Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Bliss of Failure

In my last post, I wrote about recognizing, inhabiting and then wielding your own power. I got a wonderful comment from reader Matt C., who wrote:
"Many of us that grew up before the internet was a part of our daily life were taught that we had to become professionals before we could make a difference. The kids today are growing up in an amateur society and really participating in politics, culture, art, etc. earlier and at a much higher level."
This comment reminded me of an article I read two years ago in the New York times. Now before you assume I can remember every article I read, take a look and let me know if it strikes you as it did me.

It's this concept of amateurism that the article explores--in relation to an exhibition about drawing as an activity in the mid 19th century--and that Matt's comment hits upon, that I'm very interested in. Consider this part of the article, written by Michael Kimmelman (emphasis mine):

“Drawing in America is as much a basic human activity today as it has always been, even if it is not perceived to be as necessary to economic and cultural progress,” Albert A. Anderson Jr. writes in the slim pamphlet accompanying the show.

I don’t think so. Drawing and doodling are not the same. With the arts, American adults have acquiesced to playing the passive role of receivers.

In a new memoir, “Let Me Finish,” Roger Angell recalls trips to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium in the 1930’s with his father, who also liked to join pickup games when middle-age American men still did that. Today baseball is like the arts, with grown-ups mostly preferring not to break a sweat. “We know everything about the game now, thanks to instant replay and computerized stats, and what we seem to have concluded is that almost none of us are good enough to play it,” Mr. Angell writes.

So it is with classical music, painting and drawing, professional renditions of which are now so widely available that most people probably can’t or don’t imagine there’s any point in bothering to do these things themselves. Communities of amateurs still thrive, but they are self-selecting groups. A vast majority of society seems to presume that culture is something specialists produce.

Rembrandt Peale published one of the drawing manuals in the Grolier Club show. Besides being an artist, Peale became Pennsylvania’s first high school art teacher in the 1830’s, hired by Alexander Dallas Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin. People, Franklin pointed out, can often “express ideas more clearly with a lead pencil or a bit of chalk” than with words. “Drawing is a kind of universal language, understood by all nations,” he reminded Americans.

We have given it up, at a cost that, as Franklin might have put it, is beyond words. Mr. Angell goes on in his book to say that television and sports journalism have taught us all about the skills and salaries and private lives of professional ballplayers, on whom we now focus, instead of playing the game ourselves.

As a consequence, he writes, “we don’t like them as much as we once did, and we don’t like ourselves much, either.”

There is so much to be gained by attempting something yourself, no matter how crude, no matter how childish the result. Trying to draw something gives you a sense of the difficulty of the artist, playing a game of baseball (especially if you are as unathletic as I am!) confers in you a new respect for anyone who can seamlessly coordinate the motions of her body, trying to write a story with a beginning, middle and end shows you how invisible good narrative really is. And we grow, and we understand and empathize and learn.

I have a fascination with where the Internet is taking us, and I hope that in regards to participation and amateurism, it is taking us back to the mid 19th century, when we all gave something a try and then conversed enthusiastically about it.

Not too long ago, I went to the Maker Faire in Austin, and was astounded by the projects ordinary people were taking upon themselves. A lot of the projects played around with circuit boards and other implements of geekery, but not all of them did, and what people did with humble materials and a determination to create astounded me.

I remember the thrill I got playing around with my chemistry set, my microscope and slides, and even a rudimentary circuit board wiring kit. (I made an infrared intruder alarm for my doorway to keep my pesky little brother out.) I also have always loved crayons, then colored pencils, then india ink and paint.

Even though I turned out to have more of a skill for literary and artistic pursuits and not electronics, the time I spent enthralled, challenging myself to do something new taught me a lot about who I was, what I liked, and what the world had to offer me.

I sincerely hope that the Internet facilitates the return to giddy, chaotic amateurism, where people lose themselves in something they'll never make any money in.

I also hope that people realize that bliss often consists of nothing more than failing gloriously again and again and again.

1 comment:

erzsebet said...

Professionalism killed the Renaissance Man! Increasing specialization has created a world of professional niches, and woe to those who attempt to make a point or advance a field without a degree to validate their worth as an original thinker. This is the baseball-as-being-only-for-champions issue writ large, and it endangers the spirit of open knowledge and open debate.

If there is to be a resurgence of respected amateurism, it will have to come from demonstrable proof that great things can be accomplished, even outside of the university. There is the old story of how Hemingway never went to college, and the newer story of Tori Amos being asked to leave the Peabody Conservatory of Music because, according to Amos, she wouldn't play within their paradigm. It will take many more such successes, as well as bravery and dedication to go against the tide of professional specialization, and bring about a return to an enriching amateurism and concomitant cross-fertilization of ideas.

Baseball, drawing, writing, singing, playing guitar, studying theology or scientific theory: none of these things are limited by any other than personal motivation. This is not to say, of course, that if bliss takes you to the university, you should avoid it simply to spite specialization. All avenues to experiencing life should be open, all variety of paths forged, to prevent 'aquiesc[ing] to playing the passive role of receivers.'

- erzsebet