My girlfriend and I just moved into our first apartment together. We brought a few personal things to decorate with but our walls are mostly empty. Completely broke from moving, we couldn’t afford the beautiful abstract minimalist prints I saw on the crisp white walls of trendy apartments on every single home decorating blog. We couldn’t even afford the mass-produced canvasses sold at places like Target or Ikea (although, did you know, you can buy a huge print of Klimt’s The Kiss at Ikea for $40??) But I had a blank canvas, and paints, and brushes. “This place looks like asylum,” my girlfriend said yesterday, “we need to hang some art.”
I’m not very good at painting. I enjoy it, and when I finished this painting I felt a little warm when I looked down at it – two things that arguably make it “good” if you favor the Wildean approach. L’art pour l’art, etc etc.
But I’m not very good at painting. Looking at it now I can tell you that it’s at best uninspired and at worst very derivative – my favorite artist is Cy Twombly.
How do we enjoy things we don’t believe we’re very good at?
I was that kid that wanted to learn everything. And I mean everything. From the age of eight, I took classes in karate, tae kwon do, drawing, painting, gymnastics, cheerleading, guitar and ballet. I mastered zero of these skills, for various reasons. I don’t remember why I quit karate and tae kwon do other than probably just because I didn’t like it. There were very few girls in the class and my teacher was mean. I did ballet for nearly a decade, the longest of these endeavors and I quit because I was “too fat to be a dancer” and it was costing my mom a fortune. I quit cheerleading after one session because, well, it was cheerleading. I was in junior high and music videos taught me that cheerleaders and goths were mortal enemies, or something. Also, it was hard.
“It’s hard.” My parents probably heard me say this a dozen times right before I begged one of them to call the [art teacher, ballet school, karate studio] and tell them I’d like to quit whatever skill I felt I’d failed to learn. And yeah, it’s probably true that nothing worth doing is ever easy, and all I needed was practice but I just felt so incredibly overwhelmed with the knowledge that I wasn’t good. It made me so sad, I just wanted to be good at something.
I liked art class, and the teacher – a local artist in my small Southern town – told me I had talent. We would do pencil drawings of trees and historic buildings downtown and some flowers. I’ve found a few of these sketches around my house, shoved away in drawers and kept in portfolios by my parents who also very much wanted me to be good at something. And they are good, the sketches. I mean, they’re okay. I can see that they would have only gotten better if I’d kept going to lessons. Something about being taught to do something stopped it from being fun. I wanted so badly to be good at it, to be exceptional, that took away from me any desire to learn how to do it. This was true of all of them – karate, cheerleading, etc. I didn’t even want to do a lot of them, there was no part of me who wanted to be a cheerleader. I just wanted to be good at something.
It took me a really long time to learn that “teach me how to be very good at this” is not the same as “teach me how to do this.” “Teach me how to love this” was another lesson I refused to believe was impossible because to me being very good at something was learning how to do it which was loving something. How was I supposed to separate those in my mind? How can I love to do something if I’m not very good at it? It’s much, much easier to quit. (Or, in my case, cry and cry and cry until my dad quit on my behalf.)
“I love doing this, but I’m not very good at it,” “I love doing this, but,” “I love doing this,”
The concept of “being good at” something is inherently tied to the possibility of profiting off of it. This sounds like the beginning of a really predictable rant about capitalism – because it is, or it could be, and it is labor day – but it’s true. Parents pour money into teaching their kids skills because hopefully one will stick and their child will “be very good at it” and they’ll be able to turn that skill into money. And that fine, necessary even.
But, for me, it very quickly became a measurement for failure. “I’m never going to get anywhere with this.” I quit ballet because I didn’t have “the body” for it, so I couldn’t make a career out of it. I really, really loved ballet. Sometimes, if I show my parents a painting I think is “good”, the conversation inevitably leads to talk of me trying to sell prints online or putting my art into a show. Immediately, I feel I’ve failed. I thought it was good when it was fun but now that I need to sell it, it’s not good at all, it’s terrible. I gave up on so many things as soon as I learned that they were useless skills just based on the fact that I wasn’t immediately good at them. And how many of those things was I actually good at but abandoned because I thought I wasn’t? Because they didn’t meet my ingrained high standard of “good = profitable”? What other areas of my life were driven by this?
I like this painting; I like looking at it, I like the memory of painting it (in my bra and underwear on my living room floor, listening to Peaches, getting blue paint on my bare thighs), I like the idea of my girlfriend coming home tonight and seeing it. I feel proud that I made it instead of buying it. None of these necessarily equal “I think it’s good”. Or maybe they do. I don’t think they have to.
Painting and all images © Alice Lesperance