Saturday 15 March 2014

Learning the Language

Performance Anxiety
photo collage
I was in a broker’s office recently talking business and staring at walls so bare and so… beige that I thought I was in Nowhere Land. There were a couple of badly framed things on the walls, diplomas or permits or something, and they conveyed not a feeling of accomplishment and qualification, but one of compliance and indifference. When I had to wait for papers to be gotten or computers to be consulted, I sat staring at the walls and wondered at their blankness.
This person is one of those who handle my money. Money, after all, relates to Culture, and in my life, Art plays the major role in allowing me to earn it. Also, at the very least I’d expect to see some sign of creativity, of imagination and flexibility in this place where someone is entrusted with investing money for me.  To see absolutely none was… distressing.
            I knew this has been this person’s office for years; it struck me as strange. I finally had to say something. I asked, “Have you thought about putting paintings up?”
The answer startled me. “Oh, we’re into sports,” she said.
I said, “Oh, great, so am I. But what about art?” 
“We go skiing, play tennis, you know, we’re busy,” was the response, as if that explained everything.
“Well then, how about putting up photographs of that?’ I asked encouragingly.
“Photographs?” the broker asked as if confounded.
Changing tack, I asked, “Don’t your children make art projects at school? Maybe those? You can get nice frames everywhere now,” I suggested. Because she handles money, I added, “Cheap.”
A frown appeared on the broker’s face. “Children? In an office? Anyway, my daughter has so many sports activities…” then her face brightened. “She’s learning to play a musical instrument actually. The school psychologist suggested it because she was... difficult. We had to force her to take lessons but she’s really serious about practicing now,” she said. “I think she’ll come to like it.”
I smiled, encouraged. “Sports, music, that’s very good. What about art?”
After a moment she said, “My daughter loves to draw. She’s always doodling, even when she talks on the phone.”
At last! “Exactly!” said I.
“She wanted what she calls ‘real’ lessons but since she loves it, she doesn’t really need them. Anyway, her schoolteacher says she has natural talent,” was the response.
“Really?” I said. Oh my gosh, I thought. How to do this gently? I said, “You love dealing with money, don’t you?”
“Always have,” she agreed.
I pointed to one of the diplomas on the wall, “But you got a degree.”
 “Of course,” she answered as if insulted. Then she turned pink, “Oh. I see. But she’s so busy already!”
“How many sports does she need? Maybe she’d be happy to replace one for art lessons?” I suggested.
“Replace sports?” she said as if I’d suggested something distasteful. “ She’s on teams! We love to ski! We love hockey! We love soccer and tennis!”
“Yes, but does your daughter?” I asked. “Does she more than drawing?”           
“It’s just drawing,” the broker said defensively.           
Just drawing. Just art? Them’s fighting words. On the child’s behalf, I put forth my take on things.
People seem to take the absence of visual art from their lives in stride. It’s ‘just art’, after all, nothing to miss, right? Everyone is naturally creative, right? It seems a majority of people I speak to who find out I am an artist tell me they COULD have been artists, they were that talented as children. Their eyes gaze wistfully into space and there follows a description of their talent, or of the amazing piece they made in grade four, or five… but then, they blink and tell me a teacher intimidated them or a critique crushed their confidence, or they didn’t get a prize, or a parent pointed out the eventual life of misery and starvation, or it took too much effort to learn the techniques...
It’s ok, it’s not important they continue, and proceed to tell me they dream of going back to their art when they retire to make extra money. That’s ironic, because, when asked why they don’t take courses just to keep it up, they insist, “Oh, I have no talent.” And when they’re asked why they don’t go to galleries or museums, or why they don’t buy other people’s art, if they’re honest they say, “I don’t get it.” If they’re not honest they say, “It’s all crap today!”
They seem to sweep all of the visual arts into the “maybe when I retire” box, but then accuse the art they see by others of being undecipherable even though they are the ones who have not kept up with it.
Pity. Pity because this abandonment means that too many people become adults who are visually illiterate. They can read, they can write, they can count (maybe), but can they see beyond what they are shown? They become compliant consumers, unable to imagine alternatives to what manufacturers choose to mass produce; they accept the loss of culture in their education in the name of ‘employability’; they become aggressively competitive rather than developing a good-natured complicity in their sports; they are unable to see that some things don’t fit their lives or personalities, no matter how many other people have them. They also come to view difference as threatening and to try to eliminate it rather than being curious about it or even tolerant of it.
Art (and therefore culture) becomes a language they cannot understand beyond the limited vocabulary of elementary or high school. Their opinion of it becomes closed, arrogant, even dogmatic, If and when they return to art making in retirement, they find they can only pick up where they left off as children, if they remember it; if they don’t learn to hate it. They come to being blind to the fact that blank walls surround them.
“If you put it that way,” said the broker once I was done.
I found out that since our conversation last year, her daughter has been happily taking at classes, and the girl’s drawings and paintings are now framed and hanging in their living room. Art images apparently now adorn the broker’s office beside pictures of athletes, communicating both thoughtfulness and achievement.
I am delighted. There is hope!

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