If You Meet Mozart On The Road, Kill Mozart

Back in June there was an interesting piece on The Creativity Post about the Mozart Myth.

The Mozart myth goes something like this. Some people are born with talent so tremendous that music and other cultural products spring from their minds fully-fledged, as if by magic. Mozart, so the myth goes, would compose his symphonies in one sitting with nary a revision through a single act of inspiration. The more generalized myth, popularized by writers such as Arthur Koestler, is that all creative people work this way.

The authors, Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein, recount a story about a student they had who had made it big with a rock song in his first year of college, but when it came time to do a follow up, he felt his creativity was blocked. He took their class in the hope they could unlock his creativity again.

They had this student examine his creative process and he eventually came to realize he had actually worked on his first big hit over the course of 6 months. Finally, he had a eureka moment where everything gelled. The reason he felt like he was blocked was because he was waiting for another eureka moment to drop the next masterpiece in his lap, not recognizing the first hadn’t done so.

This story is a good reminder not to mistake the frisson experienced during that eureka moment as the whole creative process. How many times have we heard that genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration but continue to value only the inspiration part?

We may be able to dash off some inspired prose or music in a few moments forgetting that there were years of reading, writing, listening, watching, thinking and practicing that have brought us to that moment. More to the point, there were probably long periods of mistakes, lack of comprehension and frustration involved along the road.

Having a solution come to mind so quickly can provide such a sense of relief and joy that it is easy to forget incidents like the anxiety of having to write a book report each week in third grade and the effort involved in that college paper that you still got an F on.

Yes, talent is still distinctly important and can significantly shorten the supposed 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery, but the effort and process is still required.

What is actually probably more damaging than self-recognized creatives buying into the Mozart Myth is everyone else believing it. Believing there is a hard and fast line between those who are blessed with the ability to create and those who are cursed with a lack, is what contributes and reinforces the perception of the arts as elitist.

There is not only the concept that an elite few are granted the talent and inspiration to create, frequently there is a message that there is only a select group that can understand it all, too. It can be difficult to understand that the ability to create and to appreciate are both cultivated over time.

As Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein note, we really only ever focus on the results rather than the process. Bands tell stories in interviews about how they completely wrote a song on the tour bus between Indianapolis and Cincinnati, but no one credits the 15 years spent in 4 different bands no one ever heard of as the incubator in which the requisite abilities were developed.

For the most part, however, our educational institutions tend to do just the opposite: we hold up for scrutiny only finished products, strip them of the processes, tools, skills, histories and personal stories that gave them birth and, intentionally or not, discard and erase creative know-how.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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