Why Art Cannot Be Taught

After an unsuccessful day in the classroom last week, I came home feeling frustrated (pretty evenly divided between myself and my students), and reached for James Elkins' book Why Art Cannot Be Taught for some solace or at least a couple of laughs. I don't always agree with Elkins but he is reliably not boring, which is more than I can say for approximately 99% of the people who write about matters art-related. A couple paragraphs struck me, not so much about teaching or being taught as what comes after (or doesn't):

Out of a thousand art students, maybe five will make a living off their art, and perhaps one will be known outside her city. That’s not a condemnation. It’s the nature of fame, real quality, and genuine influence to be rare. In addition the mechanisms of fame are strongly random. Many interesting artists don’t make their work at the right moment or show it to the right people. A bad critique, or bad weather on opening night, can be enough to topple a career. No one will agree on what’s great or important or worthwhile, and in the second half of the twentieth century the avant-garde became notoriously evanescent and hard to locate. Yet beyond those problems of luck and history, it is still true that most artists do not make interesting art . . .

Average people have average energy, and that means they may be significantly different from those few that find a voice for more urgent, passionate, timely, “essential,” or “profound” thoughts. This is only melancholic if every artist wants those qualities . . . Most of us are relatively contented with our level of energy and our mastery. Everyone is a little discontented, but few people are strongly discontented. Most of us are not profound and we have obvious limitations.

Is that depressing? I guess so, but I don't think it's wrong. If a definition of adulthood is recognizing one's limitations and doing the best one can within them, then perhaps a genius is someone who does not or will not recognize their limitations, and thereby somehow, transcends them. Perhaps part of youth is still thinking that you could turn out to be a genius of some kind, and adulthood is realizing that it ain't gonna happen; but that maybe, actually, we don't care that much, and pressing on regardless, making the best work we can within the parameters of our lives. Even if we are average, unprofound, limited.