Recognizing the sport of art making

February 28, 2020

When I was a kid, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be an artist, a painter and an animator. I wanted to create the things I was watching on Cartoon Network. I wanted to make stories and and have a lot of people see them. It also happens that I wanted to be a chef, but when my doctor asked 10-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up, she prefaced my response by saying “my good-for-nothing son is a chef, he doesn’t make a dime.” I backed off that idea pretty quickly. 

One of the problems with growing up in neoliberal hell is that the impulse to dream goes unchecked just long enough for the impending societal expectations to hit like an oil tanker on the freeway. In kindergarten, I remember my teacher giving a lesson on jobs. The kids got to say what they wanted to become, and titles like firefighter, construction worker, police officer, painter and president of the United States all made it on the list. Can you imagine that? If people in my suburban sphere had told their parents they wanted to be a construction worker or a career firefighter when they grew up, they would be laughed out of the room. “Good luck living on the streets!”

Existential fear among the middle class is very real. It is cute when a little kid draws a sh*tty picture with his little crayons, but when a gross pubescent starts showing signs of taking the non-business world seriously, the alarms start to go off and the platitudes come out. “That’s not practical.” “You won’t make very much money, and I know you won’t be able to live like that.” “You’ll have plenty of time to pursue that once you have your retirement squared away.” “Why don’t you just do your hobby on the side in your spare time?” 

That last one gets me the most. Yeah, maybe I could be satisfied with “spare time” art if I were into, like, knitting or something, but my drive to create goes deeper than arts and crafts. People like me want to create art that captivates, art that elicits a response that goes a little deeper than, “Oh, that’s nice!” We want to make something that somebody would want to print out and hang on their wall or on a bookshelf. We want to achieve a certain level of aesthetic or narrative mastery. Artwork like this requires time and focus.

Brandeis offers creative writing and studio programs, but they are severely underfunded and not very demanding. Most students take these classes as stress relievers and hobby fulfillers. Truly demanding art classes just wouldn’t work with a college student’s schedule, and that is because popular art is inherently at odds with academia. You don’t improve at art in the same way you succeed in the classroom. You don’t learn how to draw by memorizing flashcards and drilling vocabulary. There just isn’t a test for it. The university class is a one-and-done affair, but improving artistically requires iteration and, ultimately, repeated failure. An academic can’t afford to fail more than a couple times in a given class, and many students aim to maintain that perfect 4.0 across all eight semesters.

Getting good at writing or drawing is an exercise more akin to playing an instrument or succeeding at sports than earning good grades in the classroom. You can think critically about basketball all you want, but that will only get you so far on the court. When somebody passes to you, your body—not your brain—has to know what to do in order to catch the ball and do something meaningful with it. You achieve this skill through drills and practice. Different writers and painters will give all kinds of advice about improving, but the core of their advice will be fundamentally the same: you have to continuously write or draw. The art must be ingrained in your muscles. You have to be able to force yourself to sit down and crank out the basic stuff without thinking too hard. The improvement is incremental, and it requires immersion.

Sure, maybe some especially gifted folks can accomplish rigorous art training while also working a job and succeeding in classes without burning out. For most people, however, pure talent and the willpower to endure insane scheduling aren’t reality. It’s especially not possible with the mental clutter of decades of being told that your dream is “not practical” bearing down on you. Art is practical, of course. Practical in the most literal sense of the word. With time and practice, people can train their bodies to create anything their hearts desire—the gratification just isn’t instantaneous. Grappling with that fact is the true path of the artist.

We need to stop filling our kids with this idea that only the supremely talented can make a life out of the pursuit of creativity, or that art is inherently worthless to society. That dogma is useless mental junk that only serves to weigh down the brain. The skills that artistic training can bestow, like the ability to delay gratification, to iterate meaningfully and to confront failure, are all incredibly useful in every field. They are life skills. Our society is so concerned with grade point averages and so-called “practical knowledge” that we forget the essence of self improvement. Of course, it would also help if our society wasn’t a late capitalist dystopia, but that is a can of worms to open another time.

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