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Things We Can Learn Only in Our Teens

I have this theory that fine arts is a culture that you cannot learn after a certain age. Once you are over twenty, I think you’ve missed your chance. It’s like trying to learn English after a certain age (say, 12); some do succeed in being able to speak flawlessly, but they still wouldn’t get the culture. There is no way to objectively prove if someone “gets it” or not, but you can sense it in the same way gay people can sense other gay people with their “gaydar”. When you are young, especially when you are in college away from your parents for the first time, you suck everything in your environment like a sponge just by being exposed to it. Trying to learn a culture after you are twenty is sort of like trying to marinate your vegetables after you have already marinated them in something else; you are not going to absorb much.

This is probably true in many other fields, not just fine arts, but I can talk only about fine arts because that is what I studied. I would imagine, for instance, if you study science in college, the culture of science—the rigorous scientific way of looking at the world—would stick with you for the rest of your life, and others (like me) would never quite understand what it really means to be a scientist.

I was a stranger to fine arts when I started art school because I was enrolled as a graphic design major. But the first year at School of Visual Arts in New York was called “foundation year”, and everyone took the same classes. We didn’t know what others were majoring in, but the whole class naturally segregated into two; on one side was commercial art majors (graphic design, illustration, photography) and on the other side was fine arts majors. Towards the end of the year, I realized that all my friends were majoring in fine arts. Some of my friends pressured me to switch, so I said okay, and changed my major to fine arts. My foray into fine arts was almost accidental in this way.

In high school, my favorite artist was Norman Rockwell. This tells you the level of sophistication I had then. I was technically very good, and was able to paint like Rockwell, but I didn’t understand a thing about fine arts. I quickly caught up with everyone else. I dove headfirst into the strange world of fine arts. I did more reading than painting or drawing; art criticism, critical theories, and postmodern philosophy. After four years of doing this, the divide between commercial art majors and fine arts majors became so wide that it was practically impossible to explain to commercial art majors what we were doing. We wouldn’t even try because it just seemed pointless. This divide stayed intact ever since.

After college, I didn’t pursue fine arts because my heart was never in it, but the culture, the way of seeing the world, has never changed. Not to sound elitist or anything, I haven’t met many people who understand the culture of fine arts even though they did not study fine arts or architecture in college. As we get older, some of us become wealthy and start getting into fine arts through the collectors’ market, but their perspective and understanding of the culture is completely different. Since modern art does not require any technical competence, it’s easy to see if someone understands it or not. All you have to do is to look at the pictures they take on their smartphones. Even if they have a million dollar worth of artworks hanging in their living rooms, just looking at some of their photos would reveal what their true understanding of art is. Granted, most of them are not going to be great because most of us are not particularly talented, but the ways of seeing the world would still be revealed in the photos. They would show the baseline understanding of what fine arts is. It’s not about what they see, but about how critically they see everything around them. It’s about the depth of seeing. So, if they are able to see artworks with any depth, they should be able to see everything around them with the same depth; their photos would reflect that.

In contrast, we can continue to learn academic subjects in our lives far beyond our 20s. In this sense, it’s not important that we study them while we are in our teens. It’s more important, in my view, to study things that we can only learn in our teens.

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