided that in my mind, it was because I had decided that that kind of technical skill wasn't what I wanted to spend my whole life on. It didn't matter if I could technically play all these blazing fast riffs so that my fingers looked like a blur as they hammered the frets with impeccable timing. I had seen Dragonforce do this a lot, and in the end it felt soulless.

So have I stopped technically improving at the guitar since then? Completely the opposite. My learning has been more intense and concentrated since then, and I have become worlds better at playing the guitar. I have spent a lot of hours trying to learn a lot of the guitar fundamentals I missed out on from being self-taught, training my fingers, pushing myself to learn different picking patterns and chord shapes. I have worked a lot on my technical skill.

Was it ridiculous, then, what I said? Was it ridiculous that I said I didn't want to be a guitarist but rather a musician?

Again, the opposite is true. I am a far better guitarist because I committed myself to being a better musician. To draw that distinction more clearly: my goal was not to become the most technically skilled at guitar I could be. The goal for me, in all my art, is to be the best at making that art that I can be.

This is the key: technique is amazing and beautiful only in service to what your art is communicating. By having very little technical skill in your art, you can easily find yourself stifled and boxed in as far as what you can express. Your words will start to feel ham-fisted, your brush strokes too crude for what you want to say. On the other hand, by creating art only to service your technique, all you will create is soulless, precise shows of technical ability. Those can be good, but I would say that they are an example of craft rather than artistic expression.

Ultimately the goal should be to say what you must express through your art. If that requires you to be technically better than you are right now, improve your technique in service of the truth you're conveying. If that means stripping down to the barest bones, saying what you must in the simplest and most raw way possible, then that is your technique being in service to your truth. Artistic technique is a great servant, but a terrible master.

Where do you think the balance is between technical skill and artistic expression should be struck? Share your thoughts in the comments. Be sure to subscribe to the art&faith newsletter to get notified whenever a new post is up.

*This is me at a middle school talent show...unfortunately, my most-viewed performance ever.