The Renaissance man should be celebrated, not dismissed as a dilettante

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Steven Soderbergh. Photograph: Getty Images

The producer and director Steven Soderbergh has retired from filmmaking to concentrate on his passion for painting. That’s what he said at first. Now, it seems as if he’s going to focus on television. It doesn’t matter – either way, it takes bravery to walk away from a career while you’re still at the top of your game. Not only does it suggest a sense of proportion and perspective, it also supports the civilising idea that not all lives, even the most successful ones, can be limited to one narrow path.

Many have interpreted Soderbergh’s departure as a warning signal about the decline of the film industry, the death of a canary in the coal mine. As film has become more riskaverse and predictable, influence and recognition have shifted towards television. As a means of exploring intelligent ideas and complex human relationships on screen, television has usurped cinema. Few films have the depth, subtlety and drama of The West Wing, The Wire, Borgen and House of Cards.

It is logical that leading talents should use the most exciting and fulfilling platform. Stephen Frears, whose HBO documentary Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fighthas just been shown in Cannes, recently argued: “No studio would have made this film. The good writing is now being done in television.” Put differently, if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing mini-series for HBO.

There is also something heartening about Soderbergh’s reluctance to repeat himself. An artist friend once told me that he was constantly being encouraged to rehash familiar themes. “If you paint anything with spots, your dealer will want all spots. If you paint stripes, he will ask for all stripes. Range is regarded with suspicion.” That is a common curse within artistic industries increasingly dominated by focus groups and marketing departments.

The equivalent in the literary world is the genre writer who keeps churning out a different version of the same novel so that readers “know what they’re getting” and (depressingly but just as importantly) bookshops know where to put the books on their shelves. In contrast, Soderbergh, like Frears, has always eschewed being easily pigeonholed. Whenever he pulls off a populist success, he instantly wrong-foots his fans with a change of mood and form.

There is a deeper reason to celebrate Soderbergh’s mid-career hiatus. The ascent of professionalism has reinforced a depressing puritanism about the way we think about high achievement. It is true that to get to the very top of any sphere requires dedication and sacrifice. To that extent, the “law” (or Malcolm Gladwell’s theory) that 10,000 hours of practice and experience are a pre - requisite for greatness is true enough.

This is necessary, yes; sufficient, no. For it does not follow that more dedication to one thing alone will lead to a better career, let alone a more interesting life. Total monofocus may work for a tiny handful – the ultraprofessionals within professionalism – but it does not suit most people, even those who are masters of their field.

We used to celebrate the ideal of the Renaissance man. Now, it is regarded with suspicion, as though a generalist must suffer from dilettantism. That is not true. It is possible to succeed in one sphere, intensely and with total absorption, before moving on to something quite different – and then perhaps returning once more to your initial discipline.

The questionable link between narrowness and success has hardened into a depressing celebration of indefatigable and dutiful suffering. There is a falsely democratic delusion that success follows from effort alone, the hours spent at the chalkface. That view omits the most important dimension of all. As W H Auden once put it: “The first criterion of success in any human activity, the necessary preliminary, whether to scientific discovery or artistic vision, is intensity of attention or, less pompously, love.” If Soderbergh has fallen out of love with film, he should express himself in a medium that now excites him. Rather heartfelt promiscuousness than long-suffering monogamy. A passionate affair might even help him return one day to his first love.

There is a final imbalance about the way we judge success. We increasingly celebrate weight of achievement rather than height, as though success can be parcelled up into convenient units of excellence and plopped on to a set of scales. My point is not that longevity and resilience are not admirable – but what about passing mastery, more intense, yet shorter lived? Imagine if Alex Ferguson’s astonishing career had encompassed even greater success per season but for a fewer number of years – if the peaks had been even higher but the time span shorter. Would his retirement have been greeted with such respect? I fear not.

In 1930, the golfer Bobby Jones Jr won all four of the biggest tournaments in the world, the “grand slam”. The achievement has never been equalled. A month later, aged 28, he retired. And yet Jack Nicklaus, not Jones, is regarded as the greatest golfer because he has won more majors, spread more thinly over many more years. For most pundits, weight trumps height.

If I am unconvinced about using a weighing mechanism to gauge success in sport, I find it even more problematic in the arts. There are real dangers in turning creative life into a tournament in which we seek to rate artists according to the number of their “wins” and “successes”. Robert Frost had a superb reply to this wrong-headedness. The poet’s ultimate pursuit, Frost argued, was “to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of”. At first, it sounds modest and light. On reflection, you realise how high Frost was setting the bar for himself.

If Soderbergh feels he has already made a few films that will prove hard to get rid of, he is right to pursue new challenges elsewhere without a moment’s remorse.