Cornellians are an artistically talented bunch. That is undeniable. In fact, it is difficult to find a Cornell student that isn’t well-versed in one of the arts. We have an assortment of incredible dancers, singers, pianists and actors. Many would attribute this concentration of artistic talent to our multifaceted intelligence: we were simply born bearing many gifts. Isn’t that why we’re here?
I used to believe this. Talent is “a natural ability to be good at something.” A singer has music in their blood. A dancer has rhythm in their bones. It is biological. It is innate.
Well, I don’t play an instrument. I don’t sing. I don’t dance. I don’t draw. The only instrument I ever played was the recorder in third grade. The only time I sing is in the shower. The only time I dance is at a frat party because the lights are off and everyone’s too drunk to care. You might say I was born with no talent.
A couple of months ago, I would have agreed with you. I would have agreed that I was born incapable of profound artistic expression. Had you asked me what my talents were, I would’ve shamefully replied that I had none. I know how to study. I know how to ace a test. I wasn’t born with music in my blood or rhythm in my bones.
Except I realized there’s a trend among us the untalented: we weren’t born with many zeroes in our parents’ bank accounts. To be clear, I’m not denying the existence of natural artistic ability. Many artists come from low-income backgrounds and were discovered at a young age because of their skill. Most people get their artistic abilities from years of lesson-taking and practice, however. This is not something that everyone can afford.
For one, parents in low-income communities often don’t have the time nor the money to enroll their children in piano or ballet lessons. My parents, both of whom worked over 10 hours a day earning minimum wage, struggled enough to pay for the necessities. The last thing on their mind was enrolling me in expensive, non-academic extracurriculars that would yield no immediate practical outcome.
Now, you might say that practicing the arts can positively shape our lives. There are countless studies about the effects of musical training on brain development. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that dance helps children with their strength, posture and flexibility. I recognize that the arts have many mental, emotional and physical benefits. However, if you are a parent that was born into poverty, did not finish high school, and had to migrate to a different country that does not speak your native tongue to survive, you will have other priorities for your child — namely, their own survival. And music lessons won’t feed your child.
Underfunded high schools in low-income communities recognize that having Advanced Placement and honors classes is more important in the college admissions process than the arts. My high school had two artistic programs: an art class and a music class. But students knew better than to sign-up for those if they were trying to go to a “good” college. In fact, counselors only recommended these classes to students who struggled academically; everyone else was encouraged to pile on honors and AP classes to stand a chance in the competitive world of college admissions. After all, our high school’s average ACT score was a 16.
So, the next time that you look down on someone for their lack of artistic talent, consider why that might be the case. It is time that we problematize the belief that some people are simply born talented and some are not. Talent is, more often than not, developed over time and not everyone has the resources to develop it. If we continue to perceive artistic talent in this manner, we will continue to discourage people from exploring the arts later in their life. They will believe that they were born without the necessary skills.
And to my low-income Cornellians: you were not born ungifted. There is nothing wrong with you. You were simply not given the capital to develop certain skills. Even then, you have consistently defied the odds. Like your parents, when you were told that you didn’t belong here, you proved them wrong. Like your parents, you’re learning to navigate systems not meant to accomodate you. You have exceeded the expectations of your community. You are their hope. You are the epitome of talent because you’ve mastered the art of survival.
Lucy Contreras is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] Her column, Lucy Dreams, runs every other Tuesday this semester.