Pas Mal: The Tricky Task of Measuring Your Own Talent

Once, when I was a self-absorbed international student in Paris and prone to fits of existential scribbling and diary-keeping, I made a line drawing of Che Guevara in my little black journal.

I copied it from an image of Che emblazoned on to the base of an ashtray I’d picked up in Amsterdam in a few quick Sharpie strokes.

I was quite pleased with the results.

Then I showed it proudly to my French host brother, who so happened to be an art student.

He gave my creation an appraising look, pursed his lips, and announced: “Pas mal.” Not bad.

Oh, I was insulted! And I let him know.

Then, for good measure, I showed the line drawing around to several other friends, regaling them with the story of his unduly scathing review and soliciting from them assurance of my goodness, my talent.

Which they gave, because, after all, they were my friends.

Years later, I opened that diary to have another look at my artistic work and was dismayed to discover that his assessment had actually probably been too generous: the drawing was quite terrible. No, really. It sucked. Here it is:

I was floored. How could this be? How could my drawing have been so good 15 years ago and yet so awful now?

The thing is this: you can never really “see” yourself as an artist. At least not when you’re starting out.

It’s hard (impossible?) to gauge if anything you’re making is of any worth until you get really, really good at your art, at which point you develop a bit of discernment and humility, at which point you’ll no doubt realize how un-good everything else you made before probably was. That’s a sure indication of progress. An embarrassing one, to be sure, but there it is.

With this truth in mind, every year, I revisit a few volumes of my old diaries. If at least one thing in them doesn’t strike me as completely silly or poorly executed or painfully self-absorbed, then I know I probably haven’t grown enough in the past 12 months and need to try harder, and hold myself to higher account.

It’s the only way to grow, to suck less.

Such is life, and such is art.


Objet d'art - Erin J. Bernard