Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What the Artists Said

“Learn a trade.  Something you can do part-time, or seasonally.  If you work forty hours a week, you’ll be too tired to work on your art.”

That was the advice given by some art faculty at a gallery opening on campus this week.  We have a small gallery supported by some generous donors, and the current exhibit is a show of art by our faculty, both full-time and adjunct.  

At the opening, a couple dozen students showed up, along with the ten or so faculty who had works on display.  The curator of the show organized a brief q-and-a, during which the students could ask questions of the faculty.  One student asked what advice the faculty would give to young artists.  The opening quote jumped out at me, but several others echoed it in various ways.  One simply shrugged and said “money helps.”  Another counseled learning to live on very little money.  They weren’t bitter or cynical in their delivery; they seemed to be trying earnestly to answer the question that was asked.  The students seemed to take it in that spirit.

To be fair, some also mentioned passion, hard work, persistence in the face of failure, and the need to be true to your own voice.  Those, I expected.  But where some variation of “follow your dreams” would have gone when I was in college, I heard “learn a trade” and “get good at living on very little money.”

It was striking.  On the one hand, I thought, such straightforward answers were to the considerable credit of both faculty and students.  The faculty respected the students enough to tell them the truth straightforwardly, and the students respected the faculty enough to hear it as it was intended.  Nobody appeared offended, and nobody got overly theatrical; it came across as a matter-of-fact recognition of, well, fact.  

On the other hand, though, I couldn’t help but feel the generational shift, and mourn a bit for the sense of possibility that has been lost.

Lately, I’ve noticed a spate of pieces about the loss of clear markers of adulthood.  A.O. Scott’s piece in the New York Times suggested that the proliferation of man-children in popular culture reflects a deeper sense of loss of the grownups.  Heidi Moore’s characteristically smart piece in the Guardian on the markers of financial adulthood drew some thought-provoking responses; I was struck that everyone understood the question, but so many gave different answers.  Last year, Jennifer Silva published a brilliant book claiming that in the absence of the economic prerequisites for the traditional markers of adulthood -- marriage, buying a house, that sort of thing -- millenials have made a virtue of necessity by turning to tales of triumph over adversity.  Stories of addictions or abusive relationships overcome now serve as markers of adulthood, in the way that home purchases once did.  

I see a lot of truth in each of those.  Moore’s and Silva’s pieces, in particular, are thoughtful, well-researched, and compelling.  They get a lot right.

But I’m starting to wonder if we’ve missed something more basic.  

The discussion among the faculty and students was admirably mature.  It was adult, in the best sense of the term: people acknowledged a difficult reality and offered the most practical suggestions they could for dealing with it.  And the students took it in stride.

I didn’t see a man-child anywhere in the room.  I saw a room full of adults of various ages.

What I didn’t see, though, was youthful idealism.  I didn’t see what I used to think of as teenage bravado.  I saw some very young people who had been forced by circumstance to act in ways that used to be the province of their elders.  I saw young adults, rather than teenagers.  

In many ways, that’s great.  Given the very real economic obstacles many young students face, a certain gritty realism is appropriate.  And if memory serves, teenage bravado can be wearing in its own right.

But that “bulletproof” teenage stage -- that, in retrospect, relies on a base of economic security -- serves a purpose.  It sets the unreasonable expectations that drive unreasonable effort.  That’s true whether the expectations and effort are directed towards art, technology, politics, or anything else.  Yes, in the cold light of adulthood, some of those teenage ambitions can be mortifying.  But some of them hang on, and serve a real purpose.  

I wonder if the ubiquity of “man-child” characters in popular culture is more a sort of wistful wish-fulfillment than a reflection of reality.  In reality, I see millenials being much more “adult” at early ages than my own generation, which, in turn, was much more “adult” at early ages than its predecessors.  Several decades of stagnant wages and economic polarization took away the base of economic security that made earlier generations of “teenagers” possible.  People who had to grow up too fast may find a poignant comfort in man-child characters that would have struck earlier generations as either unreadable or ridiculous.  

None of this is meant as criticism of the faculty or students at the opening.  Honestly, I was impressed by the maturity of both.  It’s meant as a suggestion that before we get too focused on the real or perceived “failure to launch” of a strikingly mature generation, we should probably ask some different questions.