Guggenheim Dreams 5/5/20

Thoughts of Richard Bleil

Sometimes we touch people more permanently than we might think. Back around 1993, I met a young woman who I can practically guarantee does not remember me, and certainly has no idea she is the seed for this blog post.

The encounter seemed innocuous enough. I had decided to try my hand at art. I’ve always wished I had talent in some form of art but sadly it’s not meant to be. I would love to be able to pick up a pencil and sketch somebody’s portrait, but I just don’t have the talent. I’m not feeling bad, mind you; I have talents in other areas that many people do not. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and mine are nothing to sneeze at (especially with the Coronavirus crisis), but neither are they the kinds of abilities that will get notice. Basically, I’m a nerd, and that’s okay.

Living in New York City at the time, I used to walk past the Guggenheim museum of fine art on my way to work. Typically, it was too expensive to go in, but every couple of weeks they would have a “free will donation” entry fee. Of course, those are the days that, well, let’s just say that there WAS no social distancing.

New York City has some amazing neighborhoods, such as “SoHo”. “SoHo” was short for “South of Houston Street” and was basically where many artists lived. There were some pretty amazing art schools, and artists, and SoHo was kind of the “in” place in the art world. Naturally, there was a large art supply store in it as well, an art supply store I decided to visit.

Among my various failed art endeavors was, when I was living in New York City, painting. I didn’t have a lot of money, but for less than the price of a ticket to a Broadway show (or even off-Broadway for that matter) I could purchase a few canvases, acrylic paints and a paintbrush. By the time I arrived at the counter, I was hauling quite an impressive pile with me.

As she was ringing me up, I struck up a conversation with the young woman behind the counter. I explained that I was just starting in art. I said to her, “So give me a few weeks before you expect to see me in the Guggenheim!”

“That’s the spirit,” she retorted with a smile, “GO for it!”

With this ice breaker, I continued the conversation, keenly aware that she was really not interested in me but having a pleasant and friendly conversation nonetheless. As it turns out, she was an art major in one of the colleges. I felt the need to apologize for being so glib about my (nonexistent) art skills to a serious art student working to hone her skill, but she just laughed. She explained to me that actually she hoped that I did make it into the Guggenheim as I had suggested. I asked her if it would tick her off.

“No,” she replied. “Your skills don’t impact my efforts, so I think it would be great if it turns out you were that good.”

It struck me. While teaching in South Dakota, more than once I’ve had students complain about mis graded papers; not theirs, but their classmates. If their friend was fortunate enough that I graded something in their friend’s favor, the students would argue that, therefore, they deserved those points as well. Rather than being happy for their friend, they were upset that they didn’t get the benefit. This would make some sense, I suppose, if I graded on a curve, but their friends’ grades in no way influenced theirs, and if I refused to give them the points, well, let’s say they were unhappy. This was when I agreed to “level the playing field” and took the points away from their friend.

Not really. I always assumed that if I made an error in grading that benefited the students, I should leave it. I wanted my students to feel comfortable coming to me if they have questions, and fear that I might find an error and take points away is counter intuitive to that goal. But I threatened it a few times and was sure to tell them that when they see their friend again, they should explain that it was their fault that the points were taken away.

Yes, I’m cruel.

But what strikes me is the difference in philosophy, a student who would have been happy for me to accomplish what she was working hard to do versus students unhappy that fate fell on their friends instead of on them.

There’s a beautiful Buddhist word, “Ahimsa”, meaning respect for all living things. We have choices in how we look at the good fortunes of others. We can be upset that the luck fell to them but not us, or, we can be happy for the other. Simple respect tells us which is the appropriate response.

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