A friend of ours has sent our seven-year-old a beautiful Degas sketchbook she bought at London’s La Courtauld Gallery. Oishi, who never leaves the house without her colours and a sketchbook of some description, was thrilled to receive it.
She now uses the Degas book for what she calls special drawings, and has been prolifically producing some experimental stuff—with poster colours rather than her usual waters and crayons and felt-tipped pens— over the past few weeks. She is getting more and more fond of drawing and painting. She says she wants to be an artist when she grows up.
It’s a noble ambition. (I’d be the first to support it. Although, as I’ve said before, I’d just as much support her if she were to want to be a professional dilettante.)
Last week, she produced a landscape that was different from the ones she had till then been drawing. It was a swirl of colours and a glut of variegated textures; the house in the foreground tended towards the heavily, deliberately schematic.
“What do you think?” she asked, her eyes aglow with the anticipation of praise.
“Well done,” I said, and kissed her.
Her brow writhed. Clearly, I hadn’t said what was expected of me.
“Isn’t it a bit like Cezanne?” she asked. (Oishi knows her Cezannes from her Van Goghs. My fault: it’s a result of spending too many hours with her at galleries around the world and with my art books.)
“Er… well…” I pretended to look at it closely and bought some time.
Now you need to be very careful with what you say to our girl. You never know which casual remark she might hold you to afterwards. And this was a genuinely tricky one. The response to it — either way — bears out one of the things my wife and I often talk about: how much to encourage our child, and how much to tell her exactly where she stands on something.
If you don’t encourage her, she’ll feel disappointed. And yet, if you say everything she does is marvellous, she tends to lose a sense of context. And you have, in some sense, stifled the sense of openness and introspection that are the keys to being truly liberal.
It’s a problem at the heart of our popular culture. Look at the reality shows that often scout out (non)talent; at the unregulated blogs that spew uninformed opinion masquerading as analysis. All of this is part of a movement that advocates the democratisation of talent.
Everyone’s equally good at everything, this movement cries. But it’s not true. It just so happens that some of us are much better at some things than others. And the sooner we realise that, the better it is for all of us. If you call that cultural elitism, well, let’s have some. I don’t mind.
It’s hard to explain all this to a seven-year-old. (Hell, it’s hard to explain all this to most adults.)
So I told my girl that what she had done was different and really nice; that if she wanted to become an artist, if that’s what she had a passion for, she ought to keep at it; that Cezanne and Van Gogh were tremendous heroes to look up to; and that, because they were among the best in the history of the world, they were not easy to emulate or even remotely measure up to.
Genuine talent will always out in the end, I think. (Even being a wastrel requires a certain single-mindedness of purpose.) Being delusional about what we do is probably not the best way to nurture it.
I have no idea if I do the right thing with all this. But then, I have not much of an idea about anything. And with parenting, does anybody?