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.

So I Joined A Cult

Do you have a few moments so I can share some information about a cult I joined?

No, wait, wait, before you run away. This is not that type of cult. In fact, this cult demands much less in the way of slavish devotion than most arts people willingly surrender to the groups they work with.

This cult emerged from the process we all idealize when we envision the result of arts education. You can read the origin story on their website, but I wanted to give my take on it.

Four guys took a class on the creative process and were so inspired by the teacher, they looked for a way to extend what they learned after the class ended. They started rooming together. They had a couple art shows of their own and entered those sponsored by others. They started a lifestyle clothing line called C*MAR which stood for Creative Minds Are Rare.

I liked their ambition and energy so at a point between their first and second art show, I approached them about helping to launch and promote a semi-annual “After Dark” art event to showcase the talent of the visual artists in the community.

Then they started a cult.

The Creative Cult to be exact. They decided they wanted to teach others the creative process. On a monthly basis, they began holding hourly events in different places around town getting the 40-50 attendees to engage in and talk about the creative process.

I have mentioned some of these events before. There are images from each of the events on their website. Don’t feel obligated to look too closely for me.

As with all cults, there was an obligatory bloody sacrifice. In this case, the guys killed off their identity as C*MAR. They realized the activities of the creative cult and their ambitions for it had eclipsed that of the lifestyle clothing company.

Also, after some conversations, they realized the name Creative Minds Are Rare is entirely contrary to their heartfelt mission, “We teach people our creative process, so that artists and ‘non-artists’ alike may develop their own.”

Now they are in talks to start Creative Cult chapters in other places. I tell them that at this point in their development, any self-respecting cult would have robes and kool-aid, but to no avail. There was a cult meeting in a candle-lit damp basement so I can hope.

I often talk about the movement to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture (so much so, you probably assumed that was the cult I joined). I really see these guys achieving this naturally by instinct whereas so many other arts entities will have to work to shift their approaches and mindset.

Which is not to say the organizers don’t work hard putting these events together and trying to learn more about the creative process. I send them literature that impresses me and they send some back. I know a couple of them are in the daily habit of creating for a few hours every morning outside of their regular work. They show up at poetry readings around town to get feedback.

My organization partnered with two other organizations to conduct an “arts listening tour” in the community and at least one of the cult organizers was at every session taking notes about people’s perceptions of the arts and culture opportunities in the area. They are committed to always doing a better job.

Yesterday I wrote about how it would be a mistake for other classical musicians to try to emulate pianist Alpin Hong’s personality in order to connect with audiences. I would say the same thing about the “inner circle” of the cult.

As young guys, they have a certain cachet with exactly the target demographic most arts organizations want to reach. It would be a disaster of comedic proportions if most of the established arts organizations in the area tried to adopt their approach. However, I think we all ultimately benefit from the work they do because it potentially opens people up to the idea of participating in other activities in town.

In turn, I have been talking them up in the circles in which I travel on the local, state, regional and national level. While we can’t replicate the exact dynamics of the Creative Cult’s relationship with each other, it is still a good example of the type of things that can be done.

Arts Council Director Who Discovered He Was An Artist

For two-three years now I have regularly revisited the situation where generally people have an easier time identifying themselves as a participant in a sport than as an artist.

Earlier this month, I came across an interview with the retiring executive director of the Perry (PA) County Council of the Arts who explicitly says he didn’t view himself as an artist until he had served as executive director for awhile.

Nine years ago, Roger Smith didn’t consider himself an artist when he became executive director of the Perry County Council of the Arts (PCCA). He had been a businessman and nonprofit executive in his former careers, but never saw his hobby as art.

When people would ask him about his experience, he’d say he wasn’t an artist, but he was a woodworker. He couldn’t connect the two things in the abstract, Smith said.

Being immersed in the local arts community over the years changed his perception.  “I’ve developed an affinity for the creative process, and PCCA honors creativity in all its forms.”

While my first impulse was to shake my head and sigh about how much work needs to be done if even the director of an arts council doesn’t view themselves as creative, I do remember that it wasn’t long ago that the “is it art or craft?” conversation was pretty common. (Maybe it still is and I am not on the distribution list.) I never saw or heard a discussion that made a definitive distinction.

As the manufacture and design of things moves toward greater degrees of autonomous automation, I wonder if it isn’t time to open the clubhouse doors to anyone who employs varying intent and judgement in their expressive process and forget about labels.

(Basically, I tried to find a definition that excludes mass production while allowing for the use of identically mass produced pieces configured in some intentional way. If you have a better approach, fire away.)

The other thing is, no leader of an arts council is likely to have comprehensive knowledge of all possible modes of creativity. Ideally, learning new things about arts and culture will enrich their tenure in the position. It would have really been an issue if the retiring executive director still didn’t consider himself to be creative after 9 years on the job.

This is not to say we shouldn’t endeavor to have every person who stands up to talk about creative expression do so with the foreknowledge that they, and everyone they are addressing, have the capacity to be creative/artistic.  I am actually pretty encouraged to see that the newspaper reporter opened the article on this idea.