The above cartoon has been making the rounds among my musician friends this week, and for good reason.
Maya Angelou said the caged bird sings for freedom, but in fact birds—caged or free—sing because their songs are hardwired into them. The mother of a young performer said to me recently, “She has always been a singer. When she was a little girl, I would hear her singing while she played.” Likewise, my mother would tell you that I have had a pencil in my hand since I was old enough to sit up.
But in truth, almost all children sing, dance and draw. It seems to be hardwired into them the same way singing is hardwired into songbirds. Non-verbal self-expression is natural to them, and they often use art in ways that amaze adults. But somehow most children learn to stop making art as they enter adolescence.
Perhaps this is because verbal and spatial reasoning has finally caught up with their expressive skill. But there will be the occasional kid who defies social pressure and continues to produce art; to me, that is the very definition of talent and the best indicator of long-term success in visual arts. That obsession is far more important than whether he or she can render a face or a horse according to the rules set down by their art teachers.
Even among those who remain obsessed with making art, a different and more insidious joy-killer happens when art stops being an avocation and becomes a vocation. That is the need to measure success in terms of money or fame, rather than intent or that far more subjective issue, quality. To me, this is the most paralyzing problem I face as a painter.
Painting is a form of communication, and hits on a website, sales, and shows are the only way we can measure who is listening. There is, after all, little point in talking to oneself. But painting is a form of communication with a long window. For all I know, I may be talking to people who aren’t even born yet.
Note: my website is up, at www.watch-me-paint.com, and, yes, it has a counter.