Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Case of the Aspiring Artist

Here comes a very strange, but very compelling story. A young woman, age 22, has been told that she has great talent. For creating art. For creating beautiful things, be they fictions or art objects.

Others, from teachers to parents, have told her that she is going to be famous and will create great things. She is so overwhelmed by their expectations that she does not know what to do with herself. She writes to New York Magazine’s advice columnist Ask Polly to ask for direction.

Of course, Polly wants to feel the woman’s feelings. Thus, she misses most of the point, as is her wont. But, she does light on one valuable piece of advice: go out and get a job. We do not know whether or not the woman needs to work to earn a living. Polly seems to believe that “Corked” as she calls herself, has a trust fund. The letter does not say so, but we will accept it. True enough, Corked needs to get a job. The problem is going to be: what kind of job in which field.

Still, the real issue is what Sherlock Holmes called “the dog that didn’t bark.” Here is the letter. See if you can guess where the problem lies:

I am 22 years old, just out of college, and I feel crushed by the weight of my expectations for myself. In the last eight or so years, seven people have seriously told me they think I’m going to be famous or they think I’m going to “go far” or that I could “do great things.” All my life, I received a competitive, rigorous education obsessed with delineations between “regular,” “advanced,” and “accelerated” math; SAT scores; and “gifted kids.” I graduated from a top university where those distinctions didn’t matter so much anymore because everyone was smart. I made some beautiful art while at this university, and I want to continue to write and make beautiful things.

I truly believe I have the potential to make something great in this life. But the problem is I’m so obsessed with being great that I can’t relax. I don’t just read a novel for pleasure; I read so that I can train myself to be a novelist, which is a fine reason to read, but it’s always accompanied by an ache that I’m not currently good enough to write a worthy novel. When I get caught up on what I wish I were accomplishing, I don’t work on any art or writing, I can’t sleep well, and my actual heart muscle hurts.

One of my art professors this year told me and only me in my class that I should work on creating a personal log of things that inspire me rather than trying to rip art out of myself. His suggestion touched on an insecurity that I actually have nothing to say. I spent years sitting silently in class, afraid to speak, practically pregnant with the words I could have been saying, though much of the time words never actually even came to mind. And yet outside of class, people have told me I’m a wonderful conversationalist.

Also my dad has always loved to reinforce the story that I’m smarter than everyone else my age, no one is smarter than me, my major is for smart kids and other majors are not as smart, etc., etc. As I get older and I become more aware of how he’s spun this narrative, it just makes me feel sad for him and makes me feel misunderstood. I know I’m smart, but so the fuck what? I want to be a person and I want to be a person who creates things. I feel stopped up with all the things I could be doing — learning a language, writing a screenplay, writing a novel. Like the hypothetical words I could have said in class, these ghost projects don’t actually have any substance to them — they just torment me and make me feel like I’m running out of time. Polly, how can I uncork myself and play and just be?

Interesting letter, don’t you think? But, one needs to ask whether it’s the creativity part that worries her the most or the social part? When people keep telling her that she has talent and will create great art, does she hear them saying that she will always be alone, that she will not have relationships, that she will not create a family. Did you notice her remark about how not talking in class leaves her “pregnant” with words she did not speak?

Perhaps she fears that getting married and creating children this will compromise her talent. How much of today’s discourse about abortion implies that having a family will ruin a woman’s life by failing to allow her to fulfill her true career potential?

At the same time, she has imbibed enough of the intellectual swill on offer at great universities and wants to “just be.” This meaningless piece of tripe will get you nowhere. It will not get you to be a person, either, because person comes to us from the Latin “persona” which means: theatrical mask. Does she want to create characters or does she fear becoming a character in someone else’s play.

Rather than to allow you to think that Polly is completely wrong, I will quote a few pieces of sensible advice:

I want to add that it can also be very difficult not to have to make a living. I’ve known a lot of depressed trust-fund kids over the years, though luckily I’ve never landed in that particular predicament myself. When you’re 22 and you need to make a living, you find yourself fixated on the kids who have the money and support to do whatever they want. But never wish for that. It’s just not good to try to make art 24 hours a day….

I want to encourage you to find a job. At age 22, there’s no better way to become depressed than by not working while trying to make things that prove that you’re a genius.

Naturally, this would require Corked to focus on one specific kind of art or beauty. There are fine arts and then there are decorative arts. There is journalism and book editing. There is movie production and trailer production. She should certainly get involved in the world of work.

So far so good.

Then Polly, as is her wont, goes off the rails. She explains what it takes to be an artist, even though she does not seem to know. In truth, she mistakes being an artist with undergoing a lot of bad therapy:

Creating art relies on accessing some slow, patient, deeply rooted understanding of what makes you who you are. You dig for this core belief, and along the way, you discover your fears and anxieties and self-hatred. You dig until your fingers bleed, and everything you find along the way is useful.

And also:

While you’re digging, you find something scary or bewildering, and you think, “This is what will prevent me from making anything worthwhile.” And you toss away that fear or that worry or that haunting memory that leads straight to the heart of everything good and real and strong and formidable about you. You treat your finest treasures like trash. You toss away the strange, unique, half-formed, twisted, broken things that lie at the heart of your TRUE brilliance, the kind that can’t be measured with tests, and you keep digging for something you feel might be better but is actually just a constipated imitation of someone else’s good idea.

Polly seems to consider herself an artist too… but we will let that go.

Calling for introspective soul searching ignores the fact that art students begin to learn how to draw, a basic component of the process, by getting out of their minds and focusing on models.

In fact, her professor was pointing her in that direction by recommending that she keep a journal of things she sees in the world. Polly does not seem to notice that she has already offered advice that runs directly counter to this, but she recovers just long enough to say a few words about the log:

When your professor told you to keep a log of the things that inspire you, he wasn’t telling you that you have zero good ideas, so you’ll have to COLLECT SOMEONE ELSE’S. He was merely saying THIS IS HOW GOOD ARTISTS DO IT. We collect. We tune into the outside world. We don’t ONLY dig deeper into ourselves. We also open our eyes to the world around us. That includes opening our eyes to other people’s work, with its scary qualities and its scary brilliance. We tune into other people’s art even when it frightens us by reminding us that we might not be special enough. We don’t keep ourselves safe in a vacuum. We face the world, and use our fears as fodder for our art.

Again, Polly is presenting herself as an artist. She isn’t. The claim is absurd. A great artist gets out of himself to see the world. Thinking that you are going to express something about yourself in your art is a good way to produce garbage. Because if it is that intimate to you, why would anyone else care?

Remember that Michelangelo once said that his job, when faced with a new block of marble, was to release the sculpture that had been hidden within it.

Polly closes with an especially inane piece of nonsense:

Your job, this morning, tomorrow morning, the next morning, is to feel good. But your job is also to feel exactly what you feel when you feel it. Your job is to see the world through clear eyes, and collect little bits of that world, and hold them close, and treasure them more than anything else.

The real answer, which we could have found in Malcolm Gladwell’s work, is that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become great at what you are good at. It’s a lot more constructive than telling Corked to feel what she feels.


David Foster said...

It is interesting that she never says what *kind* of art she wants to do...painting? sculpture? photography? Just 'wanting to do something great' is not sufficient.

Her father has done her no favors with the "you're so smart" talk. There is research that shows it is much better to compliment kids for how hard they are working, rather than for a largely-inborn trait such as 'smartness.' (And this is also quite consistent with common sense)

Sam L. said...

She needs to get out and DO something.

Brookside said...

Yes. She needs to do something now.
A strong work ethic and a compulsive need to create is needed to be a productive artist.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of steps between being told you are an artist and actually becoming one. I wonder how many people have been told they were artistic, a great musician, et al? The higher one climbs the ladder the more one meets a 1000 people just like oneself. Do you have that special something that makes you stand out. Brookside is correct in that one has to spend many hours working just to gain and reinforce the talents and skills requisite to just start being creative. Then that is when the real work starts.
This does not even include the politics that invariably become a part of one's life. Better get a stronger sense of who you are because one does not want to be a Mozart and fall prey to a Solari (sp). Interestingly, I do not think there is a fine composer who could relate to where the great music they have written comes from. I suspect it comes from one's subconscious mind.
Analyzation, for an artist, can lead to Paralyzation.
An aside here. As a young musician I had heard that drugs would open up your mind so I tried a little before a gig. Got up to take an ad lid solo and boy I was really on fire until I realized I still had 15 bars to play of a 16 bar solo an had nothing left. Never touched the stuff again.


Jack Hoff said...

I personally could care less how deeply an "artist" feels or how smart she is. The purpose of art is to entertain, or at least be interesting. In the process of being entertained, one should also be educated/informed/enlightened about something in some way. Icing on the cake is to be inspired. In other words, art should be entertaining, informative, and if possible, inspirational. Don't dwell on Polly's introspection bullshit. Think on things and create things that people will find entertaining, educational, and inspiring. As a start, she needs to find out if she has the knack to do, say, or make things that other people find interesting. If she doesn't have the knack for that, go to plan B.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that "fear of failure" is involved here? It's much harder to get started if you a trying to avoid failing at something.

autothreads said...

Assuming she's learned the basic skills to make graphic art or to write for publication, what's stopping her from making art or writing? After the basic skills, you learn by doing something, whether it's math or art. If she's any good at it, people will pay her.

In the meantime, getting a regular job can inform her art. Many great artists and writers have had rather interesting employment backgrounds, some incredibly diverse, others boringly mundane, but either way it ultimately helped produce great art.

David Foster said...

I believe it was Ben Stein who referred to Perfectionism as "the great crippler of young adults"...the idea that if you're going to write software, you have to start out by doing a billion-dollar app, if you're going to paint, you have to do something that will put Matisse in the shade, if you're going to be a lawyer, you need a case that the Supreme Court will want to hear.

Anonymous said...

Talent is only a very small part of the quest to be an artist and for the most part anything one wants to be great at doing. The rest is hard work. Dizzy, when he was alive, used to say that he would play well one day and he won. The next day he would not play up to his expectations and the trumpet won. Then one dies and the trumpet wins. (SIC) Learn and keep good habits, work hard and remember that you are human.
David Foster is right and also it takes a while to experience the emotional context that underpins any exceptional artist.


Stuart Larkin said...

Was mention made of a "calling?" Does the artist feel some sort of calling to the profession? If she had some sort of calling to the profession, she would simply create art and quit grumbling. Probably the strongest calling is experienced by pastors/preachers/clergyman. Most say they had never imagined themselves going into the ministry until the time they received a strong calling. And you will hear many say, "I would never put up with the bullshit of this profession had I not been called to do it."