Is This Good?

By Dewey Kincade, Art, History, and Latin

“Is this good?”

That’s a question I used to get all the time from my students in art class. This year I began a policy of not answering that question. I told my students that I didn’t want to be the judge of whether a work of art is good or bad, and I’ve suggested that maybe they shouldn’t view their work as either good or bad. Last year, the primary students asked me that question a lot. In fact, some would ask me several times regarding the same piece. You might think that complimenting a student on their artwork would be a positive, but I began to think that I was inadvertently sending the wrong message: that the purpose of art was my approval. Now I just ask questions.  

It’s not that strange to think of art in terms of the finished product. Everywhere we look, we see finished works of art: paintings, photographs, music, and drama. What we typically don’t see is the process that yields these stunning results. When we see a movie, we don’t think about the countless hours spent writing the script, building the sets, rehearsing the scenes, and editing the takes. We simply try to enjoy it. Later when people ask, we might say, “It was pretty good.” We experience the finished work, and then we render judgment.

Art looks a lot different from the other side of the screen, or canvas. Art is messy. Art has a lot of dead-ends. I’ve spent hours on a particular project only to abandon the effort altogether. Some might see that as a waste of time, but I don’t. That’s because the finished result is only part of the equation. As important as the result can be, the process is where the creator spends most of their time. If you love only the result, you will find yourself frustrated time and time again. Ultimately, you may pack up your paint brushes altogether.

More students mentally pack up their paint brushes because they believe they lack talent. The myth of talent is a pervasive one in our society, but I do think it is a myth. What we see as talent is really just a love for the process. I don’t doubt that some people have genetic “gifts,” but these gifts are useless without a love of process. The “talented” kids are the ones who spend more time making art, and they do so because they love the process. The kids who are more results-oriented are the ones who tend to get frustrated. They quickly fill up the page, and they are constantly asking me what they have to do next.

There are a few mantras I repeat to encourage kids to get into the right mindset.

  1. ABC- Always Be Creating. Art is not an idea, it is an action. Put your pencil to the paper and start moving it, and don’t worry about inspiration. Sometimes an art exercise can be a springboard for something more satisfying.

  2. Art is not a race, it is a sight-seeing trip. There’s no prize for finishing first. If you’re doing it right, you might even feel sad when it’s all over.

  3. Focus on the page—Leave the world around you for a little while. It’s not going anywhere.

  4. In order to make good art, you have to be willing to make bad art.  When everything you create has to be good, you are unwilling to take chances. When everything you create has to be good, you will not try anything new, because you won’t know what you’re doing.

As a parent, I still compliment my children on their artwork from time to time, but that is only one of the ways that I engage with them. I also look at their artwork as an opportunity to engage with them about the process they took to create it. I ask them about their choices. I ask them what they were thinking about when they made it. I also make art with them, and I never hesitate to say about my own artwork, “I’m not happy about this, but I can always turn the page.”