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Empty Virtuosity & The Tyranny of Technique- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Empty Virtuosity & The Tyranny of Technique- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD


I think the idea of empty virtuosity comes up more often in music than in painting, but it is everywhere in creative pursuits. And it is deeply related to last week’s critique of art criticism.

In music, it is associated with performers who have tremendous technique (and composers who write to bring this out) but fail to move us emotionally, playing the notes with incredible accuracy but no soul, or debase the sublime with the trite. 

I associate this with certain composers and performers of the second half of the 19th century who shall remain nameless in case they turn out to be readers’ favorites.Dare I say that one of the composers’ last names begins with an ‘L’ (and no, it’s not the late performer Liberace though I couldn’t resist putting a picture of him below).

There are too many notes. You can’t hear the music for the notes just like not being able to see the forest for the trees.



Liberace in Las Vegas



There is a very small group of composers and performers who combined both.

An 18th century anecdote describes J.S. Bach showing up at a small parish church and playing the organ. A witness later said, “It is either the Devil or Bach himself.”

J.S. Bach pushed technique into new realms for the purpose of expressing new musical ideas.

The fingers weren’t enough to play what he wrote, so he brought the thumb into the musical action. He also popularized a new kind of tuning to enable him to express his musical ideas in all keys, the so-called well-tempered tuning.



Statue of JS Bach- Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany



In Bach’s own time, he was not the most popular composer.

Much of his music was considered too complex and inaccessible for easy listening. He lost a coveted position to Telemann because Telemann was more popular and relatable.

It took most of another century for people to realize the breadth and profundity of Bach’s contribution.



Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767)



A very common feature of complex systems is tradeoffs. Something gained, something lost.

Perhaps it is more than a feature, rather a signature.

In the old tuning system (called mean temperament) some musical keys sounded pure and sweet while others sounded terrible. Now all keys sound sort of OK.

There is an organ in the campus chapel of my alma mater that has a huge metal lever protruding from the case above the console. It switches between the pre-Bach and post-Bach tuning systems.

This is no mean feat, as an organ cannot change the pitch of its pipes in real time, so instead it has two sets of thousands of pipes each, some of them three stories high.

This instrument cost millions and is unique in the world. If you look above the console, you can see a kind of ‘\’ shape, which is a two-foot long iron lever that switches between tunings with a satisfying ‘thunk.’



The Fisk-Nanney Organ, Stanford University



In painting, virtuosity is often associated with realistic or hyper-realistic painting, measured by accuracy of reproduction. The age of photography has dulled that sword, no matter how accurately somebody paints, a camera is more accurate, with the exception of depth perception.

But the fact that virtuosity in painting is subtler means that it is also more insidious. 

A technique that comes to mind is pointillism. It produced some memorable paintings, but was a short lived phenomenon, attractive for its novelty and its ability to impress. “There must be a million points here!”

It ran its course quickly and then disappeared from the painting lexicon, an 1880s fad.



Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat (1859-1891)



Pointillism did survive and become ubiquitous, but not in the way its creators envisioned. The idea of allowing the eye/brain to do the mixing of colors rather than the paint itself being mixed presaged digital imaging, where images are constructed of millions of pixels, each one being one of only three or four colors.

Both photorealism and pointillism were techniques that were later largely replaced by technology. 

It is not surprising that both words have the same Greek root of techne (τέχνη), meaning art, skill, or craft. In Ancient Greek, techne’s meaning was in pointed contrast to episteme (ἐπιστήμη), meaning meaning or knowledge.  

Relying on technique risks turning art into skill or craft. If we concentrate merely on visual effects we risk our work being obviated by technological advance or to become trite with overuse.


Technique needs to be the handmaiden of creativity, not the other way around.


Jackson Pollock invented new techniques to realize his artistic vision. He painted using a “drip technique,” pouring directly from the can onto a horizontal canvas on the floor, even though what he laid down was more like filaments than drops.


Pollock started with a vision and then figured out how to realize it.


Technique will get you from A to B, if you can state B in advance. But it is not as effective if you are on a voyage to discover B and you don’t know what it is yet.

In fact technique might might even be a hindrance. Like the Force in the Star Wars movies, it has a light and a dark side. Use it judiciously.



Light saber from Star Wars movies




With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Ready to take your art somewhere new? The Artist’s Journey® Masterclass is open for enrollment but is closing tonight, Sunday October 2, 2022 at Midnight Pacific Time.. 

Read about it and Register HERE. 







Get to the elusive deepest art you yearn to create. Register for the Artist’s Journey Masterclass at https://artistsjourney.com/masterclass







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