ART: The “Get Out of Jail Free” Card

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(From a keynote speech for Cal Lutheran University, given on November 2, 2013)

When you attend an arts symposium or an event of that kind, you want to come away being inspired; you want to reach the point where you can no longer stomach being talked to about art and creativity.  You want a saturation point to be reached, and to finally get into action and start doing a little creating yourself.  Right?

Art is one of those things that is kind of irresistible to talk about, like gardening and cooking and and skydiving and just about anything you’d rather not do right now.

That’s why we have to be kind of careful, all of us, particularly me, not to just blather on about it without some over-arching purpose.  And with an eye on the clock.

I plan to reach that point of overstaying my welcome as soon as possible, so that possibly some creativity can have a chance to flourish.

I was very fortunate to grow up in a household that was prejudiced in favor of artistic activity.

My mom, Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actress Marion Ross, was a working actress back then (still is, at 85) and she had a policy of allowing me to drop my responsibilities if they got in the way of my drawing and painting, or making little super 8 movies, or puppets, or radio shows on the cassette player. 

I couldn’t drop ALL my responsibilities, but then, I didn’t actually have very many.  The ones I had, though, could all go to blazes when I was creating.

She let me stay up to all hours when I had to work on a piece of writing or a painting project.  That actually did me more good in the long run than even the short term; I was raised with the experience that artistic expression, no matter how underdeveloped or untrained, was not only something to be tolerated, but it could even be abused and still not get you into trouble. 

Not in my house, anyway.

Art was a kind of “Get out of jail free card.”  That may be one of it’s biggest benefits.

So, obviously it had worth greater than the sum of its parts.

It was worth more than obeying the rituals of youth, the bedtimes, the chores, the baths and the “now I’m supposed to’s.”  It was worth more than, “Don’t make a mess on the dining room table” and “why are you keeping that weird piece of foam rubber?”

I really thought everyone was raised that way.  It was in the sixties, so I’m sure a few more of us were raised that way than are today.

The main danger facing kids today is the apparency that “everything has already been done, so why bother.”  The “Why bother” atmosphere that kids are going to be combatting all their young lives is the thing I would most like to proof them up against, and it’s up to us as members of the tribe of humanity to do something about.

Why bother writing a song if it takes a studio and a lot of technology to mix it right so it sounds like a song on iTunes?  Why write a story if there were already a ton of stories and they’ve even been made into movies and stuff?

Why paint ANYTHING anymore, if everyone’s phone can take an awesome picture, and you can share it in a nanosecond with the whole world and then we can forget about it and move on?

There have always been lots of excuses NOT to draw, write, paint, tell stories, perform, create.  With the digital age, suddenly the excuses NOT to do something have gone viral.

But still we have this urge to make things and to observe things others have made…  And the wisdom, the lessons learned, the best practices, may or may not mention this fact: you don’t need an excuse to create.  You don’t need any reason at all.  And it is a very healthy thing to do.  It is, in fact, the way OUT of most problems.

But, in this super technological culture, which more and more demands our actions fit into a tightly proscribed template, creativity can start to look glaringly like deviant activity.

In some circles, being deviant becomes the game, so closely are the arts linked to the worst aspects of their reputation.

Creativity is FUN, and that’s where I think the trouble starts.

Things that have, as one of their chief attributes, that they are FUN are already suspicious.  That’s a positioning problem.  FUN things have not always enjoyed a respectable reputation, so many things that are not licentious, criminal, or unsanitary have wrongly been lumped into the same bin as other activities that ARE.

I was one of those kids who liked to sit and draw for hours.  I didn’t know about the “Ten thousand hour” rule about attaining proficiency, but if you had told me that that’s about what I’d have to spend drawing, I’d have been fine with it.

I did it because it was FUN.

I quickly developed an identity; you know how it is, you start to do something a lot as a young person, and everybody wants to label you with it,  cheerleader, class clown, snake handler, cartoonist.  That was me.

I realize now several things about the advantages of the arts in my upbringing.  One thing is that I got to work out a lot of painful, weird and personal stuff on my own, thru my drawings.  How does this work mechanically?  I think you learn about what is stuck to you and making you feel insecure first by pulling it out in front of you and having a good look at it.

It’s like a download.  From your mind, where it’s mixed up with a lot of other files of one kind or another, to your desktop, your ACTUAL desktop, where you can confront it, alter it, show it to somebody, or do whatever you want with it.

When a kid has a nightmare, for instance, it’s kind of therapeutic to be able to draw a monster out of your head: it might be the same kind of monster, but now YOU are in control of it. AND it’s a lot smaller, and you can even crumple it up if you want.

The ancient Egyptians would depict things in their wall paintings and sculptures with status expressed in terms of size; the bigger the figure, the more important.  Made a lot of their public artwork look like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  But it works. 

Same thing as a little kid taking some unsettling feeling or worry they have, turning it into a little cartoony monster and drawing it on a Post-it. 

Instant reduced status!

If you show it to your brother and he says, “Awesome!  Draw that on my arm!” so much the better.

The things that bother us most in growing up are those unspoken, undefined things that defy description and understanding; drawing and painting and sculpture are fast ways to bring expression to these mysterious things, and in doing so, render them less powerful.

People who draw at an early age are flexing their communication muscles, even if they are somewhat apt to be withdrawn in person.  Kids like me, who spent hours creating little cartoon panels with characters and speech balloons like those in MAD magazine, are learning how to tell stories.  They are developing visual language skills that probably can’t be learned any better any other way.

I used to look at MAD’s Mort Drucker cartoons, those amazing movie satires, and just get lost in the drawings.  He’s one of those guys who developed a completely unique visual language of his own, like Al Hirschfeld of the New York TImes, or Picasso for that matter.  I still think his style of cartooning is transcendent, and, although I have secretly been trying for almost 45 years, I still can’t duplicate it.

So, storytelling is a good something to know.  Ask J.K. Rowling if you doubt that.

And then there are the fifteen billion other little life lessons that art can teach you.  Stuff you don’t even know you don’t know.  That NOBODY knows we don’t know.  Stuff that has never even been considered before. 

Art helps you confront those right-now, precise, meant-for-you-only, needs.

What do I mean?

Well, just for example.  We say, painting teaches one about color and light and all that stuff.

But it also teaches you about finding a model who is willing to sit for very little money, or setting up a still life that won’t rot in a week.  About offering your model a cup of cocoa.  About budgeting your time so you actually have TIME to paint, about taking praise graciously, about accepting or not accepting criticism.  About pricing your art in case, God forbid, someone wants to buy it… hey- it’s how a lot of us learned to make change! 

You learn about thicknesses, measurements, consistency, gravity, drying rate, keeping tools clean, earning money to buy more tools to get them all messy and then learn how to keep them clean like your other tools that you learned how to clean.

You learn about storage, chemistry, and about mistakes.  You REALLY learn from the mistakes.  The childhood mistakes I learned from are the ones I cherish most.

Like the mistake of letting a cat into your workspace.

We had cats all my young life and they are beautiful, selfish things that are themselves some sort of weird live work of art.

When I was in Jr. High school, I was a cartoonist for the school paper and I notice that whenever I would draw something important with my Rapidograph ink pens, and left the room for any amount of time, invariably a cat would come and lie down on it. 

I believe that cats have a kind of specialized vision that allows them to detect where a human being has been directing a lot of concentrated attention; it must leave a kind of luminous stain. 

It’s how cats decide the best place to lie down, so that they can bathe in the attention that human beings emanate.

So, never leave a wet ink drawing anywhere near a cat.  It never improves the drawing.

Mistakes are what childhood is all about, as far as I can tell.  Artistic mistakes are usually a lot safer than, say, dirt-biking mistakes or chain saw mistakes. 

Artistic mistakes can even be profitable someday, down the line, when you pick them up again and notice they have a kind of child-like brilliance.  Maybe.

But to make profitable mistakes, a kid first has to have some possibility of some mistakes to make, and that requires the time and tolerance, from parents and teacher, for the kid to make mistakes.  Not the mistakes YOU think they should make, but the mistakes that only THEY would ever make.  Not YOUR old mistakes, either, the ones that changed your life and that altered the course of your existence forever, but THEIR mistakes.

That should have been part of the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights; the right to make one’s own artistic mistakes in the pursuit of happiness.

Of course, we are a nation addicted to criticism and advice.  It’s a disease.

In the field of the arts, criticism does not have just NO place, it’s SO damaging that it deserves to have a NEGATIVE place, a place where if it should appear, it should instantly be sucked into another dimension.

How would you like it if someone asked you a question and then told you how you should have answered it?  Well, that’s just ordinary schooling, that’s tests and quizzes and exams, you say, that’s the backbone of the whole operation, how ELSE are you going to be able to tell if the child has learned?

“You have to tell them when they got it wrong, don’t you?  That’s what they did to ME, so…”

Fine.  Math, science, geography, chemistry, biology, fine.  Football, basketball, FINE.

Not, PLEASE, the arts.

By the standards of Right and Wrong, how Right is Picasso’s Guernica?  How Wronger is than Botticelli’s Birth of Venus?  How much Better than a Goya is a Michelangelo? 

Well, I put it to you that, just as you would not give the time of day to anyone who would criticize the way you just told your sweetheart how much you love them, no artist-in-training, young or old should have to give a nano-second of their day to anyone who purports to pass judgement on their artistic expression. 

It’s ART.  It’s the get out of jail free card, man!

Which, if you agree, or even if you don’t, raises the interesting question: Who of us has the self control to let a child draw, paint and write any way they want to without interfering or giving them a little pointer or too?

That’s Herculean.  Anybody that can do has my respect.  Not even I, your humble keynote speaker, can claim a clean record with my own child.

Criticism is fashionable, and in the same way that  we lament the clothing fashions of the 80’s, (and particularly the photographic evidence that we wore that stuff) we will come to regret our over-indulgences.

It’s part of our crazy, mixed up culture- the knee-jerk impulse to evaluate another’s creation!  It’s a disease!

It may be very amusing to watch as an outsider, to see someone who is a dreadful singer roasted by some critic on a TV program not to be named, but it is absolutely toxic to a young artist.

Again, my mother was one in a billion.  She never said anything to me about my drawings that wasn’t complimentary.  She must have known the power she held, that the smallest indication of disapproval or even disinterest might have switched off the light inside me. 

Rare were the times she didn’t just say “That’s marvelous!” when I showed her something I had made.

Was she biting her tongue?  I have no idea.  Doubtless, sometimes she was.  Probably everytime she had to clean the ink off the cat.

And you know what?  I was always very eager to show her my work.  And it encouraged  me to do more and more and more work.  And then I started to show it to other people, because by that time experience and ART had shown me that what I was producing was NOT something to be ashamed or embarrassed of, that it had some merit.  And it came from ME.  So, maybe my point of view had some worth.

I think they call that “Self esteem”.  Well, I guess you can give someone a drug to momentarily boost their sensation of self esteem, or you can allow them to cultivate their own, inexhaustible supply.

In conclusion…

Creative work is like a trickle of water.  Let it trickle long enough and it can cut a path thru rock, thru walls, thru discouragement and opposition… 

it’s a positive kind of flow that heals as it spreads.

Don’t stop the flow.

Are you tired of reading by now?  Wouldn’t you rather be messing around with oils or watercolors or yarn or your Wacom tablet?  I hope so.

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Published in: on November 2, 2013 at 12:37 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Jim, the forming Central Ohio School for the Arts would benefit greatly from you being at least on an Advisory Board or some such role; your experiences are valuable. Mike

  2. Your Mom saw the light, Jim… in YOU. Awesome story & thanks… I only came back to write this AFTER I messed around with some post-it notes – putting them up all over the walls with love messages… that was fun.
    thank you.

  3. Excellent!

  4. Thank you for another dose of supreme inspiration and the reassurance that the frequent messes around my house (e.g., pop up pet shops, homemade storybooks, drawings & art covering the kitchen walls, movies made with stuffed animals and toy dragons) are a normal and welcome site in the home that we truly “live” in. My 10 year old daughter’s dream is to one day prove that dragons really existed. I tell her I hope she does!

  5. Thanks, Jim! That was inspiring, funny, and just delightful. Your mom is something else! Now to get to my art work…


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