Yeah, I Have Weird Feelings, Too

Hat tip to the National Endowment for the Arts for linking to this video of an 11 year old taking The Bob Ross Challenge – basically trying to keep up and replicate Bob Ross’ painting instructions as he relates them during an episode of his show.

The kid, Khary Halsey, an avowed Bob Ross fan since he was six, is charming and hilarious just on his own. But it is right at the end of the video that he says something that encompasses what the creative experience should be for everyone, “From the looks of it, I did horrible, but I feel great.”

Okay, so obviously people shouldn’t always think they did horrible, it is the satisfaction and enjoyment of the experience regardless of the perceived quality of the product that I am advocating as the ideal.

Khary isn’t sure if he is supposed to be having this contradictory experience so he follows up saying, “I have weird feelings.”   The truth is, those feelings are quite normal and shared by a lot of people, including, I am sure many with long careers in the arts.  There are a lot messages we get throughout the day, both overt and subtle,  that equate quality with marketability. (And don’t get us started on “you shouldn’t expect to get paid if you are having fun.”)

Innovation Results From Hard Work And Funding

In the Washington Post, Jon Gertner reviews a book about innovation by Matt Ridley.  One aspect of the book Gertner emphasizes is Ridley’s view that innovation is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration:

Ridley’s most important chapters, and his book’s most interesting, are where he calls attention to “surprisingly consistent patterns” that describe the process of making new things. Innovation, he tells us, is usually gradual, even though we tend to subscribe to the breakthrough myth….He also illustrates how innovation can be a matter of the right people solving the right problem at the right time — and that it often involves exhaustive trial-and-error work, rather than egg-headed theoretical applications. This was typically the case with Thomas Edison, who, as Ridley notes, tried 6,000 different organic materials in the search for a filament for his electric light.

Gertner’s criticism of the book is it underappreciates the contributions of government funding in that long process of trial-and-error exploration.

Thus, you won’t find a lot here about the development of the atomic bomb, which depended almost entirely on state largesse, or about the subsidization of renewable energy. Nor will you read much on the transistor, many early lasers or the photovoltaic solar cell, which were created under the auspices of Bell Labs, part of a government-authorized monopoly…. And in Ridley’s story about the origins of Google, you will not see any indication that its founders were helped in their earliest days by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Indeed, his book consistently plays down the influence of public funding in medicine, public health, personal technology, transportation and communications; it likewise minimizes — quite strenuously, and erroneously — the role of federal assistance in the development of natural gas fracking, which was kept alive by research investments from the Energy Department in the 1970s.

Reading this review, I realized in the 16+ years I have been writing this blog, I don’t think I have ever made a post that tied the lengthy process of creativity together with the importance of funding.

I have dealt with the topics separately. I have had a number of posts about how even creators often attribute their first big successes to some inherent stroke of genius or talent rather than to the 7 years of trial and error that lead to it.

I have also made posts about the importance of government and foundation funding to creative industries. I think the closest I may have come to directly tying both together are some posts I made about how people who have a support and expectations of relatively affluent families/friends are more able to participate in low paying internships/apprenticeships which can be highly important to networking and career development.

In any case, obviously innovation is a long term process which requires funding support and there aren’t a lot of entities willing to make that investment when it comes to creative arts.

By that same token, it shouldn’t be forgotten that businesses in general have benefited from government support of the basic research which constitutes the backbone of many of their products.

Perhaps all those calls for the arts to be run like a business should be answered by noting that contrary to all the garage origin stories of many famous companies, artists are often left to subsidize their own development. Additionally, the history of innovation of all types is one of government support.


Making Time For Your Creativity Can Be The Hardest Part

While people still haven’t returned to the daily routines they may have had before Covid-19 brought a halt to so much of our lives, it might be worth encouraging people to continue cultivating whatever creative practices they may have engaged in during these times. Reinforce the value of whatever they became interested in as part of their lives. Chances are people are reconsidering what things they found fulfilling before and whether those things still hold value for them.

That said, there is always an investment of time and a learning curve involved with starting anything new. That can be a disincentive to continuing for people who are seeking the comfort of their earlier familiar lives.

It has been awhile since I linked to a cartoon from the Zen Pencils site. This one is excerpted from a page the cartoonist wrote about his own practice.

Long time readers know before I moved to my current position in Georgia, I lived in Ohio where I tried to infiltrate a Creative Cult, a group of people who provided the community with various hands-on creative experiences at different places around town. They are still up to their shenanigans and currently have people on a hunt around the community trying to find “eggs” that were stolen out of museum paintings.

Nick Sherman, a young gentleman who may or may not be the mysterious, yet dashing cult leader has a weekly newsletter which includes missives to him from the Creative Underground explaining all the ways in which the Man will try to convince him he isn’t creative or that he should be prioritizing other things over his creative pursuits.

For example, on May 1 the Creative Underground wrote:

This is what we mean. THE MAN starts by whispering in your ear something very obvious; that there is a time for art-making, and there is a time not for art-making. A harmless statement right? Wrong! THE MAN never stops where he should. He then goes on to cleverly suggest that, “If you are doing your art, you must be neglecting something else.” Do you see his trap?

Then because you want to be a responsible, upstanding, person you think, “Of course! I do not see my little old grandmother nearly enough.” You go see her. And in this way, THE MAN keeps bringing up distraction after distraction (even legitimate ones!) that keep you from your art. Something always comes up. Soon, your brain makes a very dangerous and direct comparison. It flashes like a bright-red neon sign against the darkest corner of your brain. “ART = SELFISH”

In this way, Nick anthropomorphizes all those insecurities and doubts everyone has about their creative practice. Granted, sometimes there are actually people in our lives who are more than happy to give voice to these sentiments and there is no need to provide them with a metaphoric form.

You can subscribe to Nick’s newsletter here if you have an interest.

Teamwork? We Got Tons

I read stories celebrating the fact that Covid-19 is finally making businesses recognize the benefits of telecommuting, confident that there will be this great revolution that will see people working from home in the future. To me it seems like it will be a terrible situation which will create greater class divides and income inequality.

I don’t think it takes a great deal of imagination to see how telecommuting will enable companies to more easily classify workers as independent contractors and not provide any health benefits. Because employees won’t be seeing and interacting with each other on a regular basis where they can compare notes about wages, work loads and other expectations, it will make it easier to underpay employees and prevent them from organizing to demand better pay.

Already employees are subsidizing the companies they work for by bearing the cost of electricity and internet connections. I know at least one person who is paying for her own mobile hotspot in order to do her job because the internet speed in her location is not fast enough.

Yes, it may provide greater work opportunities to people living in rural areas and may even improve the economies of some rural places as people move there, but again those places will need to have good technology infrastructure in place to support those workers. And not everyone will have the resources to move to places with a lower cost of living, nor will the potential pay for the work they are qualified to do justify the move.

Which is not to say the current work environment is any more beneficial. I just feel that except for people with higher status jobs, a move to telecommuting is potentially a worse situation unless accompanied by some strong worker protections, especially in regard to health insurance.

But the intent of this blog post isn’t really to get into a debate about socio-political-economic policy as much as it is to provide a context for potentially the biggest drawback of telecommuting — a degradation of creative interaction and teamwork.

Steve Jobs famously designed Pixar’s offices so all the restrooms and mailboxes were in a central location so that people working in disparate departments and projects would engage in casual “what are you working on?” conversations they wouldn’t otherwise have. His hope was that this would drive innovation and result in creative leaps.

Today on the CNN site there was an article titled “Minneapolis theater community uses stagecraft skills to support businesses of color in the aftermath of protests” One of the people interviewed made what is probably a very familiar comment to many of you:

“For anyone who has arts training, they are taught early on how to collaborate with people. And that collaboration comes with the ability to quickly organize and problem-solve,” said University Rebuild organizer Daisuke Kawachi, who pointed out the valuable stagecraft skills volunteers are now applying to their community.

And as with Pixar, physical proximity makes others more aware of resources than they might have normally been:

Kawachi estimated University Rebuild has supported more than 200 businesses. He said the number could be higher, because some requests have come on the spot while volunteers are in the field.
“We’ll go to a business and then their neighbor will say ‘come over.'”

Because we are steeped in the culture, a lot of us take a collaborative team environment for granted. As much as businesses have been saying that creativity is one of the top things they look for in employees, if telecommuting becomes widespread, collaboration and teamwork may become a greater competitive advantage as well.

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