Last week Drew McManus wrote a post about the value society places on arts practitioners. He referenced an article he saw in a You’ve Cott Mail newsletter about a teacher who urged kids who wanted to pursue creative careers to have a back-up plan and asked if anyone could provide a link.
I did remember the article and tried my darnedest to find it again. I didn’t have it bookmarked as I had thought, but had done so with a similar article on Salon that started with an anecdote of a parent who was panicked when her son said his favorite subject in school was art.
That article noted that while people assume innovation comes from the science lab, it is the artistic habit which often fuels that innovation.
The external binaries of right and wrong don’t exist in art as they do in most subjects. In math, the answer to the problem is correct or incorrect. In history, a sequence of events is true or false. In art, only the student can decide what critique to listen to and what to ignore. Art is the arena of activity where we develop the skill most required to innovate — the ability to harness our own agency.
Artist and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard P. Feynman put it this way as he distinguished between teaching science and art: in physics, Feynman said, “we have so many techniques — so many mathematical methods — that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, ‘Your lines are too heavy,’ because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines.” In that moment, the art student is learning the validity of their choices, their own direction, and innovative results.
This particular section resonated for me because it seems that education is promulgating the idea of answers being right or wrong as testing becomes more prevalent and valued.
The Salon article goes on to cite a number of scientists who have artistic avocations which they credit with contributing to their scientific accomplishments. This isn’t new, we have often heard about how Einstein played the violin. Probably the biggest failing of the arts community is constantly going to Einstein as their example rather than citing a wider variety of scientists like astronaut Mae Jemison who is quoted in the article saying that the imagination that fueled the creation of sculpture and dance got the space shuttle flying.
To my mind, saying artists need a back up plan is really just an indelicate way of saying they need to be well rounded. I am not trying to inject some political correctness here because the truth is, everyone needs to be well rounded. I think it is Sir Ken Robinson who points out we have no idea what skills people will need 30 years in the future so it is best to teach everyone to be curious and teach themselves.
While there are plenty of artists who engage in a myopic pursuit of their discipline, in my view, the liberal and fine arts education community on the whole does a better job of making its members well rounded than science and business disciplines. Perhaps because few people tell science and business students they need to broaden their experience by having a back up plan.
Just last week a student was sitting in the lobby telling her music professor that she wanted to go to a conservatory so she wouldn’t have to take English and Philosophy courses. He informed her that wasn’t necessarily so since he attended a conservatory and had to take those classes. There was also the issue that as an acting student, those courses would actually inform her work down the road.
Only a week or so earlier, this same student listened to a pianist who had performed a concert for us talk about how she double majored when she was at the Peabody Institute both because she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be a pianist and she had many other interests. While she ultimately committed to the piano, she said she felt that her other course work gave her an advantage over her other classmates in terms of the opportunities she had available.
But last week our student was thinking about the difficult time she was having in class, not about this bigger career picture. Students need to be pushed to take a wide variety of classes rather than taking the path of least resistance. Framing this in terms of “a back up plan” does a disservice to their interests because it diminishes their passion for the arts.
But it also diminishes the “back up plan” by playing into that binary sense of right and wrong. If you think the arts taste sweet, then setting up anything else as the “back up” option when you fail at being an artist makes it the bitter pill that has to be swallowed.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea that an interest in the arts results in a zero-sum outcome is what feeds the purist idealism that allowing yourself to be interested in anything else is a sign of lack of seriousness about your art or selling out.
If you really wanted to be an artist but were told you needed a back up plan, wouldn’t you perhaps unconsciously redouble your efforts toward your art and avoid any involvement with any possible back up option?
Then when you succeed, it is your single minded passion and talent in the face of nay sayers that won out. If you fail, then I guess they were right all the time. You meet their expectation of being a failed artist since you never allowed yourself to exercise your other interests.
When you are young, there often is no conflict between an interest in reading Popular Science, making plays to entertain your family, playing baseball, running a lemonade stand and learning to program a computer. But then you are asked to choose…
If you “correctly” choose law, medicine, business or science, there probably won’t be a societal perceived conflict in continuing with your interests. It is only when you choose the arts that you may be pressured to choose one of your other interests instead.
The truth is, interest in the arts is not a zero sum game. If there are physicists who feel their artistic pursuits enhance their practice of science, there are certainly artists who can find their pursuit of science and technology will enhance their creative output.
I am sure there are accountants who also feel their professional practice is informed by their artistic hobbies. Its just that no one believes accounting can be made more interesting. (Though there are unfortunately too many stories of accountants getting creative in the wrong ways.)
If anything, Drew McManus is great example of being able to cultivate interests and strengths in multiple areas as a musician who has built an arts related business on an understanding of technology and analysis of business practices, including financial filings.