Book Review Of I Am Better Than Your Kids, by Maddox
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 2/11/12
I recall this plate I made for my mom when I was in the third grade. It was for Valentine’s Day, or maybe Mother’s Day. I don’t remember which. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I drew a house with trees along side it, and flowers that stretched over the roof. Big hearts floated in the air, the butterflies had multi-colored wings, and were larger than the front door. There is a small date in the bottom corner—I believe from the year 1984. My mom still keeps this plate in her pantry, and every time I visit, I see it there. She keeps it near, but not on display.
I Am Better Than Your Kids is the second release from Internet personality and satirist, Maddox. In it, he expounds on one of his more popular posts, where he grades F’s to “Crappy Children’s Artwork.” The cover, in fact, is the same fire truck that I remember seeing forwarded to me back in 2002, back when his Crappy Children’s Artwork post went viral. I’ve been a reader of his site for many years, but admittedly, I had a concern that perhaps this 300+ page book would become slightly repetitive. After all, how much can one say about Crappy Children’s Artwork? A lot, apparently. The book is quite funny and arranged in such a way that it manages to avoid repetition. There are a number of categories that range from things like drawing your ideal house, to bad writing, shitty inventions, to drawing aliens. While it is tough to convey the humor in this review without sharing the actual bad drawing, he takes many jabs, such as:
“There’s an unspoken rule that when drawing aliens, the number of eyes must be an odd number. Yet for some reason, aliens never seem to have one arm or three. Keep being a little conformist, Deborah, and you will be able to parlay your sorority connections into a job in HR.”
He grades almost everything an F, save his own drawings, which he gives an A+ to each. (He’s actually a pretty good illustrator, so why not?) Throughout much of the book, his wit shines through. I laughed many times, and enjoyed seeing the blending of the absurd (as in the silly drawings) coupled by his humorous critique.
In his Introduction, Maddox makes an argument for the fact that more kids who suck at drawing should be discouraged. Crappy drawing is part of the fun of being a kid, and it’s perfectly harmless—even healthy, just as long as the crappy work is not made for public consumption. While it is true that too many parents delude their kids by telling them they are special (for if everyone is special, no one is special) this is particularly damaging if this carries into adulthood, where the kid grows to believe he or she is owed praise for mediocrity. It is not any wonder so many kids have a sense of entitlement, but this isn’t merely because of parents’ praise of crappy drawings, it’s from being told tripe like, “You can do anything you set your mind to,” which is one of the clichés of the PC mentality. No amount of setting my mind to play basketball like LeBron James is going to make me play basketball like LeBron James.
Maddox makes a lot of strong points in his Introduction, which I would now like to address. He argues that the phrase “good job” is the reason there aren’t any more Mozarts and Beethovens today. In other words, he argues that by “not criticizing kids, you’re depriving them of the opportunity to become truly great, like me.” He uses the example of Mozart’s father and how he didn’t coddle his young son, but pushed him harder, thus helping to make him into a great musician. However, while Mozart was indeed a prodigy, his early compositions were mediocre, though the difference between him and some other prodigy of his day is that Mozart, by his own will, kept working well into his adult life. He also had great vision, which is something that goes beyond rigorous discipline and criticism alone. Many prodigies have stern parents that push them, though sometimes even before they reach adulthood many get bored and quit, never becoming great at anything. And most simply lack the vision.
Besides, how can anyone be certain there are no Mozarts and Beethovens today? Given that we live in a culture that values pelf and emotion over merit and intellectual honesty, there very well could be some great composer living somewhere, toiling in obscurity. (I know a number of great artists that are certainly overlooked, so it is possible.) But we’re not likely going to know about that composer/artist anytime soon because part of the role of the so-called “scholar” is to castigate those critics that overlooked the Mozarts during Mozart’s time, all the while ignoring the Mozarts of today.
While shallow praise isn’t going to improve the quality of anyone’s art, the biggest problem resulting from it is that shallow praise contributes to the prospering of bad artists. By adding more static to wade through, it causes more struggle for the truly great when it comes to being recognized for that greatness. So it’s not the praise itself that deprives a person with the potential to achieve greatness from the opportunity of achieving that greatness, because truly great artists are almost never satisfied by praise alone—only bad artists are. Great artists seek to give back to the world in a better and higher way because they are, in a sense, rarely ever satisfied.
Another point he makes in his Introduction is: “Creators who can endure critics are the only ones who deserve to be creators. That is, anyone whose resolve is too weak to weather criticism of his or her art, shouldn’t be creating art.”
Ok, so anyone who creates should ideally be willing to take criticism, (that is, assuming it comes from an intelligent, unbiased source). Fair enough. But no one deserves to be a creator anymore than one deserves to be loved. Both should be earned by virtue, that is, quality. The only ones who should not be creating art are bad artists who insist on foisting their bad work onto the public, because plenty of great art has suffered the brunt of poor and lazy criticism. Melville penned Moby-Dick at the age of 32 and it received scathing reviews, sold poorly, and effectively ended his ability to live off his writing, if not his actual literary career. So in other words, the man who wrote one of the greatest works in literature quit writing long masterful prose novels and instead spent his remaining years writing bad poetry, working in civil service, to eventually die in obscurity. Not having a strong resolve to weather criticism is an emotional weakness, not an intellectual or artistic one. Many artists are insecure wretches anyway, with the emotional maturity of an infant. Should Melville have said ‘fuck you,’ and written another lengthy prose masterpiece out of spite? That would have been the ideal thing for the culture. But instead, for whatever emotionally weakened reason, he let the ignorance of his day affect him, so he stopped. Ultimately, the culture is what lost in the end.
Art is not merely self-expression, but communication in the highest form. The best artists are those who manage to communicate in the most high and complex ways (and I don’t mean obfuscated). Their job is to elevate the audience to their higher and better level, not lower themselves to the subjective likes of the mundane and pedestrian. Anyone can say anything sucks, but not all opinions are equal. Maddox is correct when he says that all this shallow praise makes the world a duller place. But it also makes it a dumber place, because when you praise bad work, genuine praise means nothing when the Mozarts and Melvilles come around, and that is the most damaging part. Yet just as no amount of encouragement is going to make a hack into a great artist, no amount of criticism, even if accurate, is going to either. Hacks either lack the talent, are unwilling to learn, or both. (Many go on to join and teach in MFA programs, or become agents. Go figure.)
So under the satire, (and there is much of it to enjoy and admire) there is a good lesson to be found here, and given this review is nearly twice as long as what I originally intended, that says something. It’s ok to enjoy your kid’s crappy art, as long as you take it for what it is, and the kid does too. That’s why my mom still keeps the plate I made for her, and also why it is hidden in the pantry. Parents don’t make artists. After all, Mozart is what made Mozart. His father just supplied the sperm.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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