I can’t even draw a stick figure!

Q: How often do art teachers hear the words, “I can’t even draw a stick figure”?

A: Often enough that we have to muster a significant amount of self control not to smack the person who says it.

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Passing By Red Pillars by Paul Klee, 1928, National Gallery of Art

A colleague of mine recently commented about this phenomenon, which got me thinking… and writing. For the record, I realize smacking someone who says this would be wrong. They know not what they do. In fact, that’s kind of the point.

In my experience, “I can’t even draw a stick figure” is the most frequent comment made when someone realizes they are speaking with an art teacher, and sometimes to acknowledge the art teacher’s expertise in the realm of art. Comments like “I can’t even draw a stick figure” or “I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler” are made as an admission that the speaker lacks some degree of art education. At the same time, ironically and rather poetically, it proves the point by demonstrating a lack of understanding of what an art education can provide.

“I can’t even draw a stick figure” reveals a false assumption that the ability to draw realistically is the primary outcome of an art education. This is an unfortunate myth deeply held by our culture, and perpetuated even by art teachers — Stop it! Learning to draw realistically is a skill that many students wish to –and do– gain from their art education, but it is such a narrow slice of what can and should be taught and learned in art classes.

An art education should provide awareness of and an ability to act within the visual world. We are surrounded and bombarded daily by imagery that is complex and meaningful if you know how to see it. Better still is the ability to communicate your own ideas in that same visual world. Far too many adults lack the background knowledge to understand what they see, not only in art museums, but also on paper, on the street, and online.

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The Twittering Machine by Paul Klee, 1922, Museum of Modern Art

Take the artworks included here for example. What are the odds that someone who says “I can’t even draw a stick figure” will have any appreciation for the stick figure drawings of Paul Klee, and understand why these belong in some of the worlds finest art museums?

Becoming familiar with the world of art is an act of becoming familiar with one’s own culture. It’s a shame that more school systems don’t acknowledge this and value a quality art education. And it’s unfortunate that so many adults feel the need to apologize for a limited art education by saying “I can’t even draw a stick figure.” If you are one of them, try something different next time. When you are talking with an art teacher try saying,

I really wish I had gotten a better art education in school.

I bet that teacher won’t want to smack you.

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