Portrait of a Millennial Art Student

You’ve grown up in the public school system, and it shows. You are sensitive to the world around you, and in touch with your “feelings”—a perfect little guilt-ridden example of a twenty-first-century castrato or an overbearing feminist airhead. You hardly know the alphabet or how to count, or even what sex you are, but hell— you can feel up a storm.

As for your education, well—history, science, language, and any comprehensive view of the last two thousand years of human expression in the arts (if these things were mentioned at all) were viciously truncated. For the most part, you have learned only what has happened since the early twentieth century. Immersed in electronic observation, you probably don’t know what a screwdriver is, or how to change a lightbulb. But you are iron-bound to the idea that everyone is a winner, and no one ever loses. And of course you have been trained that there are certain words you must never say, and certain thoughts you must never think.

Well, it doesn’t matter—you probably never learned to spell words anyway. Although not quite sure what you stand for, you are committed to riot and mayhem against anything that you have been taught to oppose. In short, you have been living in lala-land ever since you popped from the womb. And now, having been well indoctrinated on the elementary and secondary level, you are determined to attend college. Don’t worry—you’ll get in. Colleges are desperate for money, and everybody gets accepted someplace.

Not very long ago, colleges and universities were thought of as places for questioning, finding a direction, and learning a certain proficiency in one’s chosen field. No one ever thought that students might end up paying to unlearn what they had learned from family life. Nevertheless, ill-prepared as you are, you still suspect that you are being sent into the lion’s den without a slingshot. It must be the lingering influence of that obsolete construct called the family (who can barely afford to pay your way). But don’t worry—all that family atavism will soon be dead as a doornail, as they used to say when people knew what nails were.

In some sense, I feel a certain sympathy for you. Feckless and ignorant, you stand here on campus like a turkey in the rain, trying to make one of life’s big decisions, without a clue in the world, or outside of it.

It goes without saying that you already have a comprehensive resume—I believe you began it in the second grade—which covers all the standard stuff: your firm belief in global warming (just scratch that and scribble in “climate change”), your support of any and all who ignore the law, and your solid commitment to any enhancement of “women’s rights.” There’s more, but those are the three major required items.

Your lack of interest in dating the current crop of mouthy, long-haired, gravel-voiced, politically correct Amazons that pass themselves off as females, plus your emotional reaction to the sight of a beautiful sunset, have shoved your indecisive self into a major decision. You are going to study art! Not that you know exactly what art is, or in what medium you want to express yourself. But what could be more high-minded or more beneficial to the human race?

After adding a couple of extra paragraphs to your resume about your middle-school basketweaving experience and your participation in a communal mural about indigenous people who may once have owned the land where City Hall now stands, you sign up for some art courses, and—you’re off.

After the first few lectures it’s easy to discern that art history really began in the early 1900s. Everything else before that has already been declared more or less irrelevant, and been explained away as useless. You are being gently guided to the revelation that everything—even art—is rooted in politics. Should you discover that some artist from the French Revolution painted the way he did because of the political climate, that’s acceptable of course—but you are generally encouraged to stay this side of 1900, where those in the know agree that the true aesthetic revolutionaries emerged.

You are taught some other things as well. You learn that there is no balance between personal opinion and artistic expression, and that there is no time for draftsmanship, design, or the elegance of drawing. Subtlety is out of date. You are taught that true artists are revolutionaries first—only after that is technique to be valued, or even considered. Everything except politics is downplayed— so much so that when you look at Picasso’s Guernica you must search out its political context and ramifications, and nothing else.

Groups are crucial to your artistic development. Don’t hesitate to align yourself with as many clubs and collectives as you can. At first, you may have naively wanted to hear differing opinions, but group pressure exerted itself to the contrary. Let’s say an expert on stained glass windows or early Renaissance masters were invited to speak at your campus. You and your group, you learn, should be the first ones out there on the picket line to protest this elitist, Eurocentric lecture from happening. Break a few windows, and lob a few paint balls! People who lecture on such irrelevant and insulting stuff are holding you back! You are politically obliged to defend a modernist (and even postmodernist) stance in the arts.

Soon you find that you are developing a “fixed position” in both politics and the arts. You are willing (with the supine acquiescence of the college faculty and administration) to chase those who differ off campus. You are showing the world how sensitive you are. If necessary, retreat to a “safe space” where you can congratulate yourself and your like-minded friends on how encrusted with political virtue you are. That will really signal to others that you have solidly progressive commitments. That’s all that actually matters now, whether you are a painter, a sculptor, or a garbage collector.

As for your art classes, you may be well behind on studio assignments, but who cares? You’re knee-deep into theory. Conventional art students are interested in paints and canvas and sizing and sketchpads and frames. You are beyond all that.

Very soon, your concern for visual pleasure, nuanced thought, and actual meaning will have evaporated. Rich colors will seem out of date. Well, who cares? You always had trouble with that anyway. How you feel and the ways in which you evoke those feelings seem more important than any visual, aesthetic pleasure. After all, if the poets you know no longer care about rhyme, metrics, order, and reason; and the musicians are indifferent to harmony, melody, and structure; and the sculptors know nothing about human anatomy… why should you bother about any of that boring stuff?

You’ll become lost in an Alice-in-Wonderland world of “process” and “found” and “aleatory” art, where a random look at your uncle’s belts in a closet will cause you to rip them out and enter them, unmodified, in a museum exhibit. The slovenly depiction of a drug-induced nightmare, or any dubious piece of junk you picked up on the street will both become beautiful in your eyes, outshining the most evocative drawing or the finest woodcut.

When your four years of posturing, grouping, categorizing, and acting out are done, you will get a worthless degree, perhaps allowing you to teach the same kind of stuff to younger persons who follow your path. Will you be an artist? No one can say. But it is good to keep in mind that chimpanzees were being trained to make cute random daubs on canvas long before you were born. It’s a long and hallowed tradition. So you might as well settle back, have another banana, and await your audience.

A former Wilbur Fellow and six-time nominee for a Pushcart award, in 2007, she has published three books, Measured By Song, Making Music. As one of two finalists in the 2013 Aldrich Press Poetry Book Award, Cook was awarded publication of the manuscript for The View From Here, her third book I During Poetry Week 2014, The Poetry Collecftion at SUNYAB, Buffalo, published Cook’s chapbook of her work. Poems and essays by Sally Cook have appeared in numerous magazines and journals such as Blue Unicorn, Chronicles, First Things, The Formalist Portal, Light Quarterly, Lighten Up Online, National Review, Pennsylvania Review, Trinacria and other venues, both print and electronic. The poet is also a painter of Magic Realist paintings. She began as an exhibitor in Manhattan’s Tenth Street Co-operative Galleries, moved into geometrics and went on from there. Her work has been exhibited at many leading galleries and museums and represented in national collections.