Unused creativity is not benign. It metastasizes. It turns into grief, rage, judgment, sorrow, shame. We are creative beings. We are by nature creative. It gets lost along the way. It gets shamed out of us.
A couple of years ago I was entertaining the thought of opening an art school. We-ell, that doesn’t quite cover it. I was passionately PLANNING to open an art school, before life and reality brought me to my financial knees. I’d planned to offer classes during the day to children who are homeschooled, special ed classes, afterschool art lessons, camps, etc.
While in the planning stages, I read everything I could get my hands on about arts education. What there still IS of it. I devoured strategies, theories, philosophies. I am not professionally trained, I’d only taught as a volunteer, and I was feeling a little audacious even thinking about undertaking such a thing.
I came across one study that floored me. The researchers found that most children stop drawing for pleasure at age nine. When I first read it, I thought- this CAN’T be true. But the more I sat with it, and thought about my own experiences in the classroom, I realized with a heavy heart; it is. The article theorized the reason is this: by age nine, most children have self-identified as GOOD AT ART, or NOT GOOD AT ART. That’s bad enough. It gets worse. The matrix our kids seem to be using to make that determination is whether or not they are able to draw things realistically. Damn.
I’ve had the opportunity to go back and teach a few kindergarten art classes over the years. I always have the kiddos put their heads down on their desks. I’d say, “Raise your hand if you are an ARTIST!” And all of the little arms would shoot up in the air. All of them. And not just, ‘I *guess* I’m an artist…’ They are not only certain they’re artists, they are pretty sure they’re fan-freaking-tastic. And it is the last year every one of them will answer the question that way, I guarantee it.
I got in the habit of asking it every year, to all the classes I taught, and watched the numbers dwindle as the arms got longer, and elbow-ier. I learned to have them put their hands back down before they raised their heads, and when they sat up I would explain that it was the only question they would be asked in my art lessons that had a right or wrong answer. I would go on to explain that the definition of an artist is someone who creates art. That’s it. So if they had put crayon to paper, picked up a paint brush- or, for that matter, written a poem, sung a song, danced a dance- they were artists.
Why is art one of the only areas of our lives where perfection is the bar? I’ve discussed this with my friend Jim, a professional artist, and he made what I think is an excellent point. He said that anyone can learn to draw something realistically. That’s because drawing realistically is a SKILL not a talent. Just, as he pointed out, like shooting a basket. If you get instruction, and spend the time and discipline required, you will eventually be able to do it. That does not mean you will be Michael Jordan.
You can learn to draw an apple realistically. You can learn about composition and dimension, you can be taught the strategies and methods of shading and value, shape and form, and eventually your apple will look just like an apple. Which is fine, if that’s what you want. Doesn’t mean you will be Picasso.
But, here is the thing. NO ONE IS PICASSO! He was a freak! A unicorn! A triple rainbow! Why is our bar artistic GENIUS? I know lots of kids who have taught themselves to shoot a basket, and even though they’ll never be competitive still enjoy the odd pick-up game. You might not make the high school concert choir, but you probably still sing in the shower or in the car, right? You know why? Because those things are FUN. The *process* of them is FUN. Why are the visual arts different? Because, sadly, they seem to be.
It’s US, you guys. It’s US. WE are the ones praising the apple that “LOOKS JUST LIKE AN APPLE!” And WE are the ones praising talent. No one earns talent. It’s like praising someone for winning the lottery. Congratulate them, sure- but praise? Really?
Reading that article only put into statistics and pie charts what I, as a teacher, already knew to be true- and what I had begun to push back against in my lessons. At a certain point I made a conscious decision to stop praising unearned attributes. I’d had that dope-slap moment where you think, “MY GOD! Of COURSE!” I wouldn’t excessively praise a girl for being pretty, and ignore the children who didn’t win the genetic lottery- because it would be both ridiculous and unkind. Well, being smart is winning the genetic lottery, too. So is being athletic. And so, to a certain extent, is artistic talent.
I began only praising kids for things that they could control, or complimenting them for the choices they’d made artistically. I stopped telling them about their art (OH! I see you drew a house!) and began asking them to tell ME about it (Can you tell me a little about what you’re doing in this piece?) I’d praise them for taking their time, for their persistence, for their creativity. I’d admire their problem solving, their resilience, their bravery. It’s so simple- but you would be amazed at the difference it makes in how a child feels about the artistic process, once they understand that it is ABOUT the process.
So if we’re not praising talent, then why not praise skill- right? That’s a fair question. Because if a child has to work for it, then skill is earned. I think it is fine to praise the initiative, and hard work and practice that enabled them to have that skill. I just take issue with the notion that artistic skill should be the goal for everyone.
It is okay to slap paint on a canvas because it expresses how you feel in a way you cannot do otherwise. It is okay to sink your hands into a mound of cool clay with no other purpose than to experience what it feels like to create in that medium. It is okay to take your pencil for a walk around the page with no intended route or destination. Those things, in and of themselves, are pleasurable and meaningful and have value.
We get so caught up in the pretty. And you can tell a kid their work is great, but if you then gush over that other kid’s drawing that looks JUST LIKE an apple, they know what’s up. And if you make statements about how, “Oh, GOD- I can’t draw a straight line!” or, “I’m no artist!” they internalize it. And they stop drawing. They stop painting, and sculpting. They stop having that creative outlet that feeds a part of us that is usually starving by the time we are adults.
I’ve seen lots of articles aimed at women urging them to stop body shaming themselves in front of their kids. That is seriously good advice. Let’s start to change how kids feel about themselves as creative beings by applying that same idea to art. Let your kids see you drawing or painting and not being your own harshest critic. Because you don’t have to tell them they are not artists to shake their faith in their ability to create, you need only tell them that YOU aren’t.
PS And the next time you get to deciding that the only ‘good’ art is realistic, please remember that Pablo Picasso, arguably the greatest artist of all time, didn’t paint like THIS because he *couldn’t* paint like THIS He painted the first piece when he was an established star in the art world and the second when he was fourteen years old. YOU get to choose whether you want your apple to look like an apple. The art is in the choice.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once he grows up.”