You have Permission

Mistakes are proof that you are trying…

Good afternoon. Welcome parents and teachers and students. Welcome artists.

Well done! You are here. Your work is on the walls [and on the floor]. It is not hiding in a drawer or a closet or buried in a stack on your teacher’s desk.

Awesome job! Congratulations on this, the beginning of your careers.

Whether you win the gold or the silver, this is not the end of the line for you guys. Tomorrow, you get to start over and begin something new.

And what will that be? Close your eyes for a moment.

Picture a canvas. A pile of clay. Or some fabric. Or a blank page, or a blank video screen. What will you make of it?

You can open your eyes. Some of you actually have pictures in your head of what might come next.  Some of you know it all already and some are ready to begin.

Some of you are frightened of that empty space. I can understand that. Beginning can be hard.

When it comes to making stuff, I’m a huge believer in leaping then looking, starting and then reshaping, writing and then rewriting, making mistakes and then fixing them, because you don’t have to get everything perfect the first time.

I’ve been leading a lot of writing workshops recently and the question I get most often is “Can I do that? Really?”

Students want to know, “Is it ok if I write about myself? Is it ok if I make something up? Is it ok if I write about something that’s impossible?”

I am leading a creative writing workshop, and one girl wanted to know if it was ok if her dog could talk!

Of course it’s ok!

At first I was puzzled and angry and little upset about this. Isn’t it obvious? And then I realized, no it’s not. Our students are taught to get it right. They are tested almost to death. In school they are told what they must learn and what they should or should not say.

They are told that if they don’t succeed, that if they don’t pass the test that not only will they fail, but their teachers will fail, their schools will fail, the community and state and country will fail and the whole world will collapse until we’re all just sitting around the fire, eating undercooked deer meat with our fingers.

I exaggerate a little. I like doing that.

But I’m not exaggerating when I say that today, the questions you boys and girls want answered are, “Is this going to be on the test?” “Does this look bad?” or even more insidious, “Am I doing this right?”

Now I’m not here to talk about math or english or science or history. And I’m not going to talk about your grades. That’s between you and your teachers. Chances are that if you’re here in this room, you probably have an A. Of course you still have to show up and turn your work in on time and pass the final. But that’s actually not the point.

In the “real world” you’re not tested on paper. You’re tested by who you are and what you do. You’re tested by the results you produce and the way you produce them.

Let’s get back to art. Let’s forget for a moment school. Some of you would like to do this for longer. I can appreciate that.

Let’s think about what we can make. Let’s take off the limits and allow our imaginations to soar. And I invite the grown-ups to play along. I know that I’m here talking to these amazing student artists, but for the next few minutes imagine that you don’t have to do your job, you don’t have to be responsible for everything in your family, and that there’s enough money in the bank.

Close your eyes again. Imagine making something.

What will it be? A painting? A landscape, a portrait? A video? A watercolor? A sculpture? You can use clay or steel or marble or copper or gold. There is no budget, you have unlimited funds. Is it representational or abstract? Are you writing a story or a novel. Do you want to direct a feature length movie in three-d? Maybe a computer game or An app? It could be something completely new and unique!

We live in an era of new techniques and new technologies. You can use them and make them your own. Or you can use the old methods. You can do anything.

You have permission.

Open your eyes if you haven’t already.

Now, what I’m saying and going to say, you actually don’t need. You don’t need my permission to do any of this, but I’m going to do it anyway, because I’m the guy giving the speech.

You have permission to make art about your lives. You can lie if you want to, or you can tell the truth. You can make art about your friends and your family, about your problems, your joys and about your zits.

Or if you don’t want to, you can make stuff up! You can invent entire worlds that have nothing to do with anything you have ever seen. You can rewrite history. You can change geography. You can turn physics on its head.

You can play with colors or work in black and white. You can do miniatures or huge canvasses or cover the Empire State Building with your art.

You can create things that will make people cry or laugh or smile or make them angry.

You can create ugly, violent and even weird images. But you may not want to bring those in to school.

In my writing workshops, I talk about  creativity and about saying “Yes and!” instead of “No” or but.

You get an idea and you say, “YES! And…. There’s another great idea…. And another great idea!” And you write it down or you draw it or you shoot it on video. It’s an incredibly freeing method of working. Later on, you’ll learn how to shape things and craft them and perfect your work. But the inspirational ideas, you say, YES! AND….

There’s the challenge. In our heads, we all have censors. Voices that say, “eech. That’s not good. That’s not good enough. That sucks.” And it stops us cold.

When you have an idea and say, “No, I can’t do that.” You kill off your creativity. When you get an idea and say, “No, but that’s dumb” you stop yourself from coming up with something that might be truly cool or amazing.

I’m going to tell you one of the dumbest ideas for a book I’ve ever heard. Imagine two boys in elementary school who draw a comic book about their principal running around in his underwear.

Anybody not heard of Captain Underpants? It’s a dumb idea, and it’s been enjoyed by million and millions and millions of kids. And yeah, it’s a dumb idea.

My point is that when you stop yourself from having dumb ideas, you may stop yourself from getting to the ones that really matter.

When you have a thought, “That’s not a good idea,” or “This is ugly,” let it happen anyway. Work on it some. See where it goes.

Explore, experiment, tinker and play. Try new things. Break out of your old habits and patterns. One of the bonuses and challenges of making art is allowing the art that we make to change us and move us.

When it comes to making art, you have permission.

You have permission to make something that’s foolish.
You have permission to make something that’s amazing.
You have permission to change your mind, to make mistakes
and throw them away or fix them
You have permission to make something truly disgusting
You have permission to make something amazingly beautiful.
You have permission to make something filled with joy that transforms the world
And you have permission to make stuff that’s just fun.

Go ahead. You have permission.

[Text of keynote speech by Mark Binder, at the Rhode Island Art Education Association Scholastic Awards, January 23, 2011]