In the human animal, there are a set number of automatic responses to particular stimuli. As the artist who produces work out around people will know, “Wow…I can’t even draw a stick figure!” (sometimes prefaced with “Did you draw that?”, most often when one is drawing) is as predictable as the knee-jerk produced in any doctor’s office. My introduction to the phenomenon began with my first caricaturing gigs. After almost 20 years into the biz and a lot of public doodling, I believe I’ve come to a unique perspective on this curious issue.
Most obviously, the phrase is meant to function as a compliment, a basic shorthand for “That’s awesome!”. Beneath the surface, however, it’s weird that drawing should provide a context that so routinely inspires people to disclaim themselves.
Honestly, some sociologist should write about this.
Maybe it’s a form of comparison that happens in the company of other highly trained professionals, too. Personally speaking, I can’t recall the last time I said (or in fact, when I’ve ever said): “Wow… Did you heal that patient? I can hardly use a first aid kit!”, or, “Wow, did you just win that trial? I’ve never even done jury duty!” But then, you never know.
As a culture we hold certain careers with enormous respect, even to the point of fetishism, but for the most part this is due to the elite social rank and not the elite skill set that comes along them. Declaring that you’re an artist doesn’t tend to incite widespread awe on a class-based level. What impresses the average spectator most in the case of the arts is the notion of talent.
Of course, art is a profession, like any other. No matter how much talent you have to start with, it takes hundreds and thousands of hours to master the skills required to toss off a strong drawing in a matter of minutes and make it look easy. It’s a boring truth. In fact, since artists are essentially people that didn’t stop drawing at a point in childhood when others did, a “talented” artist could arguably be said to have more routine practice under their belt than your average doctor or lawyer, bringing their magic that much closer to earth. And yet somehow, deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness is this idea that art flows from a natural source, as does creativity. Some people have it, others don’t, and never the twain shall meet.
When applied to Medicine, Law, Plumbing, or any field requiring specialized training – and ours is everywhere a society of specialists – referring self-consciously to your lack of know-how hardly makes sense when you have no clear stake in that field . There is no reasonable expectation that a random outsider would know the first thing about how to step into any of those professional roles. Why, then, does feeling artless strike such a chord of embarrassment in the hive mind, mock or not? In the back of my brain whenever I hear our famous phrase, I often think (and in pluckier moments, have said to some degree): When’s the last time you TRIED to draw? Is drawing important to you? Would you like to learn how?
If the answer is NO, then trust me: the fact that you can’t draw a stick figure is really no big deal.
Beyond those cases where people actually couldn’t care less, you would still not believe the resistance these questions can get! When I suggest that art can be taught, I sometimes hear: “REALLY?!”, as in, total disbelief! I say, “Yes, REALLY!” Well, either that or I’ve been defrauding people for years by swapping cash for art lessons…
Even for many would-be creators, the idea of actually acknowledging or permitting the creative flow can be downright menacing, and I’ve spoken to more people than I can count who indicate an interest in playtime but seem absolutely stuck in going about it. For the interested few from the Stick People tribe that do sign up for lessons, being guided past these inner blockages can be like getting a root canal. But then there are few things more wonderful than working with someone who knows they’re going for a root canal but week after week keeps on turning up for more punishment. I am not a sadist, by the way. But I do guarantee that I can get you up to speed on stick figures by the end of a class. Or your money back!