Why Do We Have to Shame the People Who Actually Try?
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
- Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
I'm thinking of Person A, who only started painting at the ripe age of 42. She's worked in corporate all her life and it sort of shocked us that she'd taken an interest in the arts this way. She tells us that she picked the practice up from her daughter's online kindergarten classes.
I'm happy for her. I find it brave that she'd want to explore a new skill this way. She talks about it at work in the most joyous of ways, and I listen intently.
Unfortunately, some of us don't feel the same way. There's Person B, a co-worker who mocks Person A for doing something different or foreign to him. Sure, Person A isn't boasting about art theory and form and structure or whatnot, but it's still art, no matter how crappy it is; compared to Person B, who does nothing, Person A understands how freeing pretentiousness can truly be.
There's something endearing about crappy or juvenile works, including those of Person A's. They're not exactly technically pristine, but her pursuit is something we can all root for. Nobody should get to gatekeep the act of creating or becoming, after all. But from the gallery scene and the literary community all the way down to office pantries and our local neighborhoods, snobbery is a shared characteristic of the socially insecure.
"Social Death" (2020) by Pow Martinez, Acrylic on Canvas
Yes, we live among thousands of Person Bs, hiding in plain sight. Most of the time, the "they" these detached circles refer to are, indeed, pretentious (okay, maybe some cases are extreme and deserve the slander but not in instances like this). They're the type to raise an eyebrow at our coworker Marisa's sketchpad. They're the type to first respond that Tito Carlo's sonnet is "good for you" in the most unencouraging tone imaginable. They're the type to call the Sanchezes new "out-of-vogue" secondhand mid-century furniture silly, and ridicule their taste. These microaggressions are how we deal with people who actually have the guts to try.
These conversations are at times intellectual or academic, most of the time social, and sometimes economic in nature. We love to meddle and judge callously and recklessly atop our ivory towers. We are annoyed by the act of trying. We make fun of it. We gatekeep. We're too cool for that. Ew. They are so pretentious. How people talk about other people can say a lot about them and their own unconscious biases and insecurities, most of which the average person will never contend with unless they want to.
As someone who writes and talks about art and critiques works from time to time, I've had to reckon with my fair share of biases and insecurities, too. But it was only until I realized that the secret to this criticism thing that I've come to appreciate is the charm of a good, honest attempt. Any good critic knows that, regardless of what they think about a piece, the act of criticism will never compare to the glory of having created something. What's good and what's not in discussions like these are always arbitrary anyway. So a crappy pretentious artwork will always be better than the discussion surrounding said crappy pretentious artwork.
Oftentimes, we get too caught up in the divisions that bind us; the low-brow versus the high-brow thing is, in fact, still a thing. The great art historian Allice Guillermo, in The History and Current Situation of Modern Art in the Philippines, had claimed that the future of art should no longer be limited by the dialogue of low and high culture, nor should there be any division between commercial and fine art. But we never listen, and the gatekeeping continues.
Penalizing pretentiousness takes away from the joy of art and creation, as well. We should let people dare to try. It's the same thing for those who want to enter the realms of literature or music or films. The theorizing and academizing of the craft can make everything feel so... pretentious, too. We often only gatekeep the product just because we want to prove that we went to lit or art or film school. If a certain piece doesn't fall into a certain box or category, then we call it tasteless.
Trying, after all, is the great catalyst of growth and the facilitator of improvement. See, we've learned to despise pretentiousness for one simple reason: trying hard isn't chic. Cool should require no effort, they say. Talent is "supposed" to be natural to the artist. We're all supposed to be prodigies who burst out of our mothers' vaginas knowing everything all at once. But a lot of times, effortlessness takes years of discipline, skill, work ethic, creative stamina, glorious failure, and, yes, pretending. Some of us are better off with the trial-and-error method, too.
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Person A's first paintings, for instance, are going to suck because they need to suck, as these are early attempts at greatness. Sucking at something is the first step to being a little bit good at it, like what Jake from Adventure Time once said (I love that show). Maybe she didn't have the means to go to art school. Or maybe she didn't grow up in an environment where that was encouraged. Or maybe her creative awakening came later in life. Or maybe, just maybe, her kids' own dreams got in the way, too. Some of this bias against a Person A type stems from the idea that creative genius is associated with youth.
This, of course, is a myth. Malcom Gladwell talked about this idea in a piece published in The New Yorker entitled "Late Bloomers" in 2008. He discussed the extensive work of an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson, who decided to look into the genius-precocity relationship. Galenson had done a tale-of-the-tape comparison of Picasso and Cézanne. Here, he found out that the biggest difference between them was: the former was a prodigy and the latter was a late bloomer. The author wrote:
"The examples that Galenson could not get out of his head, however, were Picasso and Cézanne. He was an art lover, and he knew their stories well. Picasso was the incandescent prodigy. His career as a serious artist began with a masterpiece, 'Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas,' produced at age twenty. In short order, he painted many of the greatest works of his career—including 'Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,' at the age of twenty-six. Picasso fit our usual ideas about genius perfectly."
"Cézanne didn’t. If you go to the Cézanne room at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris—the finest collection of Cézannes in the world—the array of masterpieces you’ll find along the back wall were all painted at the end of his career. Galenson did a simple economic analysis, tabulating the prices paid at auction for paintings by Picasso and Cézanne with the ages at which they created those works. A painting done by Picasso in his mid-twenties was worth, he found, an average of four times as much as a painting done in his sixties. For Cézanne, the opposite was true. The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer—and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world."
Literary critic Franklin Rogers also once said of Mark Twain’s trial-and-error method: “His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again.” Hell, no wonder it took him almost a decade to finish Huckleberry Finn.
It's rare to find artists who tried as long and as hard in their respective pursuits as Kidlat Tahimik
National Artist for Film Kidlat Tahimik, too, considers himself a late bloomer. He only started making films at the age of 35, after a lengthy career as an economist in London. And yes, he had been labeled pretentious for his ideas about guerilla filmmaking when he first came into the scene. Look at him now. These are only a handful of examples of our common misconceptions about creative pursuits. Of course, these are only the best-case scenarios for us tryers and pretenders.
If we really think about it, we're going to realize that being good at these things isn't the point of doing them. It's not how well we do something in most cases; it's about enriching ourselves through our attempts at better, more beautiful, and much deeper experiences in life. We do a certain thing because we want to evolve somehow. Through a new skill or a particular craft, we get to examine ourselves and the greater part of life's awe. We take up a new point of view or new path because we want to expand our horizons, in layman's terms. And it starts, whether we like it or not, with pretending. We can only do so by trying and failing. So we must try and fail. And try and fail some more.
In the meantime, in the limbo that bridges crappy and great, Person A should delight in the pleasure of knowing that she's created something. That enthusiasm should be empowered. That pleasure alone is the ultimate exercise in seeking the beauty in life. Even if we were never meant to be great, we shouldn't stop trying. The point of doing new things and pretending and all that isn't to become gods. It's about achieving something worthwhile and liberating, even in such small doses. That pursuit alone is a heroic endeavor in itself. The product and the subsequent response to that product is irrelevant. Most people in this world are too busy being snobs. Most people in this life don't have the gall to pretend. Attempts, at the end of the day, are as noble as it gets for man.
From Wings of Desire (1987) by Wim Wenders
The beauty, after all, has always been in the attempt; this, no matter what the Person Bs of the world will say.