Hey, SASD! March is Youth Art Month, which is a big deal for art students and art teachers, but it might not be a big deal for you. It should be and here's why.
When we see art that moves us or pleases us, we want to acknowledge that. We want to tell the artist. This is especially true with the young artists, the student artists, in our lives. Brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, sons and daughters- we feel compelled to praise the amazing things they've made, but do we take the time to really appreciate those things first? Do we think about what we really want to say and what we really want them to hear from us? Time and again, people toss off compliments to student artists that are well-intended, but aren't really compliments.
'You're so talented!'
'That's actually not bad!'
'I could never do that!'
'Could you just...?"
"You're so talented!"
The implication of this statement is that one has a gift from a higher power and that all of the practice, the overcoming of failure, and hours of deep reflection have little to do with it. One may have a gift, but a gift alone goes nowhere without hard work. And student artists work hard. Many, many hours are spent honing skills. If it's a creative work, lots of thought and practice are required to develop effective compositions and to learn how to use visual cues to carry forward ideas. It isn't just talent that makes all of that happen.
"That's actually not bad!"
Don't sound so surprised! This is really a backhanded compliment. The implication is that the art-maker has surprised us by being able to do something well. Turn that telescope around and it would be really easy to develop the impression that we don't generally think of that art-maker as a capable person. We may not mean it that way, but it sure sounds like it. We need to be aware that a less than thoughtful intention to say something complimentary could end up sending the opposite message.
"I could never do that!"
We should keep that one to ourselves. Why? Because it's about us, not about the art or the artist. The fact of the matter is that most people could make art, but they don't choose to focus on developing those skills and thought processes. That's why we should value it. Becoming an artist involves an uncommon set of choices that not every one of us is willing to make. Artmaking results in a public display of very personal things. Picasso said, "Art is a lie that tells the truth." Art is an attempt by artists to tell us all a greater truth... about the artist, about the times, about humanity. Few of us even try to do that, so we should celebrate those who do.
"Could you just...?"
This is a big one and a lot of us do it. It's intended to be the biggest compliment, a vote of confidence in an artist's ability, but it can create real resentment.
"Could you just draw me a pirate for my bulletin board?"
"Could you just make a sign for the rummage sale?"
"Could you just paint a backdrop for the church play?"
While the person speaking intends to convey that they understand that the maker is good at what they do, the word "just" disqualifies all of the time and effort that goes into it. There is a big difference between "Could you make a sign for me?" and "Could you JUST make a sign for me?" While the first doesn't implicitly acknowledge an effort, the second one explicitly states that very little effort will be required... and that isn't true.
Artists often labor over even simple visual decisions. They care deeply about visual things. To a non-artist, making art might seem like effortless magic, but it isn't. To many artists, all visual things, no matter the requestor's intention or investment, are a big deal. That doesn't mean never ask anyone to do anything, but it does mean that we should be aware of what we are asking. We should appreciate that we are asking a person to do a special kind of work that we may not be able to do ourselves.
'Joe, I've been asking people to give a couple of hours or donate something to sell at the rummage sale. I was wondering if you'd be willing to help us out by making a sign.'
Why point these things out? Just to complain? To make people feel bad?
No, the answer is simple: it's Youth Art Month. If we'd all take a few minutes over this month to reflect on those who make art and ask ourselves (and them) why they do it, we might come to place more value in those artistic efforts. If we examine a work of art simply for what it is, and not for how it compares to what we ourselves do, we might develop more appreciation for the thought and skill needed to make it. If we'd celebrate young artists' hard work, their emotional struggles, their risk-taking, and their unique points-of-view, we might bring ourselves a lot closer to understanding those young artists in our lives.