How High School Bludgeons Its Art Students

Many believe high school promotes the hive-like mentality, is geared towards the more sheepish of the population, and aggressively (if unintentionally) stands as an obstacle for the creative minds. Whether it’s because we like pretending our dysfunction is due to secretive genius, or to prove we really are creative and unique because we are dysfunctional, or simply a way of establishing that high school really was a waste of time, the thought that the educational system hurts the arts is popular and often repeated.

And though I would like to write about the numerous of teachers who tried to drown their brilliant students in the early years, I’m not here to discuss the things I always discuss or that I like to discuss, but want to discuss a different discussion all together.

Some years ago, I entered into the real world and found myself face to face with a reality that academia never prepared me for. I wrote down my feelings on the subject, and here I am nearly ten years after graduation, ruminating over the difference of life versus high school.

In high school…

When you don’t do your work, you’re only hurting yourself.

Education is about the learning process, so every action, project, and paperwork distributed is all, in a way, pretend. If you don’t do your homework, you’re the one not learning. You’re the one who won’t understand, who won’t get the grade, and your teacher is just ecstatic they don’t have another insincere essay to read. At worst, you’re working on a group project and your procrastination is screwing over your fellow projecteers’ grades as well, which sounds bad, but it’s not as bad as it could be because…

In the art world…

Everyone depends on everyone.

It is rare for any one artist to attribute his success to only himself. Whether it be producing a play, writing a novel, or even living off painting, many people are involved to bringing success to a project. Even a one man show requires help, whether it be the light board operator, the set designer, the crew of the stage, or other miscellaneous hands. A novelist depends on an editor, an agent, a publisher, a cover designer, a bookstore manager, other businesses looking for ad revenue. They need high school librarians to let them give a talk. Even the most self-sufficient self-publisher needs a printer or social media app, Amazon or iBooks to collaborate with them. Painters sell through galleries, have publicists, and sometimes even assistants. There are occasions when a person could do it all himself, but on the whole, the art world is a group effort.

High school teaches the art student that making a deadline is only important for his success. Each student receives a separate grade from each other, and when one backs out the others usually can use that as an excuse for his end product. But in the art world, no one cares why there is no music, they just know it sounds weird. They don’t care that the advertiser didn’t meet his deadlines, they just don’t know about the show. It doesn’t matter that it’s not the publisher’s fault the author doesn’t have a book yet, he still can’t produce it. He’s still losing money.

Even Amazon, with its massive number of indie authors will still be effected by unscrupulous work practices of its suppliers.

Maybe our decisions won’t impact the success of our partners greatly, but no matter what path you take, people won’t be able to do their jobs if you don’t do yours.

In high school…

People will accept late work.

Deadlines are arbitrary to the teacher. She makes them based around well-spaced scheduling, prioritizing what the student can and can’t do, and preferring for her disciples to do the job rather than just blow it off. They offer a half-grade in order to illustrate the importance of the deadline, but still convince people to still try. And—here’s the important part—because teachers live in this pretend world, resetting and relooping over and over, the student has plenty of time to get the late work in. No one’s waiting on him, no one’s going to move forward anyway. With the exception of the more strict educators, if he can get it to her before she submits his grade, he’s golden. Sure, some teachers don’t want the extra work of a late assignment, but I’ve met few who can’t be talked into a more accepting attitude of your mistake.

But in the art world…

Deadlines are determined by necessity.

Because everyone depends on everyone, often times, other people can’t start their job until the first has finished. A lighting designer can’t do anything until the set has been built. Advertisers can’t begin without knowing what the product is. An editor can’t edit until the book’s been written.

If you’re the big man in the department, the author of the novel, the painter of the masterpieces, then deadlines are breakable—but only to a certain extent. Like a diva in a film, producers can be lenient to the big stars, but even they have specific limitations. For one thing, the artist’s reputation is on the line. But, more importantly, there are often outside factors that can’t be controlled.

If a musician doesn’t come out with a new CD while she’s still popular, she will soon be forgotten. If the movie’s premiere keeps pushing back, the audience will lose interest. Some deadlines are based off of events, such as auctions, or fads. The artist needs to meet his deadlines for the people who are working with him, for his fans, and to keep himself in the lime light.

More so, even, artistic deadlines are worse than any other form because there is always more that we can do. The writer can always make another draft. The artist can always go back and fix that one little mistake. The producer can always advertise more. It’s not just about finishing, it’s about making it good. People in the arts always feel like there isn’t enough time, and it’s important not to be the one they’re blaming.

In high school…

It’s about making your teacher happy.

Often times your teacher is the only person who will ever read your essay. The job is about the doing of it and the grade from it, and it will probably never be used again. Students know who their audience is and they can gauge the potential success of their choices based on that one individual’s personal tastes and opinions. Thus, decisions become easier to make.

Working in high school looks like this: Teacher decides on project, tells you how long student has to do it, student does it, turns in project, teacher decides if it was done correctly or not.

But in the art world…

It’s about making someone happy, but no one knows who.

Some say it is important to make yourself happy. Some say it is important to make whoever’s paying you happy. Some say it’s important to make your readers happy. The problem with that is, we don’t know who our audience is, we don’t know who’s going to end up paying us half the time, and we don’t always know anything about ourselves.

We’ve been trained to try and do what was important for the grade. We had one person in mind and that was that. There were plenty of choices to go against it—“I know my teacher loves this book, but I still think it’s stupid.”—but even still the options were obvious.

In the art world, there are too many factors to count. First I could write for myself, but then do I write the book that I would buy to seem smart, or the book that I would hide behind a cover of A Clockwork Orange? Do I write what I enjoy writing or do I write what I enjoy reading? I could write it for whose paying me, but do I target it towards my agent, my editor, or my publisher, most of whom I probably don’t know anything about yet? I could write for an audience but then I’d have to choose which audience, and even when I’ve done that, there’s still a lot more to keep in consideration. And if it’s a mixture of all of the above, that’s even worse.

Working in the art world looks like this: Author decides on a project. He decides how long he has to do it. Author does it (allegedly). He turns in project. Someone rejects it and doesn’t say why. So does another and another. Finally, someone takes it. He makes his changes. Readers get book and hates changes/original. Book bombs, can’t sell another.

Writers have to depend on their own opinion and don’t get the luxury of having a boss to decide how good they are.

In high school…

 It’s better to do something challenging and be mediocre than do something easy and be good.

I asked my acting students what is a good actor and they say, “Someone who can play a lot of characters.”

I said, “Okay. Why?”

“Because it’s challenging!”

“Why does the audience care about the actor being challenged?”

High school advisors always advise to take harder classes. It is better to get a B in an honors class than an A in a regular class. Colleges are looking for the people with ambition, not the ones seeking the easy route.

Academia is impressed by risk takers, go getters, people who challenge themselves. We are taught from a young age that it is important not to take the simpler path. It is about the journey, not the destination.

But in the art world…

It’s about the end results.

Many abstract artists have to explain their work for others to be impressed. It is not apparent to the viewer how hard it is to draw a line. They need to go into detail about the workload, otherwise people will be thinking, “My five-year-old can do that.”

In this way, the art world is like math. It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you come up with the right answers.

If an artist challenges himself for the fun of it, that’s fine. If he likes the harder way better, then that’s how he should do it. But the inspiration he gives his fans will not change just because he went the hard route. Good artists make whatever they’re doing look easy. Sure, some audience members will be impressed by impossible looking things, but usually if they’re noticing how hard it must be the creator isn’t doing it well.

It doesn’t matter why the artist failed, it matters that he failed. The student challenges himself, the artist does what works.

In high school…

The people are there to make you do your work.

Because of that whole “mandatory education” thing, high schools aren’t very selective. It is not competitive so it is better if everyone does a good job. We expect children not wanting to do their work, and we also realize that many people don’t really see the reward in doing hypothetical activities. So most of academia is set up to force everyone to be productive.

But in the art world…

Everyone wants you to do less than them.

Even when not in the same field, people are trying to outdo their peers. The more “talented” the world considers you, the more sway you have. Therefore, the light designer is competing with the actor, the actor is competing with the director, and every time someone is an overachiever it makes the rest of us have to work harder. Therefore, no one is going to push you to go above and beyond unless they have direct reward from it. Or think you’re far enough beneath them that it doesn’t matter.

And, it’s a job, so the producer/publisher/agent will assess if an author’s worth the work every time they have to nag him. It is more likely that a person will get fired/not picked up again before he is pushed.

But that’s when he’s already successful. Many times there won’t be a job until after the work is done, after the painting is done, the novel is finished, the music is written. That means that no one cares if you finish at all. It doesn’t bother anyone else if your novel never gets made. They don’t need you to be a writer, they have plenty.

Unlike in high school, there is no one to tell you how to do it, the deadlines, or lecture you when the work isn’t finished.

In high school…

The path is cut and dry.

We have a few options, such as electives and what subject matter our essay is on, but there was always advice and where to go and what to do, and in order to deviate from that a student was required to a lot of extra effort. And even still, by means of having a specific direction to go, it gives an option when choosing not to follow it. If you stand still, you’ll still be pushed forward. Someone else will has already made a good number of decisions for you.

But in the art world…

The choices are unlimited.

There are a thousand different options and they all could work in one context and all could fail in a different occasion. Whereas you know exactly what needs to be done to get into college, when attempting to become a successful artist, it’s hard to separate what is useful work from busy work.

We know if we do our homework we will get a good grade and that will help getting into college. But we don’t know which idea for a novel is the best one, which will sell the best, which agent is the best to send the idea to, which agent will be most likely to open up most connections, or even if the book will come out the way we planned it. Is it better to make some short stories to help get published, or is it a better use of time to go straight to the big picture? Is writing this porn script going to count as a resume credit, or is it going to delegitimize my experience?

Art students often talk about the surprise when all of the sudden they had no direction before them. Right out of college, the path is no longer clear, and we don’t really know how to make one. And even when having some idea about the next step, it is never certain whether or not it is the right step or that it will get anywhere.

7. In high school…

If you do what’s expected of you, you can’t fail.

The student turns in his homework, he comes to class, he writes the essay, and he tells the teacher what she wants to hear. Even if he does all of those things badly, he will still pass the class. Some people are made to always go above and beyond the call of duty, but for the rest of us the knowledge that as long as we achieve the bare minimum we’ll be fine is a nice safety net.

But in the art world…

Your failure is often out of your hands.

A person could flop for any single reason, and often for very stupid, blameless, and inane ones. No one bought the book because no one heard about it, because the cover was ugly, because it had a word in the name that was in vogue at the time and therefore was ignored as one of the masses, it is compared to a terrible story, or there was a typo on the first page.

On that grounds, however, a person can also succeed for very stupid and inane reasons.

Artists often comment about how success is about luck, and to a certain measure, it’s true. Unlike high school, because no one is telling you exactly what needs to be done, and it is on the artist to make himself do his work, we can’t depend on just doing what we’re told. We have to make decisions and commit to them. High school has never prepares people for that.

In high school…

People can determine the importance of an assignment and put in a respective level of energy.

Teachers are notorious for assigning busy work. By the nature of bureaucracy, the professors are often required to give a specific amount of essays out, a specific amount of homework out, and demand that the kids stay in class for the allotted time. So they give out work to literally keep the children busy.

Thus we learn that there are some assignments that we can blow off, half ass, or speed through and there is some work that we should try harder on.

But in the art world…

When you produce crap, you produce crap, no matter how big or small.

Not all projects are created equal. Some jobs are small (30 seconds of transition music for a community theatre) and some are big (a world tour), and the number of people watching changes. Therefore, it looks as though it is okay to not work as hard for the smaller events because the reward isn’t worth it.

But hiring is based on your reputation. Small jobs often get the bigger jobs, so when an artist produces a heap of half-assed work, or no work at all, it affects them. Grades “reset” every semester, and though the GPA is an accumulation, it is still number based which reputation isn’t. Which means that if I produce a project worth an A, a C, and then one F, I have a C average. But when someone watches me produce a terrible play then a great one, then a mediocre one, I will be considered a terrible playwright.

Most importantly, in high school, projects constantly come your way no matter how well or poorly you did on the last, where in the art world, do too terribly and the projects will stop coming all together.

In high school…

People are impressed by potential.

Seeing a third grader write a novel is impressive, even if it is painful to read. A student’s drawing of their own face that looks like them will get compliments, even if with the crossed eyes and asymmetrical features. In high school, you’re talented if you’re better than just expected.

But in the art world…

People expect you to be the best from the jump.

An agent has to pick a new book to represent. The resume of one man is seventeen unpublished novels. The resume of another is one published novel. The agent will pick the later because, while it is impressive that someone could write that many, they might all be terrible. He only has the potential to be a good author, while the second has (allegedly) written well enough for someone else to invest in his work.

For a high school student to be impressive, it only requires hard work. For an artist to be impressive, it requires success. High school teaches us that if we want to show off, we only need to put in effort. In “the real world,” however, opportunities exist for the results, not for the sake of opportunity. Things made for teens are only there so that the teens can have a chance to learn something, things made for adults are there to build a profit, reputation, or some other reward. It doesn’t matter if you have potential, they need to be certain you can do the job.

In high school…

You’re only competing with people in your age group.

All contests, most classes, and the majority of tests are oriented around the student’s age. We take classes with fellow seniors, are separated during events and often social settings, and all competitions are attempted to be made fair by cutting out the competition.

But in the art world…

We need to be better than people three times older than us. Age is a funny thing because before you’re 30 you’re too young to do art, and after you’re thirty, you’re too old. However, with the few exceptions like, say, acting, an artist’s competition can be anyone. What’s more is that we can’t expect the aged ones to necessarily be better than the young ones.

High school forces a broad spectrum of experience onto its students, but after graduation day, that outside power stops. A person may not write for 40 years and his abilities hasn’t changed since he stopped. Or he may have been writing for 40 years and those who have been working for two are going to have to still try and be better if they want to get noticed.

Ageism is something that high school doesn’t prepare you for. We learn that the older someone is the more authority someone has. We don’t foresee how we will have to soon enter into the peer group and soon start to compete with not only people older than us, but people younger than us.

We will be up against people with a lot more experience than us, with bosses who want to be more experienced than us, and with a much wider variety of peers than we’ve ever had before.

High school tries to prepare us for the future, but in its attempts to make us reach our potential, force us to be the best we can be, show us the path, and encourage our abilities, it doesn’t discuss the world that attempts to stop our potential before it can become talent, that isn’t made to give us opportunity or success, and competes with us in every way imaginable.

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