Vivian Aristotle Smiles: The Power of Individuals to Create

An article in the Guardian newspaper (Friday 14 January 2011) was brought to my attention the other day. Hermione Hoby wrote about the amazing Vivian Maier; a rediscovered exemplar of the individual’s power to create. This is a fine case of where someone was truly engaged with what they did and got good at it because they were passionate. For the love of photography and the fascination of the world around her Vivian Maier became a great photographer producing thousands of images which further inspire and move other people. The Chicago nanny died in 2009 leaving behind the chance discovery of 100,000 negatives that no one had seen. Her work is being hailed as some of the best in 20th-century street photography.

Vivian Maier
Vivian Maier


This story highlights two particular aspects of our world to me.  One, that we regularly overlook talented, intelligent and creative works and people mistaking the world as a place which is run according to meritocratic principles; and the other is that if we invest our time and effort in something, we get good at it should we persist.


In thinking about the point about overlooking and undervaluing what is around us, I think it becomes particularly easy to become blind when we crowd our vision with a compulsion for officialdom.  Too often do we look at the attribution of prizes, certificates and status to interpret whether some information is worthwhile or not.


This is as absurd as not paying attention to people who are publicly recognized as being knowledgeable about something.  These behaviours are types of idol, as Francis Bacon puts it, and detract from what we can truly learn.  Elitism and reverse snobbery breed equal idiocies.


A passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (384 BC – 322 BC) comes to mind to illustrate what I think was the mechanism of Vivian Maier’s competence in photography:


“…Moral virtue, like the arts, is acquired by repetition of the corresponding acts…. Again, it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre players are produced. And the corresponding statement is true of builders and of all the rest; men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly…” Book II


This suggests a good part of the theory of learning is to practice.  Learning by doing something is a connecting with the real life thing rather than a human impression of that thing.  Our capability – and understanding as a part of our capability – is limited if we learn to play football from reading a book; by reading a book alone we do not develop the muscles necessary, nor do we find everything bearing on the subject that is not written in the book.  Our propensity for learning and mastery is built upon our investment in doing.


People who have invested in knowing about something intrigue me; they become more interesting through that chemistry of doing.  People who love what they do seem to be able to make any subject interesting and relevant to what I know; it is through a pleasure of communicating the wonder of discovery that my experience of the world becomes richer.


Taking the time to get to know people and understand the in’s and out’s of the life of a footballer or painter is the stuff of life; all those moments absorbed in knowing how you can fix a combustion engine or get a certain sound from an instrument; all those years ferreting out the understanding of how to put a perfect finish on some wood or a large plaster wall… this is knowledge and learning to me; it is in this space that the genius of our species ignites and rises.


In 1859 Samuel Smiles wrote the first of a genre of books called Self Help. He was an admirer of people and human culture, impressed by what people could achieve under their own self-guidance.  This inspires what the idea of the Ragged University is, it is not about looking outward, but by investing our selves independently in what inspires us and fostering settings which support such development.



People are what they do and when people enjoy what they do they will not tire of the task nor dismiss something as unimportant in the subject; therefore they will tend to get good in their field because to them there is no mundanity. They want to understand each little minute detail and are prepared to do what is necessary to achieve that. An excerpt from Samuel Smiles’ Self Help (1859) which I like is as follows:


“…Sir Joshua Reynolds was such a believer in the force of industry, that he held that artistic excellence, ‘however expressed by genius, taste, or the gift of heaven, may be acquired.’ Writing to Barry he said, “Whoever is resolved to excel in painting, or indeed any other art, must bring all his mind to bear upon that one object from the moment that he rises till he goes to bed.”


And on another occasion he said, ‘Those who are resolved to excel must go to their work, willing or unwilling, morning, noon, and night: they will find it no play, but very hard labour.’ But although diligent application is no doubt absolutely necessary for the achievement of the highest distinction in art, it is equally true that without the inborn genius, no amount of mere industry, however well applied, will make an artist. The gift comes by nature, but is perfected by self-culture, which is of more avail than all the imparted education of the schools.


Some of the greatest artists have had to force their way upward in the face of poverty and manifold obstructions. Illustrious instances will at once flash upon the reader’s mind. Claude Lorraine, the pastrycook; Tintoretto, the dyer; the two Caravaggios, the one a colour-grinder, the other a mortar-carrier at the Vatican; Salvator Rosa, the associate of bandits; Giotto, the peasant boy; Zingaro, the gipsy; Cavedone, turned out of doors to beg by his father; Canova, the stone-cutter; these, and many other well-known artists, succeeded in achieving distinction by severe study and labour, under circumstances the most adverse.


Nor have the most distinguished artists of our own country been born in a position of life more than ordinarily favourable to the culture of artistic genius. Gainsborough and Bacon were the sons of cloth-workers; Barry was an Irish sailor boy, and Maclise a banker’s apprentice at Cork; Opie and Romney, like Inigo Jones, were carpenters; West was the son of a small Quaker farmer in Pennsylvania; Northcote was a watchmaker, Jackson a tailor, and Etty a printer; Reynolds, Wilson, and Wilkie, were the sons of clergymen; Lawrence was the son of a publican, and Turner of a barber.


Several of our painters, it is true, originally had some connection with art, though in a very humble way, such as Flaxman, whose father sold plaster casts; Bird, who ornamented tea-trays; Martin, who was a coach-painter; Wright and Gilpin, who were ship-painters; Chantrey, who was a carver and gilder; and David Cox, Stanfield, and Roberts, who were scene-painters. It was not by luck or accident that these men achieved distinction, but by sheer industry and hard work.”


Further Reading: