Not too long ago I saw a psychiatrist on television explaining that young people should pursue their dreams and passions, even if and especially if they want to be artists. Since I have been arguing against such a folly for years now, I quickly took notice.
If they do not, the psychiatrist opined, the world might be missing out on another Van Gogh and we might miss out on a new Starry Night.
Said psychiatrist failed to remark that Van Gogh cut off his own ear, point that he ought to have seen as perhaps a reason not to make the man anyone’s role model. We do not expect that psychiatrists know anything about artistic creation. And it’s good that they do not. But they ought, as mental health professionals, know a lot about people who cut off their ears… or other offending organs.
You might think that it is far more wonderful to be Van Gogh than to sell insurance, but you should also ask yourself whether you can better survive the next few years without Starry Night or without insurance.
For my part I think that it is generally very bad advice to tell young people to pursue their dreams of becoming artists. I can assert with great confidence that the chances your child will grow up to become Van Gogh are nil. Setting up impossible goals consigns children to failure. One might say, and one has said, that people can learn from failure, but some people also become embittered by it.
If a young person believes that since he wants so badly to be an artist the world owes him the proper recognition, he might very well persist in his folly, becoming increasingly resentful and increasingly withdrawn from a world that refuses to recognize his passion.
When professors, and other people who should know better, encourage talentless students to pursue careers in the arts they are doing them a disservice. Millions of young people are living in squalor, pursuing an illusion… because their teachers and television psychiatrists told them to go for it.
No one has expressed this better than the satirical publication The Onion:
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA—In an effort to help his students develop inaccurate perceptions of their talents, University of Virginia creative writing professor Alan Erickson told reporters Monday that he takes the time to provide each and every one of them with personalized false hope. “Every student is different, and even though there may be 30 of them per class, I feel it’s important that I make enough time to sit down with them individually to let them know they have a unique voice worth pursuing,” said Erickson, explaining that he frequently extends his office hours and often stays after class to meet with students one-on-one to ensure they hear individualized, unfounded optimism about their writing and their prospects within the publishing industry. “It certainly adds a bit to my workload, but providing specific feedback and encouragement really has a huge impact on their confidence. Going that extra mile for your students is what inspires them to follow their dreams.” The professor added that his efforts have yielded some notable results, asserting that a number of his most deluded former students have gone on to humiliating, short-lived attempts at writing careers.