Friday, January 28, 2011

Lacking Skills? - Here are Some Arts for You

I suppose it's nice to be one of those souls who don't mind making fools of themselves. Me? -- I try my best to avoid doing anything where my abilities are below average unless the outcome is so important that I'm willing to grit my teeth and suffer the learning curve.

Fortunately for we the talentless, American culture has degenerated to the point where one doesn't have to be skilled in order to participate or even succeed in fields of endeavor that are called "arts" -- the expansion of the definition of that term might be yet another symptom of our decline, but I'll leave that matter for another time.

Consider the following items.

Some hold teaching to be a kind of applied art. I'd call it a craft, but let's go along with the notion that there can be an art to it. Primary and secondary school teachers for the most part cannot get their jobs unless they have had a certain amount of training and practice in teaching. Presumably, therefore, they have acquired a set of teaching-related skills before becoming professional teachers.

On the other hand, most people who teach in universities lack any training in pedagogy: all they need is a Ph.D. in a field of specialization. Or perhaps not even that. As a graduate student, I had to lead "quiz sections" for an introductory Sociology course. I knew zilch about how to teach: whatever knowledge I had of teaching was from the perspective of having been a student for many, many years. I'm convinced I seriously short-changed all those super-sharp Ivy League students, including one who was the daughter of a sitting Supreme Court justice.

Literature is considered an art, though it can be difficult to pin down where it leaves off and ordinary writing begins. And writing itself doesn't require training beyond the set of skills required to make one considered "literate." Sure, there are college courses dealing with writing not to mention writers' workshops and the like. Yet none of these purportedly advanced forms of training are essential to becoming a writer of some sort. After all, just about anyone can start his own blog: I did.

Then there is dancing. The highfalutin' form is The Dance, but up until the mid-1950s even ordinary social dancing required the ability to execute dance steps. These included the waltz three-beat step, the four-beat foxtrot step and others. And there were "fad" dances that popped up every few years. Somebody would concoct a set of dance steps and perhaps other actions, come up with a catchy song extolling the dance and then hope both the song and the dance would become popular.

Nowadays, unless you are into Serious Tango or something similar, going dancing usually means dealing with some kind of rock-based music -- and no set dance steps. What one does is stand away from his partner and gesticulate as best he can to the tempo of the music. The skill level in this is minimal.

Time was, there was singing. To be a decent singer required a sense of pitch, a pleasing voice and perhaps formal training incorporating skills in phrasing, breathing and voice projection. Today, we have rap. Rap strikes me as closer akin to crude chant than singing. I suppose rap makes use of some skills, but you don't need to be able to sing at all to become a rapper, record your performances and become filthy rich.

A subject dear to this blog is painting, so let's consider the genre of Abstract Expressionism which is still practiced by many artists more than half a century after its heyday. Becoming a good abstract painter requires some skills in the areas of composition and color handling, among others. But there is one traditional graphic arts skill totally unnecessary: draftsmanship.


David Apatoff said...

Don-- while I am generally sympathetic with your thesis, wouldn't you also agree that there are cycles to this, and that sometimes layers of skill and refinement can accrete so that cultures can become ossified? At those times, deviations that are raw and intuitive and emotional (but unskilled) may help save us. Abstract expressionism or cubism or even rap music may seem crude and unskilled at the outset, and some innovations may quickly die out as a consequence. But others add needed vitality.

When you are a neanderthal and an ungainly new creature shows up in the woods, we shouldn't laugh until we have figured out whether it is just another missing link, or it is the cromagnon man destined to succeed us.

Donald Pittenger said...

David -- I was thinking strictly about skill sets needed to perform adequately, and not about the state of development of any given art / performance / whatever activity. But that's an interesting observation regarding new "art forms" -- skill-sets are ill-defined, so entry barriers are low. And of course there's that elitist-democratic continuum, each end of which can be rationalized; the low skills requirement being of the latter and high skill the former.