Paradise Lost

Last Thursday, I got fed up and lost.
Jack and I started taking a class together at a prestigious art-class-taking-place and despite an initial enthusiasm for the undertaking, several things happened during the second class that reminded of all of the reasons I hate taking art classes and have since I was ten. As we walked out, an hour before the class ended, I said to Jack, “look, the three things I think you should get in art school are a) inspiration, ideas, and infectious passion from your fellow students, b) a teacher who gives you useful and specific direction and c) facilities that you could not duplicate at home. Tonight, we got none of the three.” I wished I’d spent the evening at home drawing in my journal instead.

What I didn’t go into with him was the sense of being lost that started to well up inside me. I suddenly realized that my general enthusiasm for art school — a Nirvana filled with printing presses and - studios and challenging assignments and benevolent mentors — might just turn out to be an expensive illusion that will fritter away the best years of my boy’s life.

What if he finds himself surrounded with nihilistic slackers and trust fund babies with no talent and loads of cynicism being carelessly fed pompous claptrap by failed conceptual bores with tenure and resentment for anyone with a naive enthusiasm for creativity in a shopworn environment filled with squeezed out tubes of drying oil paint and broken easels? Instead of bringing home arm loads of brilliant lithographs and watercolors and bronzes, Jack will slouch into our apartment with tattoos, pendulous pierced ear lobes, a ton of attitude and excuses, and a generally wasted education that produced little but a gaping divot in my bank account.
Hearing our fellow students provide lengthy and incomprehensible explanations of their poorly constructed constructions and randomly daubed canvases, explanations that were crude shadows of the sort of pompous nonsense that cultural critics have mocked since the Salon de Refuse, I was brought up short, thinking, “Shit, I’ve got to make sure he gets into a decent liberal arts college so at least he’ll have a chance to go to law school.”

Anyhow, a weekend of calmer reflection and a 6 a.m. train ride to Providence, Rhode Island calmed me down. Jack and I spent a glorious spring day touring RISD, and my fears receded. The school was filed with amazing painting studios, enormous print shops and woodshops, darkrooms and kilns and endless hallways filled with beautiful art. The students all seemed serious and passionate and ran around carrying canvases and arm loads of wood. The library was humming with studying brains. The students seemed like professionals in the making and I only saw one girl with blue hair.

I don’t know if Jack will end up going to RISD or Cooper Union or MIT or Harvard Law. But I sense in him the same sort of enthusiasm for art that I had, abandoned, and then regained. An enthusiasm that I didn’t get in school, but in spite of it. Jack has been long-marinated in art and I think he’ll always have creative juice in his marrow. Whatever he does with his education and his life, I know it will be interesting and worthwhile.

Today we are on our way to visit MICA, another creative hotspot. On Monday we’ll check out Bard for a different perspective.
My faith in higher education is stored but I still don’t know if I’ll be going to next Thursday night’s class.

23 Comments

  1. sue

    You don’t need to worry about Jack. He’s going to be just fine. Seriously, he is. And you’ve already instilled so much in him, he’s going to see through all the nonsense. And he’s got lots of talent already. He’s going to rise to the surface.

  2. rama

    i’ll tell you what my brother told my worried family when i went to art school: “he will do what he did before, only better.” and i think that’s true. good teachers help. good friends help. good facilities help. but collage is just another step in his education, not the final one.

    if he really wants to study art, he’s going to encounter A LOT of idiots and bullshitters in and out of school. it doesn’t mean that he will become one.

    personally, i believe that if jack is a good kid now and a passionate artist now, he will be a good man someday and a better artist every year.

    until then, if you want to help him stay grounded while he is in school, it might help to see the bigger world too. to put him in touch with lots of professional artists who can help him keep his classwork in perspective and give him opportunities outside of his schoolwork. it really helped me.

  3. anonymous

    Write a book. You are an incredible story teller to all

  4. ChrisF

    Jack has YOU as a sounding board. He will have great teachers and not so good teachers and he will know how to glean the best out his experiences because he has YOU. If art is supposed to be his life’s work, no amount of bullshit will prevent it. (And I imagine parents of future doctors and lawyers and teachers have the same fears)
    Help Jack pick a campus where he will have a GREAT college experience all around and that fits HIS personality. The rest will take care of itself.

  5. Maria Hyman

    Hi Danny. As i said in my previous message. It’s all up to Jack. He’ll fly head first into what he really thinks he wants now. Then from day to day from this and that he will learn when to stay when to pull back and when to run like hell. In this country, as loony as some of it’s people are, we have options, and that is a teacher and a gift, all at the same time. You and Danny, be well, let it all go, and the universe will do its thing and all will be right. Nothing like an unbiased other to do the effecting. G’nite.

  6. Jim in Alaska

    I suspect you expect too much, Danny. As long as your c) above, is available& Jack has the drive (which it sound like he has) he should do just fine. Of cours a school with you a), b) & c) available in every class would be grand, -but then, perhaps I’m just too much of a cynic.

  7. Cecile Somers

    “What if he finds himself surrounded with nihilistic slackers and trust fund babies with no talent and loads of cynicism being carelessly fed pompous claptrap by failed conceptual bores with tenure and resentment for anyone with a naive enthusiasm for creativity in a shopworn environment filled with squeezed out tubes of drying oil paint and broken easels?”

    Oh I but I do love your “What if?” You worry so well! & colourfully!

    But I think I agree with Rama: “If jack is a good kid now and a passionate artist now, he will be a good man someday and a better artist every year.”

    Much love to both. You’re wonderful.

  8. Pam from the UK

    Hi Danny

    Believe me – the best thing anyone can have before, during and after the main education years is one or two parents or carers who show support, encouragement and enthusiasm for what they are trying to achieve. You fulfil all those things. Jack can’t help but do well in the world. Best wishes to you both.

  9. Rick Beerhorst

    Besides finding a good art school, taking some business classes would be good for when he gets out of school. Unless he wants to teach art for a living, the mentors he will have may not be able to prepare him for a way to build a sustainable studio practice engaged with the market place that drives our culture. Also it helped me to work as a studio assistant for an older professional painter who gave me a working model for how it’s done. Brice Marden was Rauchenburg’s assistant at one time. And by the way, it is very cool to see a father’s love in action.

  10. Beverley

    Danny I love how carefully you and Jack are considering Jack’s future. By visiting as many places as possible and maybe having the chance to talk to the students who are already there hopefully it will give you more confidence in the establishment or the opportunity to find out just what they are really about. My daughter who will soon be 16 will be at school for two further years and then we will be considering her university choices. Being on my own I am not looking forward to how much it is all going to cost, but I will just get a second job to help pay for it. I don’t want her to feel absolutely saddled down with enormous debt. I have been trying to tempt her down the route of Law School, but she tells me she would rather be happy doing something she loves than earn a good salary for something she hates. I have to see her point, and I am so happy that at 15 years old she has such a good head on such young shoulders. I hope Jack finds that place he is looking for, they do exist. Even my brief stint at college as an adult learner, I found wonderful printing presses, dark room facilities that alone made it worth attending. I did get some useless tutors, but they were tempered by the wonderful ones, ones I still remember with respect and fondness. I wish you both well on your journey.

  11. cherylrazmus

    If only I had had parents who knew me as well and cared as much about what my education was going to mean to my life when I was Jack’s age! As it is, I am going to be 60 next week and just beginning to follow my art dreams, and frankly, it is quite substantially due to your books and your can-do spirt. Thanks for caring about all of us.

  12. Dan

    I didn’t go to art school. About a month ago I went to a discussion of 4 young artists (recent graduates) who had their works at our local museum, MOCA, in North Miami. They had been awarded moneys to display work they create there. They all spoke in elaborate terms of their ideas, their explorations, in some cases even travels, and their intentions in their works. Absent was any discussion of form, value, color, or even aesthetics – what I pay attention to – it was all idea driven.

    Their art was hard to relate to. One, for example, was literally a library of discs that the artist assembled with a couch and a stack of books.

    All in all though, I enjoyed the kids, and their enthusiasm, and found the talks to be expansive, and figured – hey, they have a way to view their art that is very different from mine, and perhaps I will find a way to incorporate it into my art.

    Then again, maybe they were just lengthy and incomprehensible explanations of poorly constructed constructions.

  13. Margaret

    I am so pleased to see you are posting again. I was reading one of your books last night – I always turn to The Creative Licence when I get stuck!
    With the upbringing he has had and with a Dad like you, Jack will not go far wrogn!

  14. quirkyartist

    Having been to two art schools for two different qualifications as a mature student between 2002 and 2007, I can tell you that they vary a LOT. Each one will have its own culture within the tutors. I’d say, shop around. If you had the bad feeling, maybe try to swap Jack to one that gives you a good feeling. Even at the bad ones there will be keen students and some excellent tutors, but there will also be tutors more interested in their trip to the Venice Biennale, who lecture in artspeak.

  15. Andy Hein

    Hi Danny,

    After reading the beginning of your post, I was glad to see that you were heartened when you got to RISD and other schools. I hope that put some of your fears for Jack to rest. He has such a solid base from you and Patti that he will make whatever school he goes to work for him. I’ve had teachers who only favor your work if it looks like theirs, all art students have had that experience no doubt. Jack will see through sham teachers, and soak up what the great ones will offer him. I envy his ability to have this opportunity to spend days in that creative environment, each room offering a variety of tools for him to express himself. Wonderful. Have faith Danny, he is a good kid, you and Patty have been great parents.

    Andy

  16. Winna Jill Mordasky

    I have felt as you did in that class room…and also had really top notch places to learn..I have never been sorry for walking out on schmoes ! I’m 75 now, but I would jump at the chance to go to RISOD if it were possible…my best bet at the moment is to be Gramma Winna as I am “discovered” and people clamour for my work……your EDM network has saved me with it’s passions passed on…in my life………..keep on being John’s encouraging father..for a gift non other can bestow the same…winna

  17. jenpedwards

    I’m with you in these concerns…our oldest daughter is a junior in high school and just beginning to explore “which college, university?” She has a gift in her voice and loves musical theatre and opera. North Carolina School of the Arts might be a super place for her to develop her gifts…then again, maybe not. Music performance? music education? Liberal arts school? Performing arts school? Overall culture and environment of the school? Oi! For now, we’re choosing to cast a broad net for her and trust her gut feelings about a school (as well as our gut feelings). It’s a tough one…this watching our kids begin to make a place for themselves in the world. But exciting too! All the best to you and Jack!

  18. acleansurface

    I enjoyed reading this.

    My mother is an artist who passed on her creative genes to me, but I always hated art classes, too!

  19. karen at pen in hand

    The best advice when I quit my newspaper career two and a half years ago to study illustration at my local art institute came from another illustrator: “Don’t let them take the fun out of you.”

    You could substitute “passion” or “enthusiasm” or “playfulness” or any number of words for fun. Art school and its bullshit artists have a thousand ways to do that. When I realized it was indeed happening to me, I started to guard hard against it — and to keep my eye on the ball. I wanted my skills to improve, and they have, but I’ll be damned if I let them take away the exuberance.

  20. Kate

    Danny:

    I’m glad you’re as worried as you are for Jack’s training. I recently walked out of my life drawing class with the same feeling you had about your class but not without first telling the instructor I saw him as a quack who was wasting my time and money. I agree that the more places you visit, the more you’ll see and the better you’ll feel about your decision. Being able to look at the institution objectively and not letting their “reputation” interfere with your judgment while remaining authentic to Jack and your gut feelings will do Jack well. All the best to you and Jack and, don’t get discouraged. It’s just part of the process.

    –Kate

  21. margaux

    It’s taken me over thirty years after leaving school to finally have the courage to go to art school. Having long dabbled when I had the time and energy outside the day job (finance), and having had a horrible experience during a summer school at the local art college, and various distasters of evening classes, I was amazed when I took the plunge.
    I have only two weeks left of my first year, and despite stressing about getting everything done for assessment hand in, I would not have missed this experience for anything.
    One of the most wonderful parts has been seeing the youngsters develop, even in the short space of time we have been here. The skills they are gaining in such a varied environment, and having to deliver creatively should stand them in good stead what ever career they ultimately pursue. Compared to the sedate lecture/ tutorial format of my first degree, I can see real benefits to being pushed in this way. Plus, he will have you there supporting him.
    I really hope Jack enjoys himself wherever he goes, and never loses his enthusiasm for creating.

  22. Susan Charlotte

    I don’t think anyone who goes through art school surfaces unscathed. Because the beginnings of artistic representation emerge unformed as an expression of oneself, training that expression, has to hit a nerve at some stage.
    It’s unfortunate that often the longstanding trend of formal art school teaching towards conceptual art has overtaken the development of the student’s own unique flair and style.
    If Jack is lucky he will experience critique’s of his work delivered with the objective of boosting his natural curiosity and enthusiasm to explore tangents and new methods. As in any environment he will have to learn to engage with the jaded, with tenured lecturers who have acquired a bitterness, with fellow students who have great talent but no passion….But hopefully, equal to this force will be colleagues still filled with the excitement of learning and eager to share. (While the student works to a Brief, having a trusted ally on hand as a ‘debriefer’, is valuable for the psyche).
    Good and bad, it’s an experience worth having in one form or another. Even if it just helps Jack get to know himself, develop strength of character, and the knowledge of how he wants to express his artistic creativity.

  23. Kaisa from Finland

    I know professor Yuriko Saito from RISD where she teaches philosophy including courses in Japanese aesthetics, design ethics and everyday aesthetics on which she published a widely acclaimed book, “Everyday Aesthetics”. She is a wonderful, enthusiastic, open and encouraging teacher. She is only one person, but if she is anything like her faculty/university I would feel comfortable sending my kid there :) At least I would make them take her classes ;D

    I just recently read a news paper column about education, learning and real life after that. The columnist’s parents had advised him that “study what ever interests you, then do as you work what ever needs to be done.” It might be hard and difficult to follow one’s heart, but in the end, eventually, I think that is the absolutely only way to go.

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