The Originality That Is Sought Is Not The True Originality

h/t to Artsjournal.com (I believe) which linked to an article about creativity from the Chinese perspective, or at least perspective of the philosopher(s) known as Zhuangzi.

This is a view that resonates with the sentiment, much hated by some arts students, that you need to master the fundamentals before you can diverge from them.    The author of the article, Julianne Chung, cites one of the many parables/stories that comprise the works attributed to Zhuangzi, (you may know the famous “Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I am a man.“), in which a wheelwright speaks about true mastery and understanding is earned through long, patience and experience and thus books only contain the “chaff and dregs” of true knowledge.

Chung’s discussion of this view leans toward the “99% perspiration, 1% inspiration” approach to creativity. While this may sound like a endorsement of learning by rote repetition, it is clear that observation and reflection are important components of this process.

Of course, being a Daoist philosopher, one of Zhuangzi’s underlying ideas is the true Way can not be actively sought and Chung reflects that in her commentary:

…de-emphasising originality might ironically result in greater creativity. This is because striving for originality can actually be counterproductive when it comes to achieving genuinely fresh results: if we focus on the task of achieving something original, we’ll explore only the range of possibilities deemed sufficiently likely to yield that result, leaving out a lot that could have contributed to achieving something original.

But imagine instead that we worked with the idea that creativity wasn’t about novelty. That doesn’t mean we’d have to give up the value of originality entirely, but rather see it as one of a range of possible outcomes. Casting a wider net in this way might hence make creativity (whatever it involves) easier to achieve.

[…]

This alternative perspective on creativity might help us to see it as an everyday phenomenon in which we all participate – rather than an extraordinary talent or gift that only a few enjoy. And it might also allow us to make sense of the idea of living creatively: of an integrated life, lived spontaneously, in which all of life’s contrasting aspects can be arranged to form a rich and variegated whole.

The concept that an original product is one of many possible outcomes seems to be a more constructive approach than always striving for novelty and viewing anything that is not as lesser.

Long time readers will likely recognize that the suggestion embracing this perspective may help a broader range of people view creativity as something everyone has the capacity to participate in is very appealing to me.

Cirque Got Back In The Air In China

Many have probably heard about the Broadway productions in South Korea which only experienced a brief shutdown thanks to the swift and fairly comprehensive measures the government and productions put in place to combat Covid-19. Come to find out, there is a Cirque du Soleil production in Hangzhou, China which managed to get back into production in May despite China being an early epicenter of the disease. The China show didn’t start performing again until July, however.  It was one of two Cirque productions performing at the time of the article was written. (I am not sure what the other production is. I see Mystere is running in Vegas, but the other Vegas productions don’t start until October.)

During the shutdown period, many of acrobats cobbled together practice routines to maintain their strength and flexibility since their normal training faculties were unavailable. One of the biggest challenges the production faced was that many of their foreign performers had left the country and couldn’t re-enter in order to rejoin the show.  They ended up having to basically revamp the performances and supporting technology to integrate all the changes into the overarching narrative concept.

Over a manic three-week period, “X” hired over a dozen replacement actors and acrobats from troupes across China, who had to be trained and taught the show in its entirety.

Scenes containing foreign stars were replaced and re-choreographed. A duo of figure-skating Russians was swapped out for a group of Cyr wheel performers, who roll around the stage inside giant metal hoops. The high-flying bungee rope artists were substituted for a “water meteor” juggling act. Local trampoline specialists created a simplified version of the show’s original “trampowall” segment, in which the experienced foreign artists would flip and spin off of a high vertical wall.

Changing or cutting acts is routine during Cirque shows, but making so many changes while remaining faithful to the “X” storyline was a huge challenge, according to Chouinard.

[…]

The hardest-working crewmembers were the technical team, who had to adjust the music, graphics, lighting, and animations to fit with the altered show. Each change, meanwhile, had to be discussed and approved by Cirque’s headquarters back in Canada.

What was most surprising to learn was that the Chinese producers, Xintiandi,  were able to continue paying the bills for their idled production even as Cirque du Soleil was filing for bankruptcy protection. Still, despite Xintiandi’s substantial cash reserves, they have been renting out their performance facility to other events in an attempt to offset the reduced income resulting from a mandatory 50% seating capacity and weakened tourism outlook for Hangzhou.

Between February and June, Xintiandi continued to pay staff wages, venue bills, financial payments, and maintenance costs, without earning 1 yuan in income.

The Chinese firm, meanwhile, still has to pay Cirque an annual licensing fee for the show. When Sixth Tone spoke with Xia in July, she said the company was currently negotiating this year’s payment with its Canadian partner, with a slight grimace.

The deep pockets of Xintiandi have enabled the show to absorb these losses, but the current 50% attendance limit means the show can’t run profitably.

The Man Who Decided To Raise Artists Instead of Chickens

It was with some sorrow that I learned this week that a great man who has literally been part of the grassroots effort to provide arts experiences to young people died last week. Albert Appel who, with his wife Clare, founded, or he might say floundered, into establishing an arts and music camp just turned 98 on July 5. A tribute to his life appears on the Appel Farm Arts and Music Campus website.

When I say he was literally part of a grassroots effort, it is because when he and his wife started giving music lessons to neighbor kids back around 1960, he was running a farm with 20,000 chickens, feed crops, and other animals. Gradually, the chickens began to be replaced by children. Again, literally. When I worked on the concert presenting side of the organization back in the early 2000s, two of the camp dorms were still refurbished chicken coops and were referred to as North & South Coop.

Albert, and his wife Clare, who had passed away before I started working there, are an admonishment against making assumptions about the artistic interests and capabilities of farmers. Albert trained to be a farmer, but he also played violin. He actually met Clare when friends told him they needed a violinist to fill out their string quartet.

The way Albert liked to tell it, he and Clare started the camp because kids would come over for music lessons and would never go home so he started charging their parents to let them hang around his house.

When I moved to South Jersey to take the job in winter 2000, I was told I could live in Albert’s house until I found a place of my own. I was given two room that used to be offices for the camp. As you moved through Albert’s house you could see that they had continued to add on to the house to accommodate camp activities. There were also some out buildings behind the house that got used. Finally, they moved a lot of the operations across the road–into the chicken coops, among other buildings. However, some of the original rooms continued to be used as living quarters for the camp counselors and staff during my tenure there.

The founding philosophy of the camp was that every kid has the capacity for creative expression. Come to think of it, working there may have serve to form my own views along those lines. A camper’s day was spent pursuing one major and two minors. The major was the area they identified as their core interest or area of experience and the minors were things they hadn’t really done, but wanted to explore. The subjects ranged from acting, dancing, music, ceramics, painting, photography, creative writing, video production.

Due to security concerns, folks like myself who didn’t work for the camp program weren’t generally allowed on the grounds past the administration building. However, I frequently helped distribute the mail and even without hearing them say it, it was clear that for a lot of those kids camp was a place they felt they could be themselves surrounded by people with similar interests versus who they had to be at home and at school.

But as I said, I wasn’t directly involved with the camp. My job was to run the operations for the concert series and music festival as well as to support the school outreach efforts. I count myself lucky to have lived in Albert’s house for a short time because even after I moved out, I would get invited to join him and his second wife, Peimin, when they were entertaining guests. Often it was groups like the Corigliano Quartet who were staying over in preparation for school residencies.

Albert would often pull out his violin to play or talk about his children’s music lessons on various instruments. Nearly all of Albert’s children play an instrument to some extent or another. His son Toby is a violist on the Julliard faculty. One story I recall involved inducements for him to practice piano. There are also a couple wild stories about Albert I heard from his kids.

Albert was definitely a character. Even though the livestock and poultry mostly departed the farm, all campers were required to work in the camp garden and the vegetables all made it to the kitchen for meals. Albert often gave the gardeners a hard time about how they were going about planting. A farmer can never really retire. He was just as passionate about creating an environment for people to cut loose with creative expression. At 80, he was pulling out his violin to play beside the campers. You would also hear the low drone of the instrument across the fields in the middle of the winter.

Obviously at 98, his death wasn’t unexpected but it is still saddening. Though at his 80th birthday party, he kept joking that if he had known he would live as long as he had, he would have taken better care of himself and he might have already made it to 90. Apparently someone was taking good care of him if he was so seriously pushing 100.

His legacy runs much deeper than thousands of kids attending arts camp over 60 years. As I mentioned, when I worked there the other nine months of the year were devoted to a concert series, school outreach programs and a pretty active conference calendar. Shortly after I left, Appel Farm started offering afternoon and evening arts classes to kids and adults and were the arts content provider for a local school district.

Now they have added a Families to College program that works with the whole family to provide an environment aligned with increasing the chances of success for college bound students. They are also involved with providing a charter school STEAM program. In a rural portion of southern NJ, programs like these can have big impacts.

I am sure there has been some positive impact on the economy of Elmer, NJ and Salem County that wouldn’t have existed if Appel Farm Arts and Music Center wasn’t there. But when we talk about the value of the arts, few would have the patience to wait 90 years, or smaller increment thereof, to see the result of giving 8 year old Albert music lessons. (Or his wife Clare for that matter, I am told she eclipsed him in passion for the camp’s mission.) And yet, there are thousands upon thousands of people who will attest to the immeasurable value of their experiences.

Love It So Much I Had To Destroy It

A little background. I have had a Facebook account since ~2011 but I only created it so I could access and control my organizational Facebook pages. There are a very small number of people I friended when created the account and I pretty much haven’t friended anyone since. I don’t have a Facebook connection with any of my siblings or my mother. I pretty much ignore anything Facebook suggests I might want to watch.

That is until about 3-4 months ago. There was a video of magician/puzzle enthusiast Chris Ramsay solving a three dimensional puzzle. I am not really into puzzles, but the time, effort and craftsmanship people have put into creating the puzzles Ramsay gets his hands on is worthy of admiration. After awhile I realized watching Ramsay disassemble and reassemble a puzzle in 40 minutes that I know would take me a couple days to solve has gotten me to pay attention to all the different perspectives one may have to take to solve a problem–though his default opening move is usually to spin the puzzle. (His videos are generally edited down to about 10 minutes, but he generally has a timer running next to him.)

Suffice to say, he is really, really good at solving puzzles. However, there was one he really couldn’t solve and subsequently took a circular saw to it to learn its secrets. Then he immediately felt regret at having done it.

He made a video where he admits he could present a number of reasonable explanations about why he cut it open, but that he would be lying. He expresses his regret for cutting it open and apologizes to his viewers for having done it.

It was all very heartfelt and honest. Even though he wasn’t reflecting on his own creative process directly, he dedicates so many of his videos to admiring the mastery of puzzle makers and magicians, I feel like there is something worthwhile in witnessing his apology. Actually, you could probably use this as a jumping off point for a discussion about the destructive ways in which a declared fervent love or admiration for something can manifest.

I found the video on YouTube and cued it up to the start of the apology. Feel free to start from the beginning to see how the puzzle was crafted.

 

 

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