Recently I went for a walk with a good friend of mine. We were chatting as we walked, and one topic that came up was the forthcoming movie adaptation of Little Women starring Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, and Florence Pugh. Which led to a conversation about Little Women in general, as we both tried to remember each character and what they represented.
Meg was the ideal 19th century woman, whereas the other three sisters each devoted their lives to a form of creativity. The ill-fated Beth was the musician, while Amy was the artist; and Jo, of course, was the writer.
I mentioned that in the new movie, Meryl Streep will be playing grumpy old Aunt March. “Wasn’t she the one who left her home to Jo and her husband?” my friend asked. “Yes, exactly,” I replied, “and they used it to set up a school for boys.”
“So they were able to do something good,” my friend said.
I looked at her, stunned. “Are you suggesting that being a writer isn’t good?”
She said, “No, of course, that’s not what I meant at all! Just that, with being able to open a school, Jo and her husband could actually help other people.”
“Oh,” I replied coolly, “so writing doesn’t help people?”
“Again, that’s not what I meant,” she said helplessly.
I know this person well, and I know that she is deeply committed to the arts and would never consciously want to suggest that writing (or any other creative act) is not “good” or “helpful.” But like an embarrassing Freudian slip, she couldn’t help but reveal a subtle bias against writers and writing, even while conversing (with a writer, no less!).
I’m telling this story not to impugn my friend, but rather to reflect on just how biased I think our society is, at large, against creative work (and workers). I went on to tell my friend about an Episcopal priest I once knew, years ago. At the time he had a son, an only child, who was in high school. We were having dinner one evening, and I asked about the son, and what his plans were regarding college.
“He’s only interested in art,” said the priest, with no hint of pride. “My wife and I are actively trying to discourage him.”
Stunned, I didn’t know what to say. But I remembered this conversation when I ran into the priest about 20 years later, and once again, asked about his family. “My son is doing great,” he replied. “He’s an accountant.”
Now, I have nothing against accountants, and am enough of a math-nerd myself to recognize that for some people, a career in bookkeeping would be their true vocation. But it occurs to me that a seventeen-year-old boy who wanted to go to art school may not really be finding his joy in number-crunching (let’s hope, at the very least, that he is continuing to make art avocationally).
Let’s turn the tables. Can you imagine a middle-class American dad saying, “My son is only interested in business school. We’re actively trying to discourage him”? No, I can’t imagine that happening either.
It’s tough, I know. As a creative professional, I know that most of us have modest incomes; indeed, I probably couldn’t do the work I do if I had a large family or other pressing financial obligations. I get it that a career in the arts is very uncertain, and many artists do end up becoming teachers or waiters or taking on some other kind of day-job, just to make ends meet. I get that.
But I fail to see how this is a reason to discourage a young person from following his or her dream — or, worse yet, to dismiss creative work as not “good” or “helpful” or “important.”
I may not be putting a lot of money into the bank, but I’m happy. And since when is trading away our happiness a good career move?
I hope that we can all take time to really reflect on the importance of creative work — obviously I have a special love for all forms of fine art, from poetry to literature to music to painting, sculpture, dance, and so forth. But there are other types of creativity that matter as well, from graphic design to architecture to non-fiction writing (yay!) to technical writing… and then there is teaching the arts, or working in an arts-related field, from museum curating to gallery management to publishing.
The arts matter. We all need more beauty in our lives. We need to celebrate the arts, especially with young people, for two reasons. First, it’s good to be creative. Even if someone has a vocation to go into business, or the ministry, or healthcare, their lives — and the lives of their loved ones — will be immeasurably enriched if they are themselves amateur artists or musicians or writers.
But we also need to encourage our youth to love the arts, because every generation needs to find its own voice. Who will be the Emily Dickinson of the 21st century? The Mozart of the new millennium? The Leonardo of our age? Yes, some people are geniuses, and you can’t teach someone to be talented. But even talented people need to learn their craft, to develop and hone their skills, and to foster qualities like discipline and perseverance and the ability to pay attention in order to be truly creative in an original way.
What a tragedy it would be if a child with the raw talent of a Michelangelo had parents who discouraged that child from pursuing an arts education. Or, for that matter, if that child had no access to arts training, because the local schools kept cutting arts funding. And make no mistake: the reason why public schools keep cutting arts funding is because we, as a society, do not value the arts.
I’m giving my friend a pass for her unintentionally dismissive comments about writers. But I’m not letting society at large off the hook. We all need to examine our own hearts, and let go of any bias we have against the arts. The future of beauty depends on it.