Best Creativity Is Messy Creativity

In the past I have written critically about the use of creative practice as a prescriptive tool to boost the development and achievement level of children (i.e. attaching headphones to your belly to expose a baby to Mozart in utero).  Back in November, The Guardian had a long form piece on the related topic of giving kids educational toys with the same end in mind. Research basically shows it doesn’t work:

But, despite the best efforts of millions of striver parents, it doesn’t seem to be the case that you can turn three-year-olds into geniuses by giving them plastic ukuleles for their birthdays, or even drilling them on their violin scales. (You may well be able to foster in those children a paralysing perfectionism and deep sense of inadequacy.) Equally, you don’t have to grow up with hundreds of toys, or speaking three languages, in order to be extraordinarily bright. (In fact, you can still learn several languages with a high degree of fluency in later childhood and beyond.)

Not all of that nuance has broken through to parents. Already in the mid 1980s, Brian Sutton-Smith, probably the most prolific play scholar in history, could write: “We have little compelling evidence of a connection between toys, all by themselves, and achievement…”

The oft repeated story about kids being more interested in playing with the box the toy came in points to the exact type of play that does contribute to skill development. The less concrete and realistic the intended use of the object is, the better.

It seems that basically that from birth through adulthood, the best pursuit of creativity is messy, unstructured creativity.

After watching kids play with more than 100 different types of toy, the researchers concluded that simple, open-ended, non-realistic toys with multiple parts, like a random assortment of Lego, inspired the highest-quality play. While engaged with such toys, children were “more likely to be creative, engage in problem solving, interact with their peers, and use language,” the researchers wrote. Electronic toys, however, tended to limit kids’ play: “A simple wooden cash register in our study inspired children to engage in lots of conversations related to buying and selling – but a plastic cash register that produced sounds when buttons were pushed mostly inspired children to just push the buttons repeatedly.”

As a result of such research, it is increasingly acknowledged that the best new toys are the best old ones – sticks and blocks and dolls and sand that follow no pre-programmed routines, that elicit no predetermined behaviours.

Doesn’t It Need To Be *About* Something?

My nephew is in the throes of writing essays for college applications so perhaps that is why a Twitter thread by author Kelly Barnhill caught my attention a month ago. She talks about how neighborhood kids have been coming and asking her for help in writing the essay. She writes about all the writing exercises and ensuing conversations she has with them trying to draw information and realization out.

“I have them write jokes, treatises, manifestos. I have them make graphic essays. Comics. Yard signs. I have them make lists. We talk about verbs. We talk about how we know what we know.”

But the part I really honed in on was this one:

She goes on to talk about how people often don’t know themselves well enough to write about themselves and in fact other people might have greater insight about you than yourself. Which is probably why it is easier to write about your grandmother.

But this resonated with me on a more practical level because I feel like the college essay about how you overcame obstacles in your life was a new enough subject when I was applying to college that it was relevant to your admission. Now, decades later it is cliched and overdone making it all the more difficult for a person with 17 years of relatively unexamined life experience to set themselves apart from other applicants. (And it probably doesn’t help that college admission consultants are telling his parents he would have a better chance of gaining admission to his top choices if he lived in the Midwest rather than East Coast.)

While Barnhill doesn’t say how successful her essay writers are in getting into their top choices, I appreciate that she provides a rather detailed accounting of how she helps create an essay that better reflects their authentic self.  She is giving them the bones of a learning how to learn process that can serve them well throughout their lives if they pay close enough attention.

Also, it occurs to me that she is inadvertently giving an answer to the oft asked query regarding a work of art – “What’s it about??, What does it mean?” Art doesn’t always have to be about SOMETHING to be about something.

80 Years Before TKTS – The First Discount Ticket Booth In Times Square

Little trip down memory lane to an entry I did referencing Joe LeBlang, the owner of a tobacco shop whose entrepreneurial mind created NYC’s first Times Square discount ticket service in 1894, long before the 1972 opening of the current TKTS booth. (h/t again to Ken Davenport)

At the time shop owners would be given tickets if they agreed to place show posters in their windows. LeBlang collected the tickets his neighbor shop owners weren’t going to use and resold them at a discount and split the profits with the other shop owners. He became so successful, not only did theatre owners come to him with their unsold tickets, but the US post office had a special division dedicated just to his business.

Despite the fact they were providing him with tickets, show producers had a love-hate relationship with LeBlang, though they shared a mutual dislike for ticket brokers (Yes, apparently secondary market resellers have been a problem for over 120 years):

Leblang and the Producing Managers’ Association

Today it’s known as The Broadway League, but in 1905 it was called the Producing Managers’ Association and Leblang’s relationship with them rotated between adoration and contempt. Most Broadway producers were personal friends of Leblang, but loathed his business model, which they charged lessened the value of their product.

They made a number of attempts to run Leblang out of the business, but as Leblang went on to save a number of Broadway shows from closure he became an integral part of the Broadway show landscape.

Leblang’s War on Ticket Brokers

Leblang and The Producing Managers Association made no secret of their dislike of ticket brokers, which they agreed alienated the ticket buying public. Leblang devised a way to limit ticket speculation; his proposal in 1919 wasn’t readily accepted, but later on elements were used by Actors Equity as a barter to begin Sunday performances.

Quit Your Job, But Don’t Quit The Arts

Perusing my archives, I came across a post about something Adam Thurman of The Mission Paradox blog wrote regarding the poor work environment in the arts. While people, including myself, were talking about this issue long before Adam wrote his piece, it is kinda depressing to think that it really took the upheaval of a pandemic for the arts and culture industry to listen and respond seriously to the insistence that things must change.

The link to Thurman’s blog is no longer active, but it was mirrored on the Americans for the Arts site .

At the time I wrote it, I only quoted his third point:

3. Don’t let them use your passion against you. Consider this:

Imagine you were a lawyer. What if I told you that there were some law firms (not all, but absolutely some) that didn’t get a damn about their employees? What if I told you that some firms were designed to bring in people and get as much out of them as possible before they burned out?

Would you believe me?

Of course you would. Hell, because it’s the legal profession you would expect such behavior.

Here’s da rub:

Some arts organizations are the exact same way. Just because the end product is art and not a legal brief doesn’t mean the place automatically values their employees. Just because the place is a non-profit doesn’t automatically make it a nice place to work.

But I also wanted to excerpt from a couple other of his points:

1. It doesn’t have to be like that. I know you’ve probably convinced yourself that all the garbage you deal with is just the cost of being in the field.

It isn’t. If the group you work for is being run poorly it is because people are ACTIVELY making choices that allow that to happen. It isn’t just a matter of circumstance. It’s an outcome of choice…

2. You are not the savior.

You’re smart. You see the problems in the organization. You care. You want to play a part in fixing them.


But not everything wants to be fixed. Some organizations have been run so poorly, for so long that they really can’t fathom another way. Don’t make it your responsibility to save them for the path they have chosen….

Perhaps most importantly since people are seriously considering getting out of arts and culture altogether, and it is wise to make that a subject of serious thought:

5. But don’t quit the arts. Quit your job, that’s fine. Just don’t do it without a plan (use that Year in Step 4 to develop it)

If you can’t find a job as an arts administrator in a great organization . . . maybe you get out the field for a while. That’s ok. You can come back.

But the arts need you. They need your skill, your experience, your energy. So maybe you join a Board of an organization, maybe you volunteer. Maybe you start your own organization.


This thing you love, the arts . . . it is your world too. It’s your world just as much as it belongs to any poet, any dancer, any actor.

It’s vital you remember that because along your path you will be confronted by those who alternate between seeing you as completely irrelevant to the artistic process on one hand and the great oppressor of artistic ambitions on the other.

That’s garbage.

You belong. Find your place. Use your skills. Help get great art into the world. It can’t happen without you.