In a couple of weeks, I’m going to start one of my favorite annual activities:
teaching Art History to high schoolers.
I have done it enough now that I know a lot of the questions they are going to ask.
One question that is a perennial favorite, one that is inevitably asked is, “Why is this guy famous?”
Maybe it’s a challenge to me, like why am I making them learn this. Maybe it’s a challenge to the world, like “What did you see in this painting, because I sure don’t see it.”
But mostly, what students are not seeing is that fame or success is never a quick process. The artist doesn’t just wake up, decide to paint, and is suddenly a famous painter. Even in the 1700s, people had plenty of things to do, rather than pay attention to some nobody with a paintbrush.
What students don’t see is that Jackson Pollock didn’t start out dripping paint on canvas. The guy could paint. He was classically trained. So was Picasso. These guys try lots of different things before they strike on the thing that the world says, that is worth something. The image of sudden success is almost always an illusion. The same is true today. The people who suddenly pop up on the radar, go viral, or become “overnight” sensations have usually been doing their thing, unnoticed, for a long long time.
That is a hard thing to come to terms with. I think most of us want to be successful. Very few of us are prepared for just how much time and energy that success might take. Students are excited to graduate high school, barely comprehending that they have four to eight more years of school, before they launch their careers and have to start at the ground level. Heck, students walk into my classroom, wanting to make great art, but they don’t have the patience to work on their fundamentals. They want to be great, now, in the space of an hour. Those kinds of expectations always lead to disappointment.
Even today, my teaching life is busy. And that busyness doesn’t cultivate patience in me. I want to get done now, rather than enjoy the process.
If there is one thing we can teach our children, our students this year, it’s to savor the process. It’s going to be years before our vision will match our results. It’s going to be a lifetime before we have really made it.
And that’s okay. We don’t have to be famous artists, writers or leaders in order to make it.