Saturday, July 17, 2010

Life Lessons in a Talent Show

It's been a busy week in Lake Woebegone, my home town ... oh, sorry, that's somebody else's line. It's been busy here, too. I've been working on a commission for a mural. A friend asked me to paint a Star Wars-based mural in his son's bedroom. This is an interesting and fun project - the subject matter is much lighter than the usual stuff I paint and a mural is technically complex. My only gripe is that the boy is at that particular age where all girls have cooties, so there are no females in this mural. Rats. I was looking forward to doing Princess Leia in that sexy slave-harem outfit.

Janis and I have been watching "America's Got Talent" for a few weeks now. I didn't want to at first, figuring it was just lightweight, over-hyped mental floss, but I've actually found that it’s fun and can be a very interesting metaphor for the art world in particular, if not almost any field of professional endeavor. The start of the season was very democratic: anybody could enter, and just about anybody did. But that's where the democracy ends. An article revealed that, because there are thousands of applicants in each city, AGT staffers pre-screen and select only a small percentage for the judges. Which is pretty much like applying for a real job, isn't it? Lots apply, then some faceless/nameless bureaucrats whittle them down to a manageable number for the real decision-makers. Except that, in real life, the faceless ones generally screen out all but the top candidates; for this show, they leave in a lot of walking train wrecks for entertainment purposes.

So thousands of hopefuls think they have talent, or that they are stars waiting to be discovered, or both. Of these, only a few hundred make it to the judges. We saw quite a variety: some with amazing talent but little or no confidence in themselves, some with amazing egos but little or no talent to back it up, some with a bit of talent but all the drive in the world, and all the variations in between. Then the reality check begins. Assuming they made it through the initial screening, they face a gradual elimination process. The performers have to step up their game at each level and do the best they can. How they respond is so enlightening. Some have done variations on their original performance: a different song, some different tricks, but essentially the same type of thing. One stunt guy tried to do more of everything and wound up running around looking like a maniac. Another guy completely changed the substance of his act to where it had no relation to what he'd been selected for. Some got fancier outfits. My insight was that the ones who’ve made it this far do it by getting better. Not fancier, more complicated, or doing something that they think might have more appeal. They just do what they do, only better, with more heart, skill, and practice.

I’ve found that is also true in the art world. When the pressure is on, I’ve certainly felt that maybe I had to get fancier, or adopt the trend of the moment, or try to create something that appeals to the judges or public or whatever. And when I’ve done that, invariably I’ve failed miserably. I was trying to apply somebody else’s rules to my own way of doing business. When I followed my own instincts, I always did much better work. (Maybe it didn’t sell any better, but at least the work was better!)

Further, the same general rules applied to my Navy career. Every couple of years, somebody comes out with a trendy new management technique, and the military is just as susceptible to that kind of crap as the corporate world. Sometimes I could use one of the new techniques, but often they just got in the way. I knew of some people who were chameleons - they could adopt the latest fad with lots of enthusiasm and plenty of showboating but they really weren’t any better for it. They just got the spotlight on them for a while.

On “America’s Got Talent”, it is already clear that a few people will get to the finals for two reasons. Number one: they have the heart and drive for it, and are willing to put everything on the line. Everything. Number two: they have a reasonable amount of talent. Of these, heart and drive is most important. These rules apply to much more than just AGT. They apply to the art world that I’m in, they applied to the military world that I was in, and they probably apply to whatever profession you’re in.

Who’d have expected life lessons in a “piece of fluff” television show?

I’ve thought about these issues as they apply to my own life. Lots of artists have dreams of making it big in the art world. I don’t. I have noticed a change in my attitude since I came back from Iraq. My art is not the most important thing in my life. After being away from my wife for months at a stretch, losing two friends to a bomb in Iraq, having a couple more pass away in the States from illnesses, and almost losing one of my beloved dogs to Addison’s disease, my priorities are now different. Family and friends are much more important than my so-called art career. If I’m working at the computer or at the easel and one of my dogs comes up and wants to play, I’ll play. If my wife or a friend wants to talk, I’ll talk. The painting will still be there tomorrow; my friend or my dog may not.

This attitude will never win “America’s Got Talent”. Fine with me. I can, and will, make some good paintings anyway. But it’s the relationships that are most important in my life.

How about yours?

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