Monday, August 13, 2012

no substitute for experience

I met with a new client on Friday, a woman with professional dance experience and a bit of sewing experience, as well. She did a lot of gushing over my work, remarked on the clean finishing inside and out, and claimed that I was "professional New York costumer's level." She asked where I had studied.

"I'm self-taught," I said. She didn't believe it. She thought I'd gone to KU's textile design school. "I know people who graduated from fashion design school who can't do this," she said, and I wholeheartedly believe her. I can pick up a debut novel and tell by the first chapter if it was written by an MFA graduate.

Frankly, I find it disturbing that the first question someone would ask an artist is, "Where did you study?" And I'm not singling out my client, because her innocent inquiry didn't bother me, but I see it on DeviantArt all the time. This morning I was looking at Merimask's latest creation and it's the first question anyone asked in the comments.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking education. But I don't think it's as significant to the artist's development as people want to think it is. I have always held that creative writing classes and how-to-write books are bad for beginning writers. My Sifu likes to say that the student's skill is not necessarily a reflection of the teacher. Mikhail Baryshnikov reportedly said in an interview that his teacher was "nothing special," but what he imported to Misha was the value of hard work.

I'm inclined to think that this populist fascination with degrees and certification is the trickle-down effect of corporate culture, where Human Resources only has time to examine the quantifiable, and success is only measured by the bottom line of the current quarter. In that environment, where you went to school is more important than what you did while there.

And of course in the creative fields, that where-did-you-study question is sometimes the only tangible there is. But I think there's another reason why casual admirers would ask it, and that's envy. 

On DeviantArt, every half-decent artist is bombarded with four predictable questions, "Where'd you learn to do that?" "How long did it take you?" "What tools did you use?" "Can you tell me how to do it?"

The answer to all four is comprehensive: "Pick up a tool, any tool of your choice that's appropriate to your medium, and do it yourself, for as long as it takes, until you get it right."

But nobody wants to hear that because it bursts the bubble. Everybody knows, deep down, that to get good at something you have to work at it, a lot, for a long time. But everybody hopes, semi-consciously, that they'll stumble upon the right word or trick or secret that will make everything fall into place. That can happen, but it's usually only after putting in years and years of work. And in my own experience, even some very good teaching can take a year or more to sink in, because it takes time and context to understand, to overcome the ego, to allow the truth to compost and seep through your own worldview until it's something you can use.

Last March I read "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell, which is about intuitive decision-making. On the surface, it seems to be about trusting the gut and making a decision in the first second or two, but that's a superficial reading that completely misses the point.

Through chapter after chapter, Gladwell trots out experts: military tacticians, art critics, professional food tasters, music producers, and marriage counsellors. He dissects all of their decision-making processes, and how those processes differ from the average untrained person's. His conclusion? 
The seasoned pro's 'gut reaction' is actually the cool clear voice of mastery. 

You don't get mastery from four years of college. You might, if you're lucky enough to have good teachers and an attentive attitude, get the tools necessary to pursue mastery on your own. But asking "where did you study?" is a bit of an insult, when you think about it, because it's the artist's drive and hard work that make the education useful.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about why there's no substitute for education.

1 comment:

Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth said...

Excellent, sensible points. As you say, no-one wants to hear that hard work is always behind success.