Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Mr. Holland’s Opus, Revisited

At this point I can’t recall exactly what it was I was looking for last week when I stumbled up an essay by Thomas Larson that stopped me in my tracks: Fellow Teachers, We Are Not Mr. Holland.

Larson makes no bones about it. He disliked Mr. Holland Opus, and since I’d always found it a heroic and uplifting film I felt compelled to take in another perspective. What so wrong about a man who sublimates the personal passions of idealistic youth to assume the adult responsibilities of parenting, self-sacrifice, and faithfulness. Larson takes aim and fires an on target salvo.

The film’s career-ending glory and applause, while heartfelt, is unjustified: thirty years to write one five-minute symphony? It’s demeaning to Mr. Holland to suggest that he did not have the courage to create. It is also demeaning to suggest that his teaching got in the way of his composition. For many artist-teachers, their work with students does not erase but rather enhances what they do with their evenings and weekends.

Of course a few artists do make a living not teaching. But those people are supported by a market that draws out the artist’s commercial choices. The serious composer, the classical musician, the poet, the choreographer, the performance artist—all must teach in our society because their endeavors go unsupported by the marketplace.

Besides, commercially successful artists are few. The vast majority of creative and artistic people in America work at other jobs or else teach their craft. In either case, if they are true creators, then their creative side occupies a major part of their lives. If artists teach, they are not, as the film suggests, less dedicated because they mind their artistic fires. On the contrary. They are enlivened and deepened by the paradox of personal and professional fulfillment, a finer truth which
Mr. Holland’s Opus fails to explore.

Larson makes many good points in his essay, but this one applies to most professions and is most excellent. When we make a living doing something else, the art we create can be more “true” to one’s inner vision as we’re not necessarily married to the need to sell our work to survive. This is a liberating insight, once understood rightly.

And Larson's main point above is especially true, that artists and writers can use their work experiences as grist for the mill, logs for the fire, building materials. Scott Adams could never have created Dilbert had he be exempt from having to work because he was independently wealthy. The culture he was immersed in became the fertilizer for his imagination.

The other issue Larson underscores is that Mr. Holland’s paltry output is not due to the interference of teaching in and of itself. Yes, there are seasons when job or family become a 24/7 pre-occupation. Yes, sometimes life gets in the way of living. At this moment I am flying over Lake Michigan, heading to Ohio on a business trip, which means I will not likely be painting in my studio for a few days. But for writers, musicians, artists to say that they don’t get anything done because they have to work, well… Larson makes a case that this is a weak excuse for lack of creative output.

On the other hand, in defense of the film I would suggest that the point being made was that the students themselves were Mr. Holland’s real Opus. And I can accept this. Our influence on others really is our most important work, and teachers have an opportunity to do this to a degree few other professions really offer.

If you have time, the essay is a pretty good read and worth checking out.

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