An Imagined Conversation on Talent, Artistry, and Football

Photo by Keith Allison
Photo by Keith Allison

The wondrous thing about good books is that you feel like you’re having a conversation with the author. Here’s a talk that I had with famed mythologist Joseph Campbell about talent, artistry, and football.

The setting for my conversation with Joseph Campbell is between the pages of his book,  A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflection on the Art of Living. 

JC: An artist, to me, is a person who is a competent practitioner of an art. Somebody who just gets up to splash around is not necessarily an artist. One definition of an artist that I heard someone seriously give is: “anybody who, in the telephone book, calls him or herself an artist.” I do not go along with that. Even in the practical arts, the principle of perfection in work is a basic expectation.

MW: This is true of craftsmanship, which, can be classified as a practical art at its highest level of performance. Professional football is a craft. It demands that principle of perfection as a basic expectation. Newly minted football professionals discover this immediately upon leaving the amateur ranks.

JC: An artist is someone who has completed an art work, not a person who merely intended to. Whether or not it is saleable either this year or next affects neither its in-trinsic value nor its intrinsic definition as an art work. Van Gogh never sold a thing, but a couple of his works can make a museum. He was in great psychological trouble, but that man was an artist.

The word artist is used in a number of ways, the two principle ones, the two extremes, being: (a) one competent in performance and (b) an artist in the fine arts. You cannot be an artist in the fine arts unless you are competent in performance, but you can be competent in cooking or acrobatics or whatnot. But the experience of esthetic arrest has to do with the fine arts. One doesn’t seek esthetic arrest in looking at a good plumbing job. Its real function would be missed.

Photo by Dhilung Kirat
Is Brandon Lloyd the Van Gogh of wide receivers? Photo by Dhilung Kirat

MW: But I have to disagree with you about your thought only certain tasks can be elevated to a level of artistry. Just because people don’t seek esthetic arrest from good plumbing doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of exhibiting artistry. You’re limiting artistry to something that has an established audience. Van Gogh didn’t have an audience by your definition, but you noted that some of his work generated esthetic arrest.

If a plumber with an artistic mindset and top-shelf skills created an installation, I’m sure he or she could generate esthetic arrest and, eventually, find an audience that would seek that arrest when viewing his work. Lots of art has more practical, mundane origins and influences that an artist elevates.

As you brought up Van Gogh, the intrinsic value of his work, and plumbers, I thought of Brandon Lloyd and Odell Beckham. Wide receiver is primarily a job with the basic function of helping the team advance the ball downfield.

The task doesn’t have to be performed with artistry. Most of the time it’s not. People confuse good technique with artistry and sportswriters often conflate the two.

Putting the massive influence of money and celebrity on the job aside for a moment, the actual on-field part of playing football is about technique, experience, and good decision-making. Tom Brady is a master craftsman, but he isn’t an artist–his play doesn’t inspire esthetic arrest. Think I’m wrong? Name three plays that you watched over and over again authored wholly by Brady because the performance on that play generated esthetic rapture.

You can’t. If you claim you can, you’ve either mistaken your rapture of being a fan of the Patriots or you’ve mistaken Brady’s role in plays that involve the artistry of another player like Randy Moss, who frequently elevated a task into a moment of esthetic rapture. It doesn’t mean that Brady isn’t a great player because he doesn’t qualify as an artist.


Odell Beckham and Brandon Lloyd come to mind as artists and Lloyd was not a great professional off the field. But Lloyd was singularly great at catching the football under certain conditions that provided the receiver a stage to perform like an artist.

If I could draw a line between painters and receivers, Lloyd is Van Gogh. If good performances on the field could equate to paintings sold, Lloyd only had one season that the public could appreciate in the moment. But if you go back and look at the way he caught the football, an edited montage of his best receptions is filled with moments of esthetic rapture.

If Lloyd is that artist whose ability to get on in the world inhibited the public’s ability to appreciate his work during his lifetime then Beckham’s career looks more like that of Claude Monet, an artist whose work was appreciated while he was doing it and long after.

J.C.: I heard of an amusing experiment when LSD was first around. Four bridge players were given light doses of LSD, with the understanding that they would then play bridge. When the cards had been dealt and picked up, all they did was look at them. There was no playing of the game. It was esthetic arrest, an example of sacred space. The cards were of no use except for esthetic rapture. The object, formerly in certain relevant situations in the life of secular enjoyment, suddenly becomes a thing-in-itself, a final thing.

M.W.: Remember Doc Ellis’ no-hitter while he was on acid? I wonder if he was coming down from his high when he pitched or was his trip still in full swing? Did he have to push through that esthetic arrest that the card players experienced or was his performance his experience of rapture?

How much of that performance was concentration and intent and how much of it was aided by the acid to help him “let go?” I have to think it was the combination of Ellis’ lifetime of training and the way LSD set the stage for his mindset on that day.

Ellis wasn’t some amateur off the street trying to pitch while under the influence of a narcotic. He spent years perfecting his throwing motion, his understanding of batters, his strategy with pitch selection, and how to vary the effect of each pitch. I could see how the right combination of skills and just the right amount of mind-opening abandon could theoretically influence a great performance from someone who spent years training to perform at a competent level.

J.C.: In action, it makes a difference whether all you are trying to do is to act or whether you are trying to act competently. It helps a great deal to know what the hell you’re doing. What are you going to do well? Are you going to be a painter, a Picasso? Is this where your life achievement is? That is a real sacrifice of life.

Whatever choice you make, there is a period of learning and analyzing, when you are not in action, the body is not in performance. Anyone who has taught somebody a skill has seen this stage, where the student is analyzing and trying to do it, but really not in it. Then, finally, the person is able to give expression to what he or she is intending to express.

My first and strongest experience of this was once when Jean came to Esalen with me and was going to give classes in dance. She got this bunch of people who were not interested in technique, but wanted to dance. What they called creative work was going out, opening their arms, and breathing at the ocean. It was not worth being with them even to see what was going on.

There is nothing esthetic about a bunch of ballet people doing their bar exercises. Then they move into dance and are still thinking about the rules, and their work is contrived. But then, finally, the rules melt and natural spontaneity takes over again. There is an old standard saying about the arts: “you need to learn all the rules, and then forget them.” That is to say, let them melt back into pure action.”

When young people who’ve not had the schooling I’ve had decide they’re going in for writing, editing, or something like that, I’ve noticed they don’t really have the full equipment. Working on my books, I’ve hired intelligent young people to help me with the editorial aspects, only to discover they can’t read German, they can’t read French,they don’t know this, they don’t know that. It makes me realize what all those years of schooling gave me. The fantastic amount of work that’s all under the water. One sees only the tip of the iceberg.

In writing a book, you are moving along on the wave of your inspiration and intuition, and then you come to a difficult passage, an area you have to cover in order to get from here to there, and your momentum stops. That’s when you have to bring in the rules.

M.W.: What you’re saying applies so much to athletic performance–really, performance of any kind. When performance reaches a level of artistry, there’s an effortlessness to those arresting moments. It is why I believe LSD was an aid to Ellis’ no-hitter even if it would be difficult to replicate the dosage, scenario, and other factors that created the perfect balance for Ellis’ arresting moment.

It’s easy to appreciate the end-product’s esthetic nature without requiring a true understanding of the artist’s process. It’s common to sport, especially football. The blowback is that some members of the audience believe that casual observation supplemented with Football For Dummies media segments is sufficient information to cast judgment on the performance of a player, a unit, or a team.

Great performances from players often appear effortless. As my friend and colleague Emory Hunt says, Football is simple. However, he doesn’t say Football is simplistic. It’s easy for fans to conflate something that appears simple, easy, and effortless with simplistic explanations that don’t recognize the layers of skill, theory, and artistry behind the performance.

What many fans don’t realize is that great displays of athletic ability often happen only when the athlete has reached a level of comfort within his skills, his knowledge of the game, and his practical application of strategy. It takes a lot of practice on mundane parts of one’s craft in order to reach a level where a person can consistently deliver an excellent performance that appears completely spontaneous.


J.C.: Also, in athletics, after you practice and practice, there is a lot you can do spontaneously. But at certain points, you have to act according to rules for moving the body that are not yet spontaneous to you. I think of pole vaulting or the high hurdles: the time that has to be spent just on the technical posture. Or playing golf: how are you going to hold that club?

M.W.: I’ll add three-step, five-step, and seven-step drops for quarterbacks; the variety of ways that receivers, defensive linemen, and linebackers use their hands and feet to work past an opponent; and the way all football players have to integrate the skills of their positions and their athletic prowess with the rules and strategy of the game.

Imagine a quarterback executing a five-step drop where he has an option to cut the drop to three steps and hit a quick slant depending on the alignment of 11 defenders standing across from him. And depending on the actions of those 11 men and the 10 teammates on his team, that quarterback has a myriad of small decisions facing him.

Should do something to bait a specific subset of defenders on the field while he’s executing his drop? Should he make the throw as designed when pinpoint accuracy might not be enough to reach the receiver against the coverage or should he make an adjustment to the planned throw that he hopes the receiver will recognize in time to make the complementary adjustment? And how will the quarterback adjust if pressure collapses the pocket and forces him to buy time to deliver the ball?

If a quarterback is thinking rather than reacting spontaneously to all of this stimuli, he’ll be too slow to perform. What a player can do spontaneously is overstated.

J.C.: There is not spontaneity when you are thinking all these things. When that is all absorbed, then you have a stronger propulsion than you had before you were forced to break it all up.

I don’t think it is proper at all to take the position that C.P. Snow has: namely, that the science–the knowledge, the mathematical side of life–runs in an opposite direction to the life of spontaneous humanistic action. They supplement each other. In literature, for instance, writing sonnets: it takes a lot of practice to make that kind of structure become something that just pours out, but when it does pour out, it is possible to say things that cannot be said without the sonnet form. Form and expression are very close together.

M.W.: This is so dead-on. I’m continuously emphasizing this relationship between technique, athletic ability, and competent performance for football prospects. At the highest levels of performance, the smallest techniques have to be ingrained in order for a player to unlock his skills.


If you are going to act on the basis of what you know, you cannot just hold onto your knowledge. You have to translate it into a movement. This is the whole thing in the arts. The student studies, studies, studies–learning the techniques, the rules, what it is he must strive for–and when he gets used to doing all of that, then he can move.

The creative act is

not hanging on, but yielding

to new creative movement.

Think, for instance, of someone studying the piano. There is nothing worse than having somebody in the neighborhood studying the piano, practicing their exercises…

M.W.: Try a bassoonist or a clarinetist. You’ll be thankful for the neophyte on the piano, trust me.

J.C.: There’s nothing at all beautiful about them. Their function is to give you facility. Then presently there comes a point when you have the facility, it happens automatically, and you do not have to think,, “do…re…me…fa…” Although analysis facilitates competent action, your spontaneity of action is inhibited when you are constantly thinking of the rules. This is true for everything. The one who attempts to be an artist and has not learned the craft is never going to be an artist.

       If you find you are trying,

go back to school.

You’re not ready yet.

M.W.: Sounds like good advice.

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