Perennial Puppy Syndrome

May 7, 2010

Dear Rodney,A few days ago a young bicycle courier brought his first five paintings around to 
my studio. "I'm not trying to get good," he said. "I just want to enjoy myself in 
my evenings after I get off the streets." We wondered together if it was possible 
to enjoy oneself as a painter without trying to get good. "Your definition of 
good," he said, "may not be my definition." 

During the past few decades biologists have been noticing changes in the behaviour 
of wolves. They're getting nicer. Not nearly as aggressive. Their ears no longer 
stand straight in anticipation of danger. Some researchers think they may be 
howling just for the fun of it. In captivity they can be trained to sleep with 
pussycats. Even in the wild, many wolves are now acting like your dog and mine.

Apparently, the same thing is happening to us. Many humans now choose to be 
tail-waggers. We've become domesticated. We're gentler. If you're an easy going, 
relaxed, fun-loving, non-competitive artist, you may be one of the breed. 

It's mainly a Western phenomenon. Less challenged by our environment, out of harm's 
way and generally better off than previous generations, we've become complacent. 
Getting away from boredom in the workplace, we need only a pastime. 

An estimated forty million hobby painters propel the art-materials business. Like 
quilting, journaling, or maintaining an aquarium, folks just do it. Quality control 
may be a lesser aim. Marketing is a non-starter. These days, many artists mention 
goals of fulfillment and personal happiness over challenge and professionalism. The 
play's the game. The emphasis on inner child, return to innocence and the youth 
bias of the media stirs up the latent kid. Delayed maturity, in the traditional 
sense, is the result.

What are the possible benefits of all this puppyhood? In the arts, immaturity has 
become a good place to start. We need the puppy-love before we seriously fall. The 
work, in Bernard Berenson's words, is simply "life enhancing." The downside may be 
chronic mediocrity, the effect of which can fan out through an entire culture. 
While teachers and workshoppers report daily discoveries of potential in beginners 
and hobbyists, many just stay put, ambition free, content to be out and about and 
part of a happy pack. 

Best regards,


PS: "Ambition is made of sterner stuff." (William Shakespeare)

Esoterica: An artist may be a lone wolf. She may occasionally run with the pack. 
Most often she is happy foraging on her own. She may be wily and alert to 
opportunity. She may know that adventure can bring out her best. There are times 
when she's out for blood. There are also times when she's as playful as a puppy.