Art and the Sin of Virtuosity.

Sometimes I sit down to write here, thinking I will come up with something brilliant. World-changing. Poetic and practical and beautiful. And I write, and nothing I put down lives up to that expectation. So I stop. I delete it. I spiral into a storm of self-doubt.

There’s this expectation that as a creator, everything one does must be brilliant. Anything less calls one’s entire identity into question, and one thinks: am I really an artist/writer/musician/etc? Should I just stop? Is this a delusion? An overblown hobby that I will never be that good at?

We live with this idea that in order to do something, we must be the best at it. We must always produce something brilliant, and anything that doesn’t measure up to that must be abandoned, hidden away from view. This hiding away only perpetuates the idea that those who are good at their art produce only brilliance. And this increases the shame we feel when we fail to meet that expectation.

This idea is poison.

I would like to hand this over to the brilliant Fred Rogers:

There’s a part of this clip that’s desperately important. It’s where Mr. Rogers says:

“Do you like to draw with crayons? I do. But I’m not very good at it. But it doesn’t matter, it’s just the fun of doing it that’s important.”

This is such a simple yet important lesson, and it’s one that I wish I had internalized as a child. The unfortunate fact of my childhood is that once I displayed creative tendencies, my parents reacted by “fostering” those abilities. What that meant was a combination of pushing me to higher and higher levels of skill while at the same time preparing me for crushing disappointment.

They enrolled me as a second grader in an art class full of middle schoolers, in which I had to perform or be mocked. My instructors showed my initial attempts to the rest of the class and made fun of them; of the proportions and the chunky shading and the inability to draw from life. I stubbornly produced drawing after drawing until my “peers” approved of what I had done. I entered the final product into a contest at a local arts and crafts fair and won the blue ribbon in my age group.

I had learned to draw well, and I had learned to persevere. But I had also learned that the value of creativity was in virtuosity only, and that’s a lesson I carried forward into adulthood.

It is a lie.

Creation is a part of human nature. We are driven to create, always have been, and in all likelihood always will. And this drive itself has value. But as artwork became heavily commoditized, we lost sight of that love of creation and came to see artwork as a container for value only. And this meant that only creations that met the specifications of genius as agreed upon by those that controlled wealth had any value at all.

It didn’t used to be this way.

We used to create art on the handles of spoons and the lintels of our homes and on any number of everyday objects. We did this not for the purpose of capturing value or earning accolades, but because it brought joy and beauty into our worlds.

This is something I thought a lot about while I was in Bhutan. The Bhutanese decorate not just their temples and monasteries, but their homes, too. You can see paintings on the walls of the four auspicious animals as well as the famous phalluses. If you look closely at the work, it’s not always skilled (though sometimes it is). Virtuosity is not a requirement.

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Bhutanese Phallus Painting

The work follows certain traditions, and you will see the same motifs repeated from monastery to monastery, from stupa to stupa.

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Detail Painting From a Bhutanese Stupa

This is a fulfillment of the human drive to create. It’s also a reason why I do not rail against religion, like some of the “new atheist” crowd. But that’s for a later post.

The point is that these motifs weren’t painted because someone thought others thought they would be technically “good,” they are painted out of a kind of devotion and a drive for creation. This is something we once called “folk art,” which is different from what is now sold online as folk art. Decoration of practical, everyday items for the purpose of beautification.

Nothing you ever make is going to be perfect. Make it anyway. As you progress in your art, what you’ve done in the past may seem embarrassingly bad, and that’s okay. It only means that you’ve grown in your craft. Approach your creative work as a devotional to the human spirit. Offer it up because it is what you have to offer, and it is uniquely yours, and that matters.

And whatever you do, keep creating. The world needs it.

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