The arts talent drain – too many brains

Are the best and brightest creative geniuses becoming artists? No, we are losing them in a systematic and institutionalized manner beginning when they are very young.

I wonder sometimes about people I meet who are engineers, software developers, civil servants and various other respectable professions who have keen creative and perceptive minds rivaled only by the soul-crushing resignation they display in their eyes and body language when they talk about when they “used to be an artist when they were younger” … but now have a career.  They bought the glossy brochure photostock lifestyle of family, car and RRSPs. In a very real sense, the artist (or at least the fantasy of being an art star) inside of them is gone forever.

That’s ok in many ways – really, the primary responsibility for these people for their choices and life is their own.  A popular second choice to being a full-time artist is to buy a digital camera and a mac.

This post is not really about these kind of middle-class artists – too smart to be a poor and struggling artist but not smart enough to be successful – it’s about the really high-end creative minds, the natural talents, the geniuses among us stupid arts workers who got diverted into other areas.

a genius is a genius is a genius.

When someone is extraordinarily gifted, it is fairly obvious from a very early age and for the rest of their lives that they are special. However, it may not always be apparent that they are very very intelligent or their talents may not be obvious to those around them. The typical public school and academic structure are designed and regulated by decidedly non-geniuses and is a poor instrument for recognizing and fostering artistic genius and thus often results in untapped potential and depressed individuals … this brings us to the first of my three main points:

1. Art programs with high grade average entrance requirements eliminate the very best talent from their ranks.

It’s no secret anymore that someone with a significantly different cultural background would probably fail a typical IQ test designed for a western society school child. The same sensibility can be applied to trying to be a typical academic structure that purports to be for high-end creative intellectuals. These individuals simply do not function well in rows learning small bits of information planned out by people less intelligent than them as evidenced by typically have poor grades and “behavioral” problems associated with their school careers.

where else can they go? They run into a school like Rosedale Heights Public School in Toronto that demands an A average to get in and focuses on “[providing] students with a unique educational opportunity by preparing them for university and community college through challenging academic programs with an emphasis on the performing and visual arts.” This does not mean this school program is not terrific for the families involved, and produces terrific artists and individuals who go on to have great measurable success,  but it does mean they do eliminate the very best from their program. The best and brightest creative mind would not be in a position to apply for this school and ill-suited for the academic program within it  – and probably not the best candidates for rigorously academic university program afterwards (gifted individuals with the resources of a wealthy family make up various exceptions throughout history – such as Tolstoy).

I know creative types, and they are all over the place – classic ADD “symptoms” of distraction are common, as well as a slowness to arrive a at a the expected goal or conclusion of programs because they are over-thinking the problem or it is mind-numbingly dull information outside of meaningful context. An ability to investigate and articulate within an art-based environment is ideal for these people and in the long run ideal for society –  but they will not get the chance with a wall of tedious paperwork preventing them.

As far as Universities go, I’ll sum it up this way – Queen’s University here in Ontario has a small art department that you need at least a 90% high school average to get into. While you are there, more than half of your time is spent reading, writing, researching and taking academic electives. The students it produces excel at completing grant forms and artist statements, but in my opinion are solid if unspectacular artists from an average art program at the end of the day.

Think of it this way – anyone can get straight As if they study hard and long enough in high school or say in an engineering program – but most cannot be taught to be creative geniuses. The problem with the fuzzy notion of “creative genius” of course is that is not a short-term measurable metric like grades are.

Some more widely know artists / writers who have had disastrous school careers include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Noel Coward, Claude Monet and David Bowie. Some famous old white guys who also were failed by the school system include Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Bobby Fischer and Sir Richard Branson.

2. The alchemy of financial, military and other evil industries turning talent into gold.

I have been thinking of this concept since I watched Micheal Moore’s documentary “Capitalism: A Love Story”. In it, if I recall correctly, he says something about “losing the best and brightest” to the financial industry. That is, minds who would have been scientists, doctors, academics, leaders – they work for corporations now and are paid scads of money to be smarter than the government, other banks and especially consumers.

With all due respect Mr. Moore, you forgot to include “artists” in that list.

I knew a gentleman years ago who moved to Canada from France. Quiet, perceptive genius who was extremely well read and articulate and he was also a stunning classical pianist. This man was also mathematics professor who was very popular with his students but got hired by one of the banks and moved to Toronto. He was paid like he played in the NHL and his job was to create algorithms that predicted financial trends … or something like that. Never heard from him since, but it is hard to be critical of that someone taking that kind of opportunity.

I guess that is the crux of the problem – these creative genius types can see the big picture all at once, and can connect disparate concepts together in staggering leaps of lateral logic. They perhaps possess considerable memory powers and intuitive math skills. Seemingly these people, like my friend from France, can do just about anything they want to do and that includes art, writing, mathematics and programming and thus are head-hunted by organizations with a lot of clout. The popular myth of the genius artist who is only able to produce genius art and no other job is true in the sense the art does not get made when the artist is busy working for your bank full-time to calculate more service charges. Who knew what work he would have contributed to culture – but for all I know, he caused the recent global financial crisis.

3. Special needs means talent bleeds

I alluded to the special needs and disruptive behaviour of highly talented people going through school – but there are some typical “disabilities” that are associated with creative people that are real challenges throughout their lives and often prevents a meaningful career in the arts from ever taking root.

One such example is,of course, ADHD or ADD that takes many forms and is related, apparently, to ADD is autism and related to autism and ADD is dyslexia. All of these are in turn related to creativity, as this particular evolving theory goes, in a very fundamental and physical cognitive manner. For example, many artists have dyslexia and though they have trouble with spelling and phone numbers (not well suited for that insurance job!), they are able to play spatially with concepts and objects in their mind that most people are unable to do. Someone with ADD can typically “hyper-focus” on a task that is interesting and challenging task that, for example, can result in a beautiful and detailed painting. But these ADD artists would not be able to be study law because it is mind-numbingly boring and completely irrelevant to their everyday lives and interests. A person with autism may be able to sing beautifully because they listen to sounds very carefully all day – you get the idea.

And of course there are many other factors of smart, creative people getting bored and relegated to the fringes even if they do not identify with any of the above conditions. In our school system and society, it is certainly easier to regulate behavior than reward creativity and it is not possible for most families to non-school their children ( I am very wary of “home-schooling” and the kinds of people who dominate this community).

So who’s left at the end of the day as successful professional artists? In a large sense those are too stupid to do anything else, those who are selfish and insensitive enough to concentrate on themselves with remarkable industry, those who are sociopathic enough to be tenacious in their motivations and those who are more literal than creative and so can concentrate on the small steps and tasks required to craft work and display it. Those who are social are at a very great advantage as well, and typically crave fame and power. In turn, the academic based curators, critics and administrators who choose the artists are very much responsible for weeding out the best and going with the most understandable – the arts jury system is renowned for not accepting the worst and the best of applications.

We’ve been robbed of our best and brightest, and though there is work being produced by these mysterious creative geniuses I keep referring to it unlikely we will ever see it within the public exhibition industry that has formed in Canada from the notion of academic standards for artists. But if I was a real singular talent, I guess I am saying I would not care because I would probably be a) whacked out on drugs somewhere and depressed as all hell or b) so well paid that I don’t care if I publicly display my work or not.

One comment

  1. Lynn · November 27, 2010

    Think of it this way – anyone can get straight As if they study hard and long enough in high school or say in an engineering program – but most cannot be taught to be creative geniuses. The problem with the fuzzy notion of “creative genius” of course is that is not a short-term measurable metric like grades are… hell yeah its true 🙂

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