Piquing The Artistic Impulse

A little irreverence today after talking about philosophical questions like “what is art for?”

In the past few years, I have done a lot of writing about the need to help people recognize they have the capacity to be creative.

When I was in Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago, I visited the Warhol Museum and found myself inspired by some of the projects he engaged in. Much of what he did was an attempt to take the idea of art off a pedestal and bring it into everyday experience.

There was one piece in particular that appealed to me, though perhaps for the wrong reasons.

Among the museum collection was one of Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings. The piece was created by priming the canvas with metallic paint and then applying a substance that would cause a oxidation reaction.

In Warhol’s case, it was urine.

According to the card next to the painting, he and his friends and assistants:

“…experimented with both pattern and coloration…Variations in the maker’s fluid and food intake affected the oxidation impact…Warhol was particularly thrilled by the striking colorations caused by his studio assistant Ronnie Cutrone, who was taking vitamin B supplements.

Oxidation Painting, 1978

As much as you may be disgusted by the idea, (and lets face it, most paint is more toxic than urine), you have to admit that the technique would definitely pique the interest and desire to experiment in many people.

Okay, sure it might be more appealing to younger males and females, but males often see art as an effeminate activity as it. This is a way to engage more men!

I will confess that I sent this picture and information about how it was made to my friends who hold creative process events and made a tongue-in-cheek suggestion this be the next project.   While you can’t create an authentic relationship with creativity and the arts through stunt events like this, the example of it can combat the image of art as staid and inscrutable.

Even if someone looks at the painting above and says it isn’t art based on appearance alone, they can at least connect with the impulse behind its creation because everyone has had a related impulse at some point in their lives. (And may even continue to harbor that impulse in their hearts.)  You have an entirely different conversation and relationship with this piece than you would have if Warhol used ink or paint to create images many might associate with Rorschach blots.

Art As Currency For Experience

This week Diane Ragsdale wrote a piece addressing the difficultly people have with the idea of Art for Arts Sake.  She says when she conducts workshops and asks arts administration types to fill in the blank in the phrase, Art for ____________’s sake, they never say “art.” In discussions, people aren’t able to really define what is meant by “art for art’s sake.”

She suggests part of the issue has to do with the way we define value. She uses the example of an artist she invited to speak in her class. When the artist asked if there were any questions, a business student asked if she was being responsive to the market by painting so many orchids. The artist said she was basically painting orchids because she enjoyed exploring the form and would do so until it no longer interested her.

After the fact, as I reflected on this moment, I thought it was quite brilliant. A quite reasonable question from a business school student: Is there sufficient demand for orchids? Do you know your market? Do you think you may need to diversify?

And a quite reasonable answer from an arts student: I’m interested in the idea for its own sake; right now, I’m not thinking about whether there is a market for orchids.

And I could not have architected a better moment to convey the different logics or rationalities of business and art, or what art for art’s sake, or research for the sake of research, or exploration for the sake of exploration, or excellence for the sake of excellence are all about. Through this brief conversation between an artist and  business student, I was able to experience the world of business and the world of art as parallel systems of value. This experience finally helped me make sense of, and come to terms with, the phrase art for art’s sake.

Ragsdale provides a chart created by Bill Sharpe discussing “five “economies” and their “shared denominations of value.”” For example, in competitive games, the currency is the score; in democracy, it is votes; in exchange, it is money; and in experience, it is art.

She says,

What Sharpe’s framework seeks to illustrate is the incommensurate nature of these various currencies of shared valuation. The score of a sports game may tell us who won or lost but it can’t help us understand the individual or shared experience of the game, for example.

For me, this coalesced ideas that Carter Gillies wrote in a guest post for Ragdale’s blog (my emphasis):

They value the economy? Well, the arts are good for the economy! They think that cognitive development is important? Well, the arts are good for cognitive development! We make our own ends the means to their ends.

But this never teaches them why we value the arts. It is not a conversation that discusses the arts the way we feel about them. Its not a picture of the intrinsic value of the arts, because in talking about instrumentality we always make the arts subservient.

Just as the score of a baseball game can’t describe the experience of attending, many of the criteria people wish to apply to the arts aren’t relevant as a measure of value. Arts may be good for the economy insomuch as an exchange is taking place, but we all know the value of the art is not reflected in the amount paid.

The arts may be good for cognitive development, but there is no relationship between value of a painting, play, dance or musical composition and test scores. The masterwork of a painter doesn’t raise test score higher than the preliminary sketches they made in preparation for the piece.

If Sharpe is correct that the currency of experience is art, I guess that validates John Dewey’s book, Art As Experience.

I don’t know that telling people the currency of experience is art will help people understand art better. People don’t necessarily associated the joy they experience playing with a newborn as being partitioned into units of art.

It is helpful to be reminded that many things are not valued solely in dollars, as much as it may seem that way. That we have recently seen that the amount of money thrown at an election doesn’t necessarily translate proportionally into victory seems to bear out Sharpe’s statement that votes are a distinct currency from money in the election economy.

Recently the big news has been about the Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 report. It is great that activity in the arts and culture industry has had such a strong impact in so many communities outside of the usual urban areas. But it is important to remember these numbers are just like a baseball score. They don’t tell us anything about the experience of the creators and participants, the quality of the work, or a handful of other things we might list as important before we even care about the amount of money that got exchanged.

A Reminder About The Necessity For Patience and Effort Sustained Long Term

I wanted to call attention to the recent return of the Hokule‘a, a double hulled voyaging canoe, to Hawaii after a three year voyage around the world that saw the canoe travel 42,000 miles to 150 ports and 23 countries and territories. It is the first time a Hawaiian canoe has circumnavigated the globe completely under wind power. You can see photos of the return on the Star-Advertiser newspaper site. Apparently about 50,000 people showed up to welcome the canoe.

While the voyage is impressive of itself, the Hokule‘a represents so much more in Hawaii. The canoe was first launched over 40 years ago in 1975 in an attempt to reclaim Hawaiian cultural heritage and knowledge as part of the Hawaiian Renaissance. The Polynesian Voyaging Society sought out the few remaining people who still knew how to navigate in the traditional way without instruments. Only Mau Piailug of the Federated States of Micronesia was willing to teach them.

If you have seen the movie Moana where the title character begs Maui to teach her to navigate, you have gotten a very small hint of what is involved (expand the Read More under Nainoa Thompson’s picture). While later voyages have use Western instruments like compass and sextant and have been supplemented by some technological aids, those first voyages marked the first time in over 500 years that Hawaiian sailors navigated between Hawaii and Tahiti using traditional methods. Later they would use the same techniques to travel to other Pacific Islands and reinvigorate interest in seafaring traditions among other peoples.

The canoe and its voyages have contributed a great deal to the shared cultural consciousness of Hawaii. In 1978, the canoe capsized while still within the archipelago. Crew member Eddie Akau went to get help, paddling his surf board to the island of Lanai. The rest of the crew was rescued, but Eddie was never seen again.  To this day, 40 years later, you will drive around and see bumper stickers saying “Eddie Would Go,” as a testament to his selflessness, long  established during his career as a lifeguard where he saved over 500 people, often in dangerous surf conditions.

Educators have developed curriculum and programs in connection with the voyages covering a wide range of topics from environmental concerns, geography, tides, navigation, the physics of raising the mast, and genealogy. Star Trek has a Hokule‘a class of starship

I should note, the effort to revive and employ traditional sailing methods wasn’t primarily driven by a desire for authenticity and eschewing modern options. The Hokule‘a was conceived and launched as part of a general effort to recognize and reclaim the validity of Hawaiian music, dance, language, dress, etc after a long period belief that Western/modern ways were superior. The ship answered doubts about the ability of early Polynesians to accurately and consistently navigate between Tahiti and Hawaii using available technology.

As I read about what they have accomplished, it reinforces the long view and sustained effort  required to accomplish their goals. Even that first voyage of 40 years ago was preceded by a long period of preparation. It puts the whole process of judging viability by the success or failure achieved increments of 12 months or less in perspective. I think there are lessons here about the power of cultural practices and their ability to fire the imagination.


On Not Surrendering To “The Flow”

Via Artsjournal.com is a thought-provoking essay about artistic performance on Aeon. Dancer Barbara Gail Montero posits that a true expert performer doesn’t surrender to “the flow,” but only appears to do so while mindfully evaluating what they are doing.  When you become experienced and realize just how much you don’t know, what was a mindlessly simple introductory exercise becomes the subject of close scrutiny toward improvement.

Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia found that ‘the paragons of effortless performance were fifth-graders who, given a simple topic, would start writing in seconds and would produce copy as fast as their little fingers could move the pencil.’

Those fifth-graders are in flow. The young tennis player’s game is fun, and the child’s tendu is easy. It’s the experts’ technique that becomes difficult; not to the outside world, but to themselves. Just as in Plato’s dialogue the Apology, where Socrates is wise because he knows he is ignorant, it’s the capacity to recognise where there’s room for improvement that leads us to the highest levels of human achievement. In other words, the idea that expert actions are in a placid state of flow – a state in which things seem to fall into place on their own – is a myth.

Throughout her piece, she cites a number of artists and athletes whose example attest to the idea that they aren’t transitioning into a sublime spiritual world when they perform, it only appears so. For example violinist Arnold Steinhardt writes how,

Even when he’s practised innumerable times, the playing doesn’t happen on its own. That’s not to say that he can’t ‘slip into the music’s spiritual realm’, as he puts it. But this realm is also his ‘work area’, in which the members of his quartet ‘expend a significant amount of energy slaving over [their] individual instruments’. However sublime the quartet’s performances, they are not handed down from above.

She says one of the reasons why the myth of entering the flow persists is because the effort is invisible to the outside observer. She suggests that the general desire for an easy path to excellence might also motivate this perception.

Perhaps flow draws us in because we generally dislike hard work. Numerous self-help books turn on this tendency, suggesting that instead of buckling down to a lifetime of toil, you can reach great heights by simply letting go of the thought, the effort, the trying. But I suspect the popularity of these books springs from the same source as the vogue for fad diets..It’s not that they work, but they are easy to follow.

Now if you are skeptical about her basic thesis, you aren’t alone. The commenters on the piece varied in degree in their agreement or opposition to Montero’s ideas. Personally, I thought much of what she described as happening during a performance more as a focus on intentional practice rather than performance. One of the commenters, Ian Dyball, a Ph.D. student in the field of performance consciousness suggested something similar.

“Barbara, in my opinion, you confuse the notions of practice and performance. If a performer is noticing mistakes, he or she is not fully engaged in performance but is also, at that moment, practising…If a question or an analysis takes place it is a distraction to the performing artist and, potentially, to the performance. It is, to a degree, practising. The questioning mind (the person) is not in a state of flow despite the fact that the action itself may be being achieved unconsciously; as a habit programmed by, ultimately imperfect (if the thought is correct), practice.”

In her reply, Montero, does concede that she is blurring the distinction between performance and practice and that there may be people who are not engaging in self-analysis when they perform. Her experience may not be the experience of all performers. (I suspect she may not have written the headline, by the way.)

While I do question some of her assertions about what true performers are doing, I think the idea is worth some extensive thought.  I have written frequently about how the myth of inspiration and talent can cause people to think there is a magic ability you either have or don’t have. Or it can be lost and only regained through luck.

While Montero’s article goes in the other direction by suggesting every moment must be examined for a path to improvement without room for a little surrender, I think it is valuable for its emphasis on the work that is involved. In many ways, it  respects artists for seeking opportunities for improvement in the most fundamental exercises of their training.  What might appear to be disposable activities to keep novices busy and out of the way are acknowledged to be the building blocks for the entire discipline.

These ideas aren’t just important for the arts community to consider about how they approach their own practice, but I think it crucial to introduce some of these concepts when talking to people who doubt their own creativity.

Yes, everyone has the capacity to be creative. No, it isn’t a magic power that is granted or withdrawn by some impersonal force. Yes, excellence takes work, just like everything else.

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