Whiplash

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'”
– Whiplash

Juliette gives us weekly readings which we discuss as a group. We’ve read on a wide range of topics but all somehow relate to the long rocky path of becoming an artist. How there’s a lot standing between you and greatness and typically the biggest obstacle is you.

This week she told us all to go see the new movie Whiplash.

Now that you’ve seen the trailer with the scary jazz band leader and are having flashbacks to your experiences with a sadistic coach, teacher, or boss, I have to interject that Juliette is not this teacher. She speaks directly and as with all professionals whose trade requires real-time feedback, she has honest visceral reactions to work — student work and her own. Above all she is kind and respectful.

The movie is great. It’s great as a film and the story is familiar territory for many of us. I was reminded of intense situations such as competing in collegiate speech or art directing in graduate school where all around me were the desperate faces of my peers who vied for a minute chance at greatness. We’ve all had mentors and teachers who pushed us to be better than we were. Sometimes that pushing was good medicine and sometimes the prescription was wrong. This movie begs the question, if you’re not pushed to your limit how will you become great? And where’s the line of propriety? These are murky waters, but I found the film’s handling of another question to be even more compelling.

In one conversation the teacher tells the student about the making of jazz legend Charlie Parker, also known as Bird. He got his name as a young player when he screwed up during a recording session and drummer Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at his head. Humiliated, Parker went away and practiced his fingers to the bones and then gave us one of the best jazz recordings in history just one year later. Now the teacher tells the student, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'” The student answers, “But where’s the line? What if Charlie Parker had gotten discouraged?” The teacher answers, “A true Charlie Parker would never get discouraged. That’s the point.”

So, the teacher is a sociopath. And yes, he has a point. But it’s not the one he thinks and thank God the movie bears this out. This is really a question of drive and where it comes from. The point is indeed that Charlie Parker would never get discouraged. Charlie Parker didn’t need to almost get decapitated by a cymbal to get psyched on the sax. Because drive is intrinsic. You can’t degrade some one until they suddenly have it. You can’t scream it into them. Passion comes from within. Teachers test you. Life tests you. The world doesn’t want you to be great. The world doesn’t care. You have to.

One time Juliette came into the first-year studio right at 1:30 after lunch was over and the afternoon session had begun. No one was at their easels, the studio was empty. It was raining out which slows down the lunch rush, there was an event going on at the neighboring church so there was no where to park, honestly the studio clock is set five minutes faster than every other synchronized iPhone on the planet, and the list of solid excuses goes on. Since you’re curious, I had actually already been at my easel but then left to go to the bathroom. I walked in as Juliette stood looking around the empty studio confused. She left to work with the other studios and came back at the end of the day to talk to us first-years as a group. She told us “find it.” Whatever it is that gets you to your easel on time. The best students step over dead bodies to get to their easels. She said it’s a race. The old masters learned for ten years, you’re trying to learn in four. There’s some one out there who started younger than you, they’re better looking than you, they came from more money, and they’re working hard. You have to work harder. Whatever it is, find it.

Honestly we’re not told “good job” all that often. The atelier is not that kind of place. My bottle project was successful so one of our teachers (two former students of Juliette help her teach) said in seriousness that I should frame the project so I can remember that time I did something right. To be fair, he said that because he knows how rarely we experience that feeling in the atelier. But out of context the soundbite is hilarious. More recently I experienced my first big jump in life room drawing. Progress isn’t linear: one day your drawing is complete shite when it was okay the day before. But generally if you’re working at something everyday you get better. So I came back from a weekend and suddenly a bunch of things fell into place. I was drawing much better. And it happened again Tuesday. And Wednesday. It wasn’t an accident, I was actually drawing better by far and consistently. I was giddy about our next critique day. When it came the teacher said, “Well we can’t waste any time patting ourselves on the back. We need to talk about line quality.” In the sisyphean task of learning to draw, I had only gained a little altitude in rolling the boulder up the mountain, but I was still relatively at the bottom.

With a task so large and the way so long, there’s no need have a teacher scream or degrade. Talk about a waste of time. There’s no amount of screaming that could sustain an artist’s entire career. True drive is only about the ultimatum: find it.

(Featured Image: Composition VIII by Kandinsky, 1923, Oil on Canvas, Guggenheim Museum, New York)

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