(In this season of graduations, here’s a piece I wrote two years ago reflecting on our older son’s graduation from art school. It originally appeared in May 2012 in the Kansas City Star.)
Sitting in a darkened auditorium at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that blazing August morning back in 2008, I listened, enchanted by the speaker at the podium, whose words etched themselves in my memory. The occasion was new-student orientation, and my son, about to begin his freshman year at SAIC, sat next to me, doodling in his program. The speaker, Tony Jones, chancellor and former president of the School, said a lot of funny things in his introductory remarks, including the obligatory jokes about Chicago winters. He may not have had my son’s full attention at the start, but when he got down to talking about artists and art, Jones really captured his audience of nascent artists and anxious parents.
Jones talked about the type of student who goes to art school. He said if you choose to study art because you like art better than any other subject, or if you choose to study art because you’re good at it, then you shouldn’t be at art school. He went on to say that if you choose to attend art school for any reason, you shouldn’t be there. As Jones put it, the only reason to pursue art in college is when you can’t imagine yourself doing anything but art.
The other thing Jones pointed out is that, in today’s world, it takes a lot of courage to be an artist. We live in a society that places a lot of importance on college majors like science and business. Not that we shouldn’t place a high value on these areas of study (our younger son is a biomedical engineering student who will no doubt make his own great contributions to the universe). But the emphasis on math and science comes at a cost. A young person who wishes to pursue art is often discouraged from doing so by parents and other well-meaning adults. As parents of an art major, our conversations with other parents often go something like this:
Your son goes to art school? What’s he going to do—teach?
No, he wants to be a studio artist.
Yes, but what does he want to do?
He wants to make art.
OK. But what’s his real job going to be?
You get the idea. If we as parents find it challenging (or amusing, depending on your mood that day) to explain our students’ vocation, imagine how they must feel. That’s why Jones said it takes a lot of courage to be an artist. Art is hard. Not just a hard way to make a living, but hard in the way of finding one’s place, both in the art world and in the world at large. And no one puts himself out there quite like an artist does. Imagine taking a piece of yourself and putting it on display for others to see and comment on, day after day. Artists find strength in vulnerability. Artists are makers. They make something from nothing. How many of us can claim the ability to do that?
I won’t bore you with why I think art and the makers of art are vital to human existence, other than to say, what a humdrum world it would be without art! Suffice to say, four years and countless sleepless nights since that August morning in 2008, our son is now preparing to graduate. Not all of the students have made it this far. Of those who have, many have fought hard to get to this point—our son included. I can’t wait to see him walk across the stage. When he does, I’ll not only be filled with pride for his accomplishments, but with admiration for his courage.