Actually, Don’t

I’m not a big fan of these inspirational-poster-style meme type things in general, lovely lurkers, but this one in particular has bothered me for a long time. And I’d like to explain to you why, in a brief rant.

Ahem.

First, allow me to describe this image, both for the sake of any of my readers with visual impairment, but also so that we are all on the same page, as far as what we are looking at:

We’ve got a sepia-toned photograph, depicting a row of five little girls at a ballet barre. All five girls are dressed in ballet class garb (tutus, tights, etc.) and look to be around four years old. From left to right, four of the little girls are faced sideways to us, looking up at what we can assume is a dance instructor, in a neat row (well, neat for four-year-olds), all attempting some vestige of a ballet position. The fifth girl, on the far right as we look, however, is upside down, ass over teakettle, her knees hooked over the barre, hands holding on, smiling at the camera. A large caption adorns the top of the photo, declaring, “Be the girl on the right.”

No.

I mean, no. Especially if you want to learn ballet.

Look, I understand the sentiment of this message (saccharine though it may be). What the creator of this image is trying to say is that standing out from the crowd is more important than being like all the others, and that self-expression is better than forcing oneself into a typical lockstep with everyone else. I get it, I do; and being a lifelong denizen of The Island of Misfit Toys myself, I, too, value the great gift of being weird.

Thing is, this picture is bullshit.

That little girl on the right is not engaging in joyous self-expression (well, maybe she is, but that’s not the point); that little girl is misbehaving. Her hanging on the barre is not just as valid as the ballet techniques being learned by the other girls, just because it comes from an authentic place. She’s not learning ballet, she’s not paying attention to the adult in charge of her learning (and her welfare), and, worst of all, she’s hindering the learning of the other girls, who are actually there trying to learn a technique. Believe me, I’ve taught many a dance and a martial arts class to little kids–that teacher who’s out of frame has to stop class to get that misbehaving girl to join the group and do as she’s supposed to. If the girl continues to be “the girl on the right,” her parents will be called in to remove her from class.

Don’t be the girl on the right.

The girl on the right is never going to learn how to dance ballet if this is what she does in class. If she grows up like this, she’ll be an entitled little nightmare with no respect for authority nor discipline in practice for whatever she does.

But, Jenn, we shouldn’t be blind followers of rigid rules and authority, I hear some of you protesting. The best artists are those who flout the rules and go their own way. Well, sure. And you’re right, except for one thing.

Those rule-breaking artists who thumb their noses at authority? Those iconoclasts of cutting edge creativity? How do you think they learned how to do their art?

The best artists learn the rules, thoroughly and completely, and from a teacher (or master, or authority figure of some kind), before they can then break them. The discipline that comes with training, that is: learning technique, comes first. Then, once the artist is a master of doing it the same as those masters who came before him, then and only then can he break those rules and make something unusual out of his art.

Art, any art, that lacks technique is nothing but a wet rag (read up on Grotowski, the great theatre movement technique disciplinarian, for more on this concept). Hirschfeld, the great Broadway caricaturist, said how he needed to learn the precise anatomy of an arm, and be able to draw it with scientific precision, before he then could draw an arm using one curving line. Pure self-expression, with no technique or structure, is not art. It’s healthy, and good for you, sure, but its audience should be limited to a therapist, if anyone.

I went to grad school for poetry at Naropa University (google it, kids). While I was pleasantly surprised at the academic and technical rigor present in that MFA training program, there was still so much of this: “it’s authentic, coming from my heart/experience, and therefore it’s good art.” No. No, it ain’t. It needs revision, and lots of it. And, seriously: editing your authentic bit of self-expression will do nothing to diminish the power of your true voice; quite the contrary. If you construct the messy vomit of your raw self-expression into a good poem, then it will echo and resonate to your readers, as opposed to being a selfish forcing of them to watch you masturbate.

If self-expression is to be art, it needs technique. To learn technique, one needs discipline. And Yes, Virginia, that discipline comes with training, which might just consist of rote repetitions, drills, and copying your teacher (and/or other masters). I mean, can you imagine a martial artist, who has never taken a class but likes playing around by punching her couch at home, getting into the sparring ring with another, who has a black belt (and you can imagine what training and discipline that requires)? I don’t care how well and powerfully that martial artist can punch her couch, she’s going to get her ass trounced in that ring. Why? No technique. Authenticity is great, but it actually doesn’t really matter to anyone but you. And art is supposed to be a communication, something that goes out from the artist into the world to be shared.

No other way to be a master oneself, unless one starts from square one, there at the barre, in a neat row, trying to imitate one’s teacher as exactly as possible.

Don’t be the girl on the right. Not until you’ve mastered ballet, by being the girls on the left.

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