A Dying Art

I was sitting with a colleague in sales a few weeks ago, probably over a cup of hot cocoa or tea, and he said this:

“You know….no matter how much data we collect; no matter how much we use it to make decisions or have it provide strategic direction; we will always need people to do what we do.”

By “what we do,” he meant sales….relationship-building….client engagement.

My investment firm should know that it needs people a lot better than other firms.  It’s what we do…bottom up, research-driven, boots-on-the-ground security pickers.  There’s an art to that.  Is there science as well?  Sure.  Is there complex algorithms and Monte Carlo engines cranking out tens of thousands of simulations?  Sure.  And they help with probabilities.

But the art.  The art is what makes the story dance.

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The business of making art is a tough one to be in these days.  More and more emphasis–from kindergarten on up–is being placed on the all-mighty fields of STEM:

Science
Technology
Engineering
Math

Work the brain!  Work those equations!  Work hypotheses and theorems and analysis!  Run those numbers!  Get your protractors out!  Watch out for that rhombus!!!

Maybe it’s just the way I’m wired….maybe because I’ve lived my entire life around non-STEM people……I’m the son of music teachers…I’m the nephew of a physical education teacher…my stepdad played in a band for 30+ years, and even their lead singer was a phenomenal Baltimore County art teacher.  My stepbrother has played every musical instrument imaginable since the age of 3.  (And for the love of God…I have no rhythm and can’t carry at tune…I’m quite a sight at family weddings.)

But ANYWAY….when my kids come home, I try to trick them into saying something about their school day other than, “It was good.” So I ask them “What did you do in Special today?”

Special is one class that rotates every day…from music, to art, to phys ed, to library (and the fifth day is different every week).  I want to know what the heck they did in Special…and what they did at recess.  The two times a day they actually get to let their brains roam.  The two times a day their brains are really free.  Because I can review math and science homework and tests until I scream….but I can’t review what they felt like when they painted, or participated in “scooter city,” or dove down the sliding board and played freeze tag.

I want to change the curriculum from making STEM a priority to making PAWM a priority:

Phys Ed
Art
Writing
Music

Many years ago in a simpler time…circa 1992…the Baltimore County Board of Education voted to cut the phys ed credits needed for high school students to graduate from 1.5 credits to 0.5.  Which means instead of 3 semesters of phys ed….students only needed to take 1 semester.

The School Board held a public hearing on the matter.  So I wrote a speech and decided to tell them what I thought about their intentions.  Long into the night I waited for my turn – and shortly after midnight, I stepped to the mic and let them have it.

One of my best friend’s dad, who was affectionately referred in a previous post as “Big Al,” was the President of the School Board and sat front and center that night.  So “letting them have it” wasn’t quite as anonymous and as easy as it sounds.

The hearing was mainly for show…a very unceremonious appeasement for the people who actually care about getting exercise, running around, energizing their minds, and learning about nutrition.  Never mind the direction the nation’s collective waistline was headed.

But, at least for the time being, the Board decided to only cut back the credits needed from 1.5 to 1.0.  A small victory for the commoners.  I like to tell folks that they did it because of my speech.  And you never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

The only reason I bring up the phys ed aspect of this because getting in a good cardio exercise is a million times more energizing to my mind, and my attitude, and my creativity, than any amount of coffee would do for me at lunch.

As Ron Burgundy would say, “It’s science.”

Which brings us to this.

A few months ago I was reading an article from a periodical.  An NYC English teacher named Mrs. Lockwood asked her students to write a letter to their favorite author and persuade him or her to visit the school.  Five of the students wrote to Kurt Vonnegut.

While he didn’t make the trip to Xavier High School, he did respond to the students.

This is what he wrote:

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs. Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer, and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances anymore because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art—music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage—no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Practice any art, however well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to find out what’s inside you.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower, and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six-line poem about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!
Kurt Vonnegut
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I think of that story every time I belt out ridiculously off-key lyrics in the car, or shower, or wherever.  Or I ask my kids what they did “in Special” that day.

Don’t let art become a dying art.

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