How Important Is Creativity? Let The Census Director Count The Ways

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) posted a slightly longer than usual podcast episode a few weeks back with a conversation between NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson and US Census Bureau Director Robert Santos.

If you missed the introductions at the art, you might be forgiven for thinking Santos was the NEA Chair the way he went on about the importance and value of creative practice in one’s life. He talked at some length about being a live music photographer at the SXSW festivals in Austin, TX for eight years and the different perspectives he received while watching all the creatives present their work. He talked about how innovation doesn’t just emerge from scientific hypothesis and data, but by creativity fueled by an artful life.

Later, he discusses the use of art and creativity in healing, relating it to his time as President of American Statistical Association during the pandemic and using his monthly newsletter to depart from the usual messages about checking out webinars about statistic practice, but rather

“…send personal messages and reflections that would help folks understand that we’re all in this together and that we need to help each other out and we can do so virtually. So I would tell stories about of resilience and how we need to tap into them and I told stories of creativity and mentoring and it was specifically focused on thinking as creatively as I could to help the folks that were suffering so much because they were stuck in their homes.”

At another point, he mentioned the way the Census Bureau had used familiar cultural touchstones to engage with people to navigate the challenges Covid presented during the 2020 Census:

…we had artistic reincarnations of things like the Loteria, — there are cards that have little icons, very colorful, of different types of characters, and birds, and skeletons, and scorpions, and things of that sort. And because of the pandemic, we could not use our usual face-to-face methods, or community organizations couldn’t do that. So rather than having a table in a grocery store saying, “Come fill out a census,” they were going out and distributing in community centers that were giving out water, and talking about best practices for vaccines and things. They were handing out these Loteria cards that, instead of the usual icons, they had different census characters on them, like an enumerator, or a little graph, or things of that sort. So it was reinforcing the necessity and the importance of civic participation, but doing it in an artistic way that was very pleasing to the eye, and got you to think, “Oh, this is really interesting.”

The example of Albert Einstein playing violin is often used as an example of a scientist who embraced his creative side, but I am thinking it is time to find new examples to amplify this concept, starting with Santos and anyone else he might identify. Not to relieve the NEA and other creative entities from doing the same, but Santos seems really adept at identifying the bridges between creative and science based approaches and is a vocal advocate.  I mean, there was a point where he was saying, credit where credit is due, the NEA inspired me to think all federal departments should have artist-in-residence programs.

Looking Like The Hero, But Feeling Like The Imposter Of Our Story

Seth Godin recently made a post reminding us that even those who seem like they are well-established in their career as artists may not feel that secure. He cites an article on a recent documentary about the recording of “We Are The World” 40 years ago.

The article recounts how Huey Lewis’ knees were shaking when he sang a solo that had been intended for Prince who was a no-show.  Stevie Wonder was the MVP of the effort, intentionally flubbing his part to make other artists feel at ease and coaching Bob Dylan through his part–doing his Dylan impression–to help Dylan through his anxiety to hit his solo. Waylon Jennings ducked out when Wonder suggested inserting a Swahili phrase.  Shelia E. felt a little disaffected when she began to suspect she was invited to entice Prince to participate.

Godin notes that we assume all we need to feel confident is the recognition and validation of hundreds or thousands of people:

We’d like to believe that if we only had the adulation, market success, and fan support of superstars like these, then we’d finally be comfortable and able to do our best.

In fact, it seems the opposite is true. Imposter syndrome shows up because we are imposters, imposters acting ‘as if’ in search of making something better.

Need To Create Promotional Content Competes With Need To Create Creative Content

A few years ago I wrote a post about how actors were discovering that how many followers you had on social media was being taken into account during casting decisions. Vox recently had an article talking about how the same dynamic exists for authors and musicians.  Your book or music might be great, but the publisher may not be willing to take you on if your social media engagement is low.

It used to be that record labels wanted to control all aspects of promotion and prohibited the artist from taking their own initiative. Now it is the other way around where the publishers and record labels put the entire burden of marketing on the artist. The Vox article contains a couple Tiktok videos of musicians talking about this issue. They feel their artistic practice is suffering because they constantly have to be worried about whether they are posting too late in the day to get good reaction. Another said she had to use a spreadsheet to keep track of when and what she should be posting.

One of the big challenges about social media is that you have to balance looking interesting and polished, without looking too polished lest you appear to be engaged in inauthentic self-promotion. The musician Ricky Montgomery alludes to his video where he mentions that you can’t go into the woods to record for three months because you need to be posting “candid” video and photos from your sessions–his air quotes around candid.

To compound the issue as the article points out, consolidation of media and publishing has eliminated competition so writers are being paid less. Similarly, the prevalence of platforms like Spotify for listening to music means musicians are paid less as well. So the rewards for all this effort are less than before even as more people are able to participate as creators.

It wasn’t long ago that many people, myself included, were talking about the need for artists to become more business minded. This is still true in terms of things like better understanding the market in which you wish to sell your work, knowing how to speak to those without insider knowledge about your work, not getting cheated in contracts and payments, etc. But in some respects, the pendulum has perhaps swung in the other direction to far and too quickly where the burden of knowing all these things and more is required on day one without the space to transition into the knowledge and expertise gradually as your career grows.


Getting Into Art Can Require Seeking Something Of Yourself In Art

Last month Vox had a piece by Courtney Tenz about how to interpret art. It isn’t the sort of article you can simply link a social media post to for your audiences to read. One of Tenz’s core points is that art often isn’t immediately digestible at a glance. But there are takeaways organizations can use when having conversations like “If art’s such a central tenet of our culture, though, why do so many of us feel like we just don’t get it?”

Tenz says one of the barriers she likely faces is being told by a teacher she would never truly understand the beauty of Monet. But she still desired a relationship with visual art:

I realized, I had to build a relationship with art. I not only had to take it in regularly — akin to something the writer Julia Cameron calls “artists’ dates” in her book on creativity, The Artist’s Way — but I would also need to sit with it when I did.

The first step she lists for learning to interpret art is to view it as an interactive adventure where you as the viewer have license to decide what is interesting and meaningful about the piece. In that vein, take the time to evaluate what you think about the work rather than just give it a passing glance.

Correspondingly, the second step is to be open to feeling discomfort with the experience:

…And truthful art can make people wildly uncomfortable. “But that discomfort is such an important part of the work,” Deal says.

In this case, part of not getting the art could stem from a reluctance to confront that discomfort. As Langer writes, teaching art is an education in feeling; when art gives rise to emotions that we do not always have access to, it can feel too tough to manage. Yet it is in grappling with those emotions that the connection to art — and, ultimately, understanding it — is forged.

“How do you teach a willingness to be uncomfortable?” asks Ovenden. Even as an avid lover of art, she finds the emotional response doesn’t always come easy. “It can be really overwhelming.”

The third step Tenz lists is related to the first – “Keep an eye out for glimmers of your own experience.” Finding what is relatable to your life and seeing yourself reflected in something contributes to an increased comfort and perhaps increased understanding.

“Or, as Karen K. Ho told me, if you start to think about the arts as a way of transforming time or transforming your experience — if you move beyond the surface response of “this is a nice picture” or “this is a picture that sucks” — then looking at art can be a really interesting endeavor”