December 4, 2015

What if I'm Not Good at Art?

As an art educator, I've often heard the question asked, "Why should I take an art class if I'm not good at art?" The question is raised in at least two different contexts. The first context is when students who are being required to take a gen-ed art class make it known that they'd really rather stick a fork in their eye. The second context is from people of any age who are interested in art, but feel that a lack of talent would prohibit them from learning anything.

To answer the question with a blanket "yes" would be to oversimplify. So just to be thorough, we need to first address each context in which the question might be asked. To the reluctant students in the gen-ed art class, it needs to be made apparent that artistry is, in one respect, a life skill. Whether or not a student is good at math has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not he has to take Algebra. I realize there isn't exactly a 1:1 comparison between Algebra and Drawing, but in what other discipline is a lack of skill a legitimate excuse not to take a class? If that logic were applied to all of life consistently, we'd move through adulthood in an infantile mental state, refusing to learn anything we don't already like. (I'll refrain from commenting as to how accurately this describes the human race in general...)

To those who want to learn art, but don't feel qualified, there's no entrance exam. I've had students of all skill levels, and rest assured I'd rather have a student with little talent who wants to learn than a student with ability who refuses to learn. Students very often surprise themselves (and their instructors!). Especially in the last century, the artistic "elite" have cultivated the myth that artistic and creative skill is in-born, and that an education can do little else but squash our creativity. To put it bluntly, this is a lie. (Talent may be in-born, but skills are learned through instruction, experimentation, and repeated practice.) We all have to start somewhere, and as much as I'd like you to think that I was born with a brush in my hand, the truth is that I've come a very long way since drawing potato-head people with crayons. And most of that distance I did not cover on my own.

I'm not saying that anyone can paint like Rembrandt. But I am saying that anyone can learn, and anyone can improve as long as he is willing.

So to answer the question as honestly as possible, I would say that in most circumstances, taking an art class or two would be beneficial both to the individual and to society as a whole. For anyone who can maintain an open mind and has even the slightest interest in the arts, I believe it is prudent to invest in some basic, foundational art classes.

Now, pragmatic people in either context still want to know what utility there is in studying art. I remember those futile words escaping my lips more than once—"Why do we have to learn this, anyway? It's not like we're ever going to use Calculus." The truth is, beauty can be an end unto itself, so sometimes art defies utility (e.g., the Grand Canyon is beautiful, but it doesn't fulfill a function other than to glorify the Creator). But other kinds of art are functional. They communicate information, evoke emotions, and inspire devotion. A positive side effect of learning more about art is that you'll become more fluent in the visual language that is being employed all around us. We're visual creatures. We aren't all expected to be poets, but we're all expected to read. Communication is built into our humanity that way. I think a little artistic literacy would go a long way toward making the world a more beautiful and meaningful place to live.

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