ESSAY ELEVEN – Hoops Dreams
The plaintive cry is often heard – “I’m not good enough to be an artist.” My premise is, that it is not about being “good” but about being brave and having desire. Before you demure by pointing out that really, you are not very good, let me tell a story.
Several years ago, I volunteered to host a French high school student for a local, English immersion program at my home in Atlanta. One weekend, all of the exchange kids in the group were going to get together at the home of another host family, and then go off to a beach at a nearby lake. I brought my student to the designated home, where about thirty teen-age boys and girls were waiting for the rental bus to arrive. They were all in Speedos and bikinis, and the guys decided they were going to play a pick-up basketball game at a court that was in the yard. They leapt, they twirled and jumped, and they passed behind their back and made acrobatic moves all over the court. They looked wonderful and the girls screamed their delight. There was but one thing wrong; only about one in four passes were completed to another player, and in fifteen minutes of watching, with perhaps fifty attempts, only one basket was made.
It was obvious they had seen many NBA games on TV, and they were athletic and coordinated, but it was also obvious that they had never played basketball in their life. They had the desire, they imitated the moves, they played to great acclaim, and they had a great deal of fun. Were they playing basketball? Yes. Did they have the requisite skill? Absolutely not – they stunk! Did they care? No! There are two points I would like you to consider.
The first concerns the skill that is required to perform art well. I am not implying that skill is not necessary, but I do feel that it is often over-rated. The first few times you try something; you are usually not very good. If it is something important, and if you have the desire to do better, why then, learn the skill and practice. It is that simple.
Skill is not art; skill however, can improve the impact of the art. An author or poet does not have to know how to spell although it certainly comes in handy, because spelling can be corrected later. It is not necessary for a writer to develop a thirty thousand-word vocabulary, but if you have those words, it certainly give you more options.
If you wish to create, there are four steps that are necessary. You must convince yourself that you have something to say, you must give yourself permission to take a chance, you must bravely reveal what you keep locked up inside, and finally be courageous enough to actually complete it the deed. You can take a class and learn the skills as you go, but there is no teacher who can make you brave. Scouts for professional sports teams scour high schools and colleges all over the country. They are looking for attitude, spirit, drive and “heart”, because they know fully well, the training and skill-building can take place later.
Clearly, that group of French kids were terrible basketball players. Any fourth grade American P.E. class could have given them a run for their money, and every evaluative criterion you could bring to bear would have pointed out how inept they were. It was the worst basketball game you could imagine – they sank one basket, and almost every shot was an “air ball”. On the other hand, it was delightful to watch. It was imaginative, exciting, graceful and full of youthful joy and life, and as far as anyone of the young people involved, boys and girls, it was wonderfully successful. It was a tangible manifestation of what they wanted to achieve. Would they have been excited if some of the balls had actually gone into the basket? Sure. The point is, they knew that they didn’t have the specific skill involved in sinking baskets, but they were not inhibited by their lack of skill, the goal was the fun of the doing. If this is not one of your major justifications for being an artist, all of the skill in the world will be for naught.
The creation of art is not a battle between creation and skill; the two compliment each other. If I am excited about the prospect of being a painter, I will have more options than if I just learn some techniques of using acrylics and something about color theory. It may not be a requirement of self- expression, but it adds to my self-confidence and it also opens up new avenues and it gives me more possibilities.
Let’s talk some more about basketball in general. Watch a random group of kids at a pick-up game at the local schoolyard. The players are either shooting or blocking. It may not be good basketball, it may not be following all of the rules of the NBA, and it may not be as enjoyable to watch, but it is basketball. If the players are content to play a sloppy game, shooting at a bent and saggy rim with little form and concern for fouls, this does not alter what it is; it merely alters how well it is done. If, in the future, one of the players decided that basketball seemed like a worthwhile goal, he certainly could go through the discipline of learning the skills, just as many youngsters do, by standing on the court or in front of the garage and taking endless shots, lay-up, free throws and dunks. Do this, and you will get better - that is the nature of learning skills - improvement is a function of practice.
At this point in your quest, my argument is that it is good to minimize your concerns about how skillful you are, and whether you really have talent. You might also find yourself wondering just why you want to be “creative” in the first place. The world does not need another landscape painting or another poem about young love. Your mother didn’t send you to school because she needed pictures to stick on the refrigerator. It is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
The need for art and artists is an intrinsic need, as opposed to an intrinsic one – it comes from within instead of being motivated by outsiders. Nobody every requested The Last Supper, Beethoven’s Fifth, or Pride and Prejudice beforehand. The artist must provide both the inspiration, and all of the other physical qualities that help the viewer or reader decide how well you presented your inspired work.
As artists, we need to take the same risks those young French students did. If we are fearful of expressing something important because we don’t feel we have the requisite skill, or something valid to say, we miss out on the enjoyment of the doing. Many years ago, in his “Dune” series, author Frank Herbert incorporated a mantra, oft repeated, “Fear is the Mind Killer.”
Creativity is our source, and our access to this font of ideas, inspiration, and wonder is easily blocked. While the skill may be easy to recognize (which is probably why we make the mistake of believing that the observable skill is the actual art product), the underlying idea and its source are invisible. To the non-artist, ideas seem to arise out of thin air, and this concept of nothing becoming something illustrates one of the dualities of art.
When looking at someone’s completed work, it is easy to see the subject matter, the skill (or lack), and all of the other physical attributes. What we don’t see is the inspiration and reason the piece of art exists. Remember, it is the hole, that mysterious opening that pierces the heart of the pastry, which defines the doughnut.
Our next few essays will deal with where our own personal inspiration is hidden, and offer some suggestions as to how we can access it. As always, I encourage you to leave comments (either on the blog or by e-mail), and questions are welcomed.