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In Praise of Artistic Compromise

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On days when Taylor’s hyperactivity extends to backwards somersaults on the floor between turns of Musopoly, and Jordan suddenly bursts into tears because he has remembered the wrong fingering to a new piece, and Jessica’s lesson has to be ended early because she threw the Rhythm Bingo cards and chips at her “mean” older sister, I am shocked at what I have become. I had always thought I would practice a higher form of art: at seventeen, I was accepted to study at Cooper Union, the most selective and demoralizing architecture school in the country. This more-metaphysical-than-thou institution groomed us to be the intelligentsia of the art world: we were to scoff at commercially successful architects, believing they had no principles, and praise instead those who had never built, or waited ten years between projects. Once we left this upper echelon of critical thinkers, we were told, we faced the cruel fate of being forced to explain ourselves pedantically to intellectual lessers while depending on them for our jobs. Teaching them what was really important while trying to trick them into letting us do what we knew was best.

The question that doggedly pursued us throughout those years of architecture at its cleanest and most idealistic was: what next? Though we hated to admit it, we wouldn’t be here forever. Eventually we would have to get jobs – paying jobs, to offset our massive student loans – and reality is harsh: there is little one can do with an architecture degree besides work for an architect, or eventually become one. And we all knew that as soon as art enters the real world, it is doomed. Keith Haring did cutting-edge, fascinating work when he was an illegal tagger; when his graffiti designs became widely available on mass-produced T-shirts, it was boring and overdone. A design for a House of Anticipation might be ontologically impeccable, but then a client would demand an extra bathroom. During one of my critiques, Raimund Abraham told our thirty-five incredulous faces that we were lucky to be in school: lucky, we who hadn’t slept in days except by mistake, our heads slumped over drafting boards. Lucky, he said, because we weren’t under someone else’s thumb. (In reality, of course, we lived and breathed by what he said during critique, in constant fear of the very real threat of instant expulsion with little or no warning.) Lucky, because we were creating with no boundaries, no limits, and only for ourselves. Lucky, because we weren’t yet in the real world. And in the real world, he said to me, one pudgy Austrian finger aimed directly at my face, “Everyone is your enemy.” We had to fight for our right to make the world more beautiful, complex, and dynamically original – fight against the idiots we had to work for. I suppose most college students feel this way at times, but we were groomed towards it.

Yet there was a very unsettling dichotomy at Cooper between disparaging the outside world and disparaging we who were supposedly above it. I began to see why artists are stereotypically self-righteous and egotistical: in school, their egos are given such thorough, consistent trampling that they have no choice but to either withdraw from the profession or become as narcissistic as those criticizing them. I withdrew. I had never “known” I wanted to be an architect; I was trying to see if this might be the right place for me, and found my answer amid the constant verbal bullying and flagellation: a resounding no.

My Suzuki childhood had not prepared me for the horrors of the academic world: professors that destroyed student work when they didn’t like it, and refused to grant credit even when they did. (I recall several instances where a teacher would shrug, “I don’t know how you came up with this; you can’t possibly understand how brilliant it is.”) My mother worried that this kind of harsh criticism would dampen the spirit she had crafted in me through years of patient training through positive reinforcement. At first, it didn’t: I was so positive that I stubbornly believed it was all for the best, to make me a better and more disciplined student, and if I could just stick out this week . . . month . . . semester . . . school year . . . things would improve. If my professors hated one part of my project, at least I could just rework it; if they told me to scrap the whole thing, I was excited about the opportunity to begin afresh. But time and cruelty wore away my self-confidence in a field of which I had never been certain. Eventually I took the bait and agreed with them all: I didn’t know what I was doing or why I had been accepted to the school in the first place, and I might as well leave.

But now, years later, I am fighting back, in my own way. Fighting elitism, by teaching classical music to attention-deficit children of yuppie parents. My workplace is as mainstream as it gets, but I am injecting it with a slow and steady stream of high art, challenging and redefining the boundaries of these students and their parents through honest and simple explanation. A NEA-paid artist might have complete freedom, but being forced to explain your actions to your employers causes much more critical thinking, as you have more than just yourself to report to. And where is the achievement in pleasing yourself? The real achievement comes from modifying musical jargon so that six-year-olds can start understanding it, and appreciating it, immediately. At six years old, I took my first Suzuki piano lesson. Now, nearly twenty years later, I begin to understand what a powerful effect it has had on me: Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy, that any child can learn to play the piano well regardless of innate ability, is true for all forms of art.

And I am fighting the old-world school system as well. I imagine, gleefully, what Abraham would have done with a seven-year-old basket case for thirty minutes: he, who lost his patience regularly with hardworking and eager-to-please adults! My patience is a gift to my students to guard against the day when they discover that not everyone believes in Suzuki. Every instance of encouragement, every time I lead by positive example and not by derogatory criticism, every time I tell a child that his intent to learn is just as laudable as the results of his learning, it is a slap in the face of the environment these “professors” were trying to create. I am making the world a more beautiful place, but I am doing it one Mississippi Hot Dog at a time, patiently coaxing loveliness out of five-year-old attention spans and middle-aged insecurity.

Photo: Watts Shadows - Los Angeles, June 2004

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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