I just signed up to give a talk about my life as an artist at the career center at my son’s high school. In general, I think parents are cautious in their support of their children pursuing careers in the arts. Here are three reasons why I encourage students to pursue careers in the arts.
1. You want to.
If we are innately curious, mysteriously compelled or some flavor of passionate about something we are more likely to stick with it through the long, rough slog it takes to be successful at it. There is plenty of research on this. Activities that feel like play are the things we will happily choose to engage with over and over again.
2. Talent is overrated.
I just finished a school mural at Springer Elementary in Los Altos. During my time there, several adults offered some variation of the “You must have been painting since you were a little girl” compliment. Another common comment is to apologize for their apparent lack of artistic “genes”. Either way, these types of comments imply that we are either born with “it” or not. Most of us would agree that our verbal or math abilities are not limited to the predilections we were born with. Our experience has shown to us we can get good at things we are bad at. However there is a pervasive cultural belief – it might even live in the back of your mind- that says, “This growth mindset stuff might be true, but not when it comes to artistic abilities, Morgan. And certainly not me. The artistic genes skipped me.” I am here to testify: I believe even artistic ability can be developed, although, in my case, it was very, very slowly.
One of the great things about being a visual artist is I can track my progress through pictures. Here is an example of an early mural I painted:
It’s rewarding to see the progress. It’s like watching my brain develop.
The point is that we don’t know, really at any age, what we might be capable of. How can we tell a young person, “I don’t think you are/will be good enough”? That is most likely our own fear speaking, not perceiving the enormous capacity for growth that is a human life. I know some of these kids are stressed out about getting into the “right” art school, but I can set the bar really low on that by pointing out I didn’t even go to art school and now I am supporting my family with my art.
If talent is not the primary indicator, then what is? I certainly have had a ton of good fortune, but there are also some easily learned business skills that were helpful for me including focusing on a single niche, being consistent in my efforts, and figuring out how my art can be of service.
3. The job market of the future will favor “creatives”.
As Dan Pink explains in “A Whole New Mind”, we are headed into a very different economy than what we have had in the past. Many of the “good jobs”, the kinds your parents wanted you to have in banking, legal and medical, are at risk of being automated or outsourced. Dan Pink writes “The future belongs to a very different kind of person…These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, counselors, big picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.” It sounds like in the economy of the future we will have to replace the “starving artist” cliché with a “starving computer programmer” cliché. But seriously, being able to recognize and interpret meaning in a data saturated world will become the most important job skill in a future where the machines will do more and more of the rote work. This is the work of the non-verbal side of our brain, the side we all have access to, that excels at connection, invention, intuition and meaning. Studying fine arts strengthens this creative fluidity and would therefore be excellent preparation for the job market of the future.
I am not going to tell the students that pursuing a career in the arts is easy. However, considering we all only get “one wild and precious life” as Mary Oliver so beautifully put it, maybe easy isn’t the point. Creative work is difficult work, it’s risky and the results are not guaranteed. But to me, it is absolutely worth it. I have been blessed tenfold, at least, by the appreciation, support, and satisfaction that has come from bringing my art out into the world.
Thanks for being there to receive it.