Art Has An Image Problem

Art has an image problem.

I was reminded of that over the last few months, as I tried to lead a classroom of teenagers through several hundred years of art history.

To me, it is a labor of love to lead children in creative pursuits.  And the same is true in opening young eyes to the vast, wonderful world of human creativity.

But I can never predict the audience reaction.  Just as frequently that a piece of art would inspire and amaze, another would fall flat.  Cries of “I could do that!” or “That’s not real art!” would cut through my attempts at explanation.  I would try to reason with them, try to communicate the artist’s intent.  But when my students were resolved, there was no changing their minds.

“Those are just scribbles!”

Art, I am reminded, has an image problem.

Art Stadium

There is a reason that Cowboys stadium, one of the largest and most state-of-the-art facilities in professional sports, is filled with more than just football players and fans.  It’s walls are covered with larger than life pieces of art.

The reason given by the owners, two art lovers and collectors themselves, is that they wanted to bring art to people who would be intimidated to go into an art museum.

I’ve never thought of being intimidated by art.  But I think they are on to something.

I see it in my students’ faces as they try to puzzle out the meaning of an indecipherable piece of modern art.  I see it as they struggle to find the value or artistic merit in so much of what passes for “brilliant” art.

An Image Problem

Here’s the problem with art:

It’s kind of pretentious.

It sits in a museum, cloistered away from normal people and their everyday lives.  It tells a story, but often times (especially today,) the meaning of the story is so abstract and obtuse that any discernible meaning is lost.  Much of the art world works like an inside joke.  Everyone heard the punchline, but only a few people are laughing.  Everyone else feels left out.

Much of the time, art is not about the audience, but about the artist.  It’s about the artist proclaiming to the world that “this is art!” and demanding the world’s attention.  Much of the art world is self-centered on the creator.  If you aren’t intelligent enough to “get” a piece of art, it’s not going to explain itself to you.  Much of the art world acts like teenagers incessantly posting photos of themselves on Facebook.

It’s about a platform.  It’s all about getting attention.

That’s why art has an image problem.

Life is About Sharing

In a lot of ways, I don’t understand the world of fine art that I try to teach students about.

And in many ways, the art world is not the art I try to teach my kindergartners.

When we make something great, it’s meant to be shared, like a gift is meant to be given.  It’s not about seeking attention, but expressing a desire to share with others.  It’s about offering something to the world.  It’s about saying, “Look at what I made for you.”

Social media at its best is about just that too.  Sharing.  It’s about passing gifts around to each other, because sharing is fun.  But at it’s worst, people use it like a bullhorn, shouting at everyone, “Look at me!”

And really, spirituality is the same way.  When we worship and break bread together, it is about sharing.  It’s about giving people what has been given to us.  It’s about pointing to Someone and saying, “Isn’t that amazing?”  But at its worst, spirituality turns into a platform, a bullhorn to shout, “Look how spiritual I am!”  That’s why so much religion has an image problem, like art.

All the things that humans do are best when they are focused on others and not ourselves.  Whatever you are creating, create it as a gift to share with others, and it will always be appreciated.

[photo: Duncan~, Creative Commons]

How I Became a Creative Genius

“He’s copying me!”

Teachers hear that phrase a lot.  It’s usually spoken in a whiny, nails-on-a-chalkboard sort of way.

We usually teach kids not to copy others.

Don’t look at someone’s else’s test.  That’s cheating.

Don’t mimic others’ behavior.  Whenever a kid accuses another of mimicking them, I tell them to just sit quietly, and the other student will have nothing to mimic.  That usually doesn’t work.

The problem is that while we don’t want kids to cheat or plagiarize, the real adult world really is about copying, mimicking and stealing quite a bit.  In fact, if you ever plan to contribute anything of value to the world, you should probably get comfortable with stealing a bit.

Plagiarism Is Encouraged

When kids in art class accuse another child of “copying” them, I have a couple of go-to retorts:

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”


“Maybe you should stop having such good ideas.  If you have bad ideas, maybe no one will copy you.”

The reality is that the art room is a microcosm of the adult world, and kids don’t even realize it.  One kid comes up with a great idea, and two others see that and want to interpret that good idea and make it their own.  Maybe the child that inspired the other two is concerned that the copycats will end up executing his idea better, or people will think he is actually the copycat.

Either way, I need to be teaching kids that the the rules of plagiarism from their classroom do not apply to the art room.

There Is Nothing New Under the Sun

You know the feeling when you get a brilliant idea for a blog post, or a book or something else that you want to create?

You’ve suddenly got this great little secret.  An original idea!  You had better hold it close and protect it, lest someone steal it from you…

…And then you see something: another blog post, a book, a painting.  It’s your idea!  But someone has already done it.  Your idea is not really original.  You are defeated.  I have known that feeling many times – thinking I had an original idea, but realizing that someone else beat me to the punch.  In fact, I have yet to find a completely pure, original idea that no one has ever thought of.  It’s positively maddening!

The Secret to Creative Genius

Here’s the secret to creating great ideas that the world will love:

Steal them.

Well, there’s bit more nuance to it than that.

Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists copy.  Great artists steal.”

Cormac McCarthy said, “The ugly truth is books are made out of books.”

And I stole that quote from a friend in order to make a point.

If you commit yourself to only sharing original ideas, then you will never share anything at all.  Every great idea is built on ten great ideas that have already been thought of.  The best things in the world are merely remixes of the best things that existed already.  The best books are simply reminding people of stories and ideas that have already been said.  It’s just that people weren’t paying attention the first time. (I’m pretty sure that’s also a quote that I stole and then remixed in my head.)

The secret to success is to read widely, to study abundantly, and to steal prolifically.  Let ideas mix and swirl in your mind from so many sources so that when they come out in something you create, no one can tell who you stole them from.

And don’t be worried if you see people copying your ideas.  It means they are good.

Except for this article.  I’d better not see anyone copying me.

Just kidding.  Tell us about your creative struggles.  Have you ever felt that you had an original idea?  Have you felt the crushing realization that there is “nothing new under the sun?”

[photo: waitscm, Creative Commons]

Choosing to “Make” in a Season of “Take”

As we enter the holiday season, the attitude at school changes.

The excitement grows.

There is anticipation in the air.

Kids are always a little bit antsy.  A little bit extra squirrely while we teachers try to make them continue to work and learn.

Why do the holidays bring out such a change in children?

Because the holidays are, unfortunately, not the season of satisfaction, but the season of want, of unmatched desire.  Children everywhere are making their lists, not of things they will give, but things they are hoping to receive.  We are taught from a young age to buy, to consume, to want constantly, to never be satisfied.

And with this feverish desire to consume hovering in the air, it reminds me of yet another lesson that I hope children can learn (and I can remember) in the art room.

Creating is a Lost Art

As children, we were trained from the youngest of ages to want.  And we were taught that satisfaction came with receiving what we want.  As adults, we have had a difficult, if not impossible time unlearning this.  We fill every last space in our homes with things that we want.  But, often, as soon as we have something, it is no longer as valuable to us.  So we keep chasing after something else.

In our modern world, no one really needs to create anything.  We don’t need to create our own food or clothing.  We don’t need to create beautiful words or pictures or stories.  We don’t need to create worship.  Someone else can do all of these thing for us in our highly specialized society.  We are well-practiced in taking, taking, taking, but hardly ever making.

Creating is a lost art.

Creating Makes You Generous

What brings me so much joy about teaching little hands to draw and little minds to think in colors and textures is that it is all an exercise in creating, an activity that is seems downright unusual in a world obsessed with consuming.

And the wonderful aspect of creating, especially during the holidays, is that creating is a naturally generous act.  It is the opposite of consuming or taking.  Creating is about giving.  Creations are meant to be shown, heard, tasted, given and shared, rather than hidden and hoarded.  Children naturally want to show off their artwork as soon as they complete it, because they understand the joy of being generous with what they create.

Children who learn to create (and adults who remember to create) possess a commodity that the world is hungry for.  They are able to meet needs, to give rather than just to take, to be generous producers, rather than hungry consumers.

It is More Blessed to Give Than to Receive

We say that it is “more blessed to give than to receive.”  We say that, but I’m not sure that we believe it, considering how much we love receiving.  After all, our holiday of giving thanks very quickly is forgotten as we go on a feeding frenzy of taking.

But anyone who actually creates things knows just how blessed it really is to give!  Creating things to share with others satisfies a deep, primal human need.  Creating is perhaps the most richly satisfying, spiritual, blessed thing a person can do.  Creating really is much more blessed than consuming.  

I am learning this, ever so slowly, along with my students.  I am learning to stop looking at what I want to take and consume, but looking for ways I can create and give and bless others.

Try it this holiday season with me.  You’ll feel blessed.

[photo: Joe Shlabotnik, Creative Commons]

When Parents Are Embarrassed By Their Child’s Art

Remember the days when you went to school.  Probably once a week, you had art class.  You drew and painted and explored and created.

And then you took your work home, proud and eager to show Mom.  And she would gush over it and tell you how proud she was of you.  She might even hang it on the fridge.

Every day that I spend with kids in the art room, I assume this will be the final destination of nearly every project we complete together.  As we paint and draw, the work being done needs to be seen.  It needs to be shared.  Every time I hang a class’s work outside the room, I always get lots of compliments from parents and teachers.  It feels good to be the art teacher.  When the kids’ work looks good, I look good.

So I was surprised recently when a mother came through my door to say, “I am so sorry about my daughter’s project.  It’s embarrassing!”  She let out a laugh as she left my room and walked past her her daughter’s work, hanging with the rest of her class.

What kind of mother would call her own daughter’s artwork embarrassing, much less tell her daughter this?

Could this mother actually be doing her daughter some kind of huge favor?

Embarrassing Ourselves Without Knowing It

The laugh that mother let out reminded me of my own mother.  Dad called it a “bar room” laugh.  It’s a loud, shouting laugh that can be heard over a crowd.  It’s tinged with snark.  It invites other people to laugh along.

I knew I was being invited to laugh along.  Because we weren’t talking about a seven-year-old and her precious fingerpainting.  We were talking about a pre-teen girl.

“I wanted something we could hang up.  This is going straight to her room,” Mom added.

It wasn’t that the work was done poorly.  The quality of the craftsmanship was adequate.  The subject matter was the problem.  The girl was simply fixated on some embarrassing pre-teen idols and icons (you know how preteen girls are), and her work was saturated with it in the most melodramatic way possible.  And there it was, hanging on the wall for Mom and the entire school to see.

This entire exchange made me realize two things:

For All Our Embarrassing Moments

I had wrongly assumed that all the art brought home by students was precious in their mothers’ eyes.  Not this time.  The student will take it home, and Mom will somehow tell her the truth.  She probably won’t laugh in her face, but it will hurt a little bit.

Think of all the moments your parents were there for you in those moments, to tell you that you were embarrassing yourself.

The awkward teenage years when your parents tried to guide you through relationships and general hygiene.  Some of us had a harder time than others.  Sometimes in our younger years, we’d blurt out embarrassing words that we heard at school, and Mom and Dad would deal with that.  All of the stumbles and embarrassments and “accidents”…many times, our parents were there.  In fact, our parents were probably embarrassed more often by us than we were by them.

And as I think back to all the times my dad gently, lovingly, quietly informed me in private that I was embarrassing myself, I shudder to think where I would be if he had just let me keep carrying on in ignorance.

As difficult as it is, we need someone who we trust to tell us we are embarrassing ourselves, to tell us not just that our fly is down, but that we are going the wrong way at something big in life.

Can’t Afford to Be Sentimental

Secondly, we simply cannot afford to be sentimental about everything we do.

Sometimes, what we make is just lousy…

…or embarrassing…

…or just not important.  It’s chaff.

That’s okay, because finding out some work we’ve done is lousy or unimportant is usually a learning and growing experience.  But if we hang dearly onto all the chaff we’re making, we can never distinguish the good from the bad.  We never discover our true gifts and callings.  We never figure out how to really make a great difference in the world.

Not every art project is meant to be hung on the fridge.  They don’t all have to be masterpieces.  Sometimes, it’s better to toss it in the trash and move on.

Do you have someone you trust to tell you that you’re embarrassing yourself?

[photo: lawrence_thefourth, Creative Commons]

Create a Plan ‘A;’ Stick to Plan ‘B’

You would think I was teaching a room full of potato-headed children.

Seriously, self-portraits are a tough thing to teach kids.  We invite them to look at themselves, and recreate what they see.  Most of them end up with potato shaped heads…and a lot of other bizarre physical maladies.  A couple of them look as if they need an exorcist.  Those are the drawings that don’t go on display.  They quietly find their way to the bottom of the stack.

It doesn’t matter that I show them all the mathematical proportions they can use to make their faces come out right.  We’ll just have to call these portraits “abstract.”

The problem most younger kids have is that they are too stuck on their “Plan A.”  That’s why their heads look like vegetables.

It turns out that adults that hold too tightly onto their Plan A don’t usually have vegetable shaped heads, but they aren’t too happy in life either.

Draw Lightly

What do I mean when I say kids are stuck on their Plan A?

Simple.  They press too hard with their pencils.

For the life of me, I cannot get kids to draw lightly.  I tell them to not fall in love with the first mark they make on the paper.  It will probably have to be erased.

Instead, they grit their teeth, mash the lead into the paper until it nearly breaks, make a single stroke on the paper, and they have drawn a head that looks more like food.  They insist that the first mark on their paper will be the right one.  The shape they draw will be correct.

Of course, they immediately see their mistake, but it’s too late.  No eraser can lift such hard pencil marks.  They can try again, but their finished project will have remnants of that first, awful line they drew.  If I give them markers, it’s game over.

Don’t Make Your Mistakes Impossible to Erase

Here’s the thing about real adult life.  Somehow, we learned to put all of our heart and soul into that first pencil mark.  We grit our teeth, press down hard, put all of our might and passion into the first mark we make (and ignore advice from a teacher)…

…And it turns out looking awful.

Our Plan A doesn’t work out.  It doesn’t look good.  And we’ve invested so much into it, we’ve made it really hard to erase.  We’ve chased dreams, made decisions, pursued relationships, learned habits and spent so much time and energy on this thing because we’re so sure that it’s right.  We are sure this is our calling from God almighty.  How could our calling be wrong?

And once we’ve made a mark that indelible, the only thing we know to do is keep pressing forward, no matter how bad it looks.  We can’t admit failure.  We try to convince people that mistake was intentional.  You meant for it to look that way.

The Secret of Plan A

Here’s the secret.

Plan A almost never works out.

There is almost always a detour.

You have to sketch lightly.  You have to erase some marks. You have to be comfortable with letting go of your original plan or your first attempt.

Your first try is going to look kind of bad.  Don’t get too attached to it.  Get ready to erase and try again.  Adults have to unlearn things, back up, try again.

People who have great life stories always say they couldn’t have planned it that way.  That’s because they’re living in Plan B.  Plan B is almost always better than your first plan.  There are other people who did things “their way,” and never compromised, erased a mark, or took a detour…

But they just aren’t as interesting.  And sometimes, their heads look like vegetables.

What are you doing today?  Are you relentlessly pursuing your first plan?  Gripping it so tightly that failure is not an option?  Or are you erasing and starting again, making something better?

[photo: Mr. Mark, Creative Commons]