General 10-26-2006

The Column: Where Do Artists Come From?

Michael Fallon writes on how artists are made, or not made: America both loves and distrusts art, it seems. Stay tuned: Michael's next column takes this subject further. And please comment in the Articles Forum about your own art initiation.

Michael Fallon

FALL IS THE SEASON OF STUDENTS. Everywhere, a renewed sense of purpose replaces the lightheartedness of summer, and lazy, warm-day schedules give way to errands: shopping for clothes and school supplies, slogging to bus stops and school crossings, scrambling over homework and chores, and going to soccer practice and parent-teacher meetings.

The arts are not immune to this renewal of purpose and expectation. Galleries and museums put into motion, after the long summer slowdown, their new exhibition seasons. Performance groups that were either on hiatus or off touring at festivals now begin to gear up for the main attractions of the year. Non-profit arts agencies begin work on new budgets, fundraising campaigns, annual appeal mailings, and big winter galas. At foundations and government agencies, deadlines for arts grant proposals grow nigh. The local state arts board, and its regional affiliated entities, begins to sweat the looming legislative call for budget requests. In other words, in fall artists, arts programmers, and arts lovers swell with hope for and anxiety over a better, more financially stable, more generally appreciated slate of arts offerings.

Every fall at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), incoming students are greeted with a fanfare worthy of dignitary designates. A weekend-long orientation for new students kicks off on the last Friday of August with a party for more than 300 people in the school’s quadrangle. As a battalion of volunteers grill burgers and brats at two large sideways oil drums and a hip jazz combo plays in the quad’s corner, administrators, instructors, and current students dressed in bright yellow shirts buzz around tables of newbies and their parents looking to answer any question and offer any assistance. The atmosphere is more akin to the first day of the State Fair than the beginning of an academic year.

Every year in early September, the youth symphony organization I currently work for organizes the first day of rehearsals at a local junior and senior high school in Saint Paul. Nearly four hundred students, many of their parents, a slew of symphony workers and support staff, and scores of volunteers ascend on the campus, filling the foyers, classrooms, auditoriums, and cafeterias with nervous and bated excitement.

Younger kids follow their parents into the rehearsal site like bear cubs following she-bears. They bump into their parents’ behinds as they look distractedly at the surroundings. More experienced students, meanwhile, come mostly alone, rear-view mirroring themselves in their parked cars, then smoothing their hair and blouses and slinging their instruments like hunting weapons over their shoulders before crossing the parking lot. Inside, they glower at the younger kids and the parents, hiding relief that they’ve graduated from that age. Yet, when the older kids discover their friends they drop the gruff façades and become breathless with news and gossip. “Oh my gosh, this is like ‘Cheers,” one girl says to a friend, presumably because everybody knows her name.

As the morning progresses, confusion mounts along with the numbers of students and parents. Registration lines grow and wrap into the hallway, and the information desk is under constant bombardment. After a time, several children, freed from the overseers who have paid their tuition, draw out instruments, test bows and reeds and apertures, and begin to practice their scales. The school soon becomes filled with a tentative thrum of musical sounds, an unpracticed noise that adds to the tumult but is somehow expectant of better, more melodious music. Then, almost as if on some secret cue, the chaos subsides. The kids, warmed up now, find their way to their respective orchestras. The older students trudge to the more expert symphonies in the cafeteria, the only space large enough to hold them, while the younger kids go to the school’s main auditorium just off the main foyer.

There are about sixty players in the youngest symphony, which is comprised solely of string players. The conductor, a robust Irish woman, instructs them with a resonant voice in the basics of orchestral etiquette, behavior, and technique. For many of these kids, this is their first experience in such a controlled group artistic endeavor. In the audience of the auditorium about thirty parents are scattered about, busy working on laptops, reading newspapers, or attending to a younger sibling or two. One parent in the back of the room is simultaneously flipping through Fortune magazine and checking stocks on the Internet. Most hardly seem to notice what’s happening on stage.

When the conductor concludes her litany of rules and expectations, she taps her baton on the podium, barks quick instructions, and the kids begin to play scales. The music is halting and uncertain, but it fills the auditorium with enough of a hint of potential symphonic magic that it grabs the attention of everyone in the auditorium. Momentarily, fleetingly, every parent, sibling, and staff person in the room smiles at the first significant musical sounds these kids have ever made, the first hint at real artistry. These simple musical scales are the earliest sign to these parents of a return on the long and sizeable investment they’ve made in their child’s lessons and instruments.

IT IS PERHAPS IMPOSSIBLE TO CHARACTERIZE in a general way why and how a young art lover makes the transition to become an adult practitioner of art—whether it be violin playing, pot throwing, iron casting, tap dancing, watercolor painting, or street busking. Childhood enthusiasms for these sorts of things, after all, come and go nearly as quickly as candy bars, and the youthful enthusiasms nurtured in many of us through school or after school lessons or weekend classes at the rec center are usually eventually lost to adult concerns about the commute to work, the mortgage, Timmy’s braces, the price of oil.

I recall an episode of the 1960s-nostalgia TV sitcom, “The Wonder Years,” that dramatized the decision that every arts-curious person faces at some point in life. In a 1989 episode called “Coda,” the adult Kevin Arnold muses about his experiences in 1968 as a 10-year-old piano student of Mrs. Carples:

When you’re a little kid, you’re a little bit of everything: Artist, Scientist, Athlete, Scholar. Sometimes it seems like growing up is a process of giving those things up, one by one. I guess we all have one thing we regret giving up; one thing we really miss – that we gave up because we were too lazy, or because we couldn’t stick it out, or because we were afraid.

Something about this voiceover speech stuck with me through the intervening seventeen years—through four years of graduate school spent craning over printing presses, easels, and work benches, through more than a half-dozen years as a practicing artist huffing my portfolio all over and wheedling gallerians for a chance to show the work, and through another seven years as a writer about art. The speech stuck with me even as I took the path that Kevin Arnold presumably didn’t, pursuing the one thing I would have missed giving up. While I myself can hardly say why I decided to dedicate the greater part of my adult life to visual art, and I can say it’s a choice I’ve regretted time and again, I suppose if given the chance I’d make the same decision.

Despite my personal choice, I have no idea what causes someone else to attempt the career leap into the artists’ pond. I did so because I simply had to, but I have no idea if there’s something measurable, some certain presence (or absence) of a brain chemical that may be easily treated with a pill or lobotomy perhaps, or if there’s a yearning fixed on the soul, as some have suggested, of certain particular individuals. I can’t tell you what blend of factors—whether it be basic talent, innate interest, a key amount of validation and encouragement from above—produce the perfect conditions for an artist to sprout. I don’t know if an artist is born or is created by circumstance.

If the youth symphony is any gauge, many young practitioners of the art of symphonic music are nudged into it by their parents. In fact, the number of parents seeking to finagle opportunities for their kids’ advancement in and through the symphony strikes me as surprisingly high. At a parents’ meeting during the first rehearsal the room is filled with more than seventy eager faces. Among their questions are a number about the potential for upward movement through the various orchestras, about the specific details regarding attendance requirements, and about the first parent-student class the youth symphony offers this year: “How to select a college or conservatory.”

This nudging is understandable perhaps—even given the sad condition of the professional art market—because, as every parent knows, arts involvement in youth may correlate to success in life, even for students of lower socio-economic backgrounds. However, such parental faith in the benefits of the arts to their children can be problematic. A parent or other encourager unaware of the amount of effort it takes to nurture and hone an artistic skill may push too hard and expect mastery to come almost immediately, something mature art practitioners know does not often happen. This pressure causes undue stress and discouragement for the child and anyone involved in the process, and may turn a burgeoning art appreciation into a sense of failure and cynicism about art.

Alternatively, and perhaps more problematically, occasionally the desired effect is achieved, and the arts-enlightened child thrives and eventually is safely ensconced at Brown or Duke or Berkeley or Princeton. At this point, it can be common for parents to withdraw their support of the child’s art habit and insist the kid move on to study something more conducive to getting a job. This sudden loss of support of an art practice can be traumatic and jarring to a young adult, particularly one who has truly caught the art bug and simply wants to find a way to continue an art practice. At MCAD’s orientation party I spoke with one uncertain incoming student, named Jennifer, who seemed worried that her father did not support her decision to go to art school. “Mom supports me 100 percent, dad not so much,” she said. “He wants me to do what I want to do, but he’s not so artsy.” Such a loss of support also happened to me. Once my grandparents and parents found out I had no intention of pursuing a pre-med major, as they had long planned for me, all their years of interest and support of my art making suddenly withered.

This parental bait-and-switch—predicated by the desire to use art as an agent for their children’s individual advancement, rather than as an end in itself—may help explain a strange American paradox. According to recent studies by the Urban Institute and the Rand Corporation, Americans say they overwhelmingly love art but do not care much at all for the makers of art. For example, 96 percent of survey respondents were “greatly inspired by various kinds of art” and “highly value art in their lives and communities,” but only 27 percent of respondents said they believe that “artists contribute to the good of society.” Further survey results showed that Americans do not value art making as legitimate work worthy of compensation, and many see it as a frivolous or recreational pursuit. This, even as a majority of parents think that teaching the arts is as important as reading, math, science, history, and geography, and as 95 percent of parents believe that the arts are important in preparing children for the future.

So, in sum, we nearly universally seek to expose our kids to the joys and pleasures of the arts and celebrate their involvement with art, yet we also widely disdain adult practitioners of such art forms. Come try making art, it’s good for you, we say to our to our most impressionable citizens-to-be. Just don’t get too attached, because my support for art only goes so far. Is there any better example of the ironic and paradoxical relationship of modern Americans to the arts than this?