I always get into great conversations at Dizzy’s, with the guys behind the counter. Monday was no exception. I had remarked to my pal, again, about a photograph I coveted, one of a narrow walled street in Morocco with a sliver of blue sky ahead. Something about it gives me hope.
“I don’t know,” my friend said, shaking his head, not wholly convinced the shot was worth the $250 pricetag. “I guess, with photography, I’m not convinced…a lot of people think they’re artists but…”
I knew where he was headed, where a lot of people go. There is so much judgment about “what is art,” “who is an artist…”
I shook my head, defensive for art forms of any kind, feeling like I always did with my Dad at MOMA.
“I suppose art is in the eye of the beholder,” I said.
Anyway, I told him, I had just come from my sons’ school, from an amazing African dance performance where every single third grader—even those I had coaxed unwillingly into the pool at points, those I had heard on many occasions offer up ‘I can’t’ with doing things or creating things—had participated, and not just half-way. Each and every one of them had swayed and swished around the fourth-floor “stage” with great pride and beauty. It was a sight to behold, a real achievement of artistic endeavor. The performance greatly affected both the participants and the audience, it was obvious. The dance teacher and the PTA president who had the great presence of mind to hire her both got gold stars.
“See,” I said, “I am confident that we all have artistic talents, if only we are encouraged to try, if we are not shot down with the idea that only some people are real artists…” I shook my head.
“Did I offend you?” he asked with a look of concern.
I laughed. “I don’t get offended. It’s just a question of whether I still like you…”
Luckily, I still like him because he acknowledged shortly thereafter that his judgment, like all our judgments, came from a personal place, from a place where he had been overly judgmental of himself for not liking certain things or not discerning what did or didn’t speak to him. That I understand. I have learned to walk by a lot of things in a museum that do not speak to me, that do not pull me in or provoke me to thought, even if it’s a Rembrandt. I have learned to change the station if the music doesn’t move me, even if it’s Tchaikovsky.
I try not to be overly judgmental, though, of what I don’t care for just as I try to judge myself less for my own artistic efforts, as I try also not to put fear into my children about their own potential artistic talents. My hubbie has taken up drawing and goes faithfully to class every week, working painstakingly on pieces he is proud of when they’re done. Oscar brings home How to Draw books from the library and tries his hand at getting a likeness for sharks, cars, what have you. I play the piano joyfully by ear, even if I can’t play chords well with my left hand, even if it doesn’t sound like Mozart. And my kids have courage with their own efforts, be it piano, drums, guitar or mixing on their fabulous music teacher’s computer.
If only as an outlet for their own thoughts, their own feelings, as a way to express themselves, as outlets for us to express ourselves, these efforts are so valuable. I think the message might be sinking in that art in almost any form is of value, value beyond a monetary number.
The other night, Oscar brought home Tomie dePaola’s The Legend of the American Paintbrush, about an artist who is tapped to find the colors to bring the sunset down to earth in his painting, someone who is challenged by his gift, who often wishes he could make other more regular choices, to be like everyone else. I thought of my Dizzy’s friend, of his belief that not everyone chooses to be an artist, to go down that road. I can see that, agree even. It is often a hard road. My kids and I chatted after the book about the responsibility of the artist, of how important it was for him to use his great gift.
Oscar nonchalantly shrugged and offered up his thoughts: “Art changes people’s lives...”
I smiled. "I agree," I said, and I do, wholeheartedly, I think that about art in every form, from the most crude kids’ drawing to a great novel.
On Tomie dePaola’s website, which references the more than 200 children’s books he has written, there is a quote, from political artist Ben Shahn, from a comment he made to dePaola in the summer of 1955. It offers only that “being an artist is not only what you do it is how you live your life.”
I would argue that there is an artist in all of us, that our lives can change others’ lives through so many forms. I gave my Dizzy’s friend a gold star. I think it’s great just to try to discuss these things, to figure them in our own heads. And I gave a gold star to a man sitting next to me who was pitching a new art installation to Dizzy’s owner, who will also get a gold star when next I see him for offering opportunity to local talent. Maybe he'll give me a discount on the photograph…