Talking About Your Debates

I had an interesting conversation the other day that convinced me I don’t spend enough time talking to people from other arts disciplines. We were backstage talking to some visual arts professors about the mural project I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

The wall the mural is on is slated to come down soon. While I think it is is a little too soon, I was a little surprised to learn one of the professors (who wasn’t present) really wanted to preserve the mural and have it mounted. To me, the very media it was on–a plywood construction wall–implied a certain impermanence.

This got us to talking about theories of visual arts preservation and the extent you go to in order to keep art around. For example, if you take the chunk of wall a Banksy is on and put it in a gallery of some sort, aren’t you missing the point and leaving it bereft of its context?

When you restore a painting, how good a job do you do? Should it be absolutely indistinguishable from the original or is that fraudulent?

We talked about how theatre embraces the transitory nature of art. Sure you can have a video of the performance, but we always stress that it isn’t the same as having been there. (As it is with some visual arts pieces.) With the exception of the quest to exactly replicate all the original elements of Shakespeare’s plays, theatre people pretty much strive to find some new way frame a performance. (Some times trying far, far too hard to find an original approach.)

What theatre often obsesses about is the process of creating illusion. How does the performer depict their character? Whose approach do you subscribe to? Strasberg? Adler? Meisner? All of the above? None of the above?

There is a famous story that illustrates the conflicting theories. Dustin Hoffman is said to have stayed up two days while filming Marathon Man in order to fully empathize with his character who had also been awake for two days. Sir Laurence Olivier reportedly said, “Why don’t you try acting?”

Hoffman addresses this story in a 2003 NPR interview (around 15 min mark) giving a great testimony to Olivier.

Where theatre people don’t worry overly much about presentation, visual artists don’t really view embracing another artist’s emotional state as crucial to understanding and replicating their technique. While emotion is important to dancers, discussing how one moves through space is of much greater importance.

Yet the conversation got me thinking that someone could make an interesting project out of focusing on those areas that other disciplines find important. For instance, trying to embody the emotions of a famous painter while creating a painting or explore if improved body awareness impacted sculpting techniques.

I am not sure how it would work in the opposite direction since attempts at preservation would make a performance static and dull.

Really, my concern isn’t really with creating new approaches to artistic expression. My point is that talking about the biggest points of debate in your artistic discipline with people from another discipline can be fun and informative. The folks from the other discipline will have a basic understanding about why things like preservation of an artistic expression would be a concern, but since they are not as emotionally invested in the debate, they can bring interesting perspectives.

Who know, it the conversation might plant the seeds for a collaboration on your next project.

Invest In The Arts – Ministry of Culture Edition

Some time ago I came across the China Cultural Industries cultural projects page. The page is part of the China International Cultural Industries Fair website, an organization authorized by the China Ministry of Culture “as a state-level authoritative portal website of China cultural industries, integrates the comprehensive information of the cultural industries, the release and trade of the cultural projects and products.”

If you look at the project listings asking for millions and billions of RMB in investment and are a little wary in light of all the corruption stories we are hearing from China these days, you probably should be.

I created an account to get a closer look at the “View after signing in.” categories of information and it didn’t really illuminate things for me. Information was incomplete or missing, website links didn’t work. From what I could tell, all the information is supplied by the projects themselves. There may not be any vetting to assure their viability. Though some do have official government sanction.

Now all that being said, there isn’t any comparable listing in the U.S. As much as we may want to keep away from solely arguing about the economic value of the arts, having a listing of all the arts and culture related projects in the United States would help illustrate the impact pretty visibly and make arts and culture harder to dismiss.

True, there are lot of arts and culture projects listed on Kickstarter, but no publicly available list that attempts to be comprehensive. Certainly no central list of projects with the imprimatur of a government arts and cultural office at any level. (Okay, I admit there may be some state or county that has such a list and I am merely unaware of it.)

Apropos of my posting last week about art organizations experimenting with different structures and corporate expiration, such a listing would help the process along by making a greater number of people more aware of ways to organize themselves.

It might also attract investment of resources and expertise from much further afield than would otherwise be possible. People might contact the project organizers noting that the it might be better organized under an entirely different structure and provide advice on some aspects of the planning.

Having this type of exposure would require organizers to have a higher level of sophistication than might normally be required. There will be those who might be looking to exploit a project solely for their own gain. In the for-profit world, many companies who receive the support of venture capitalists find themselves so dominated and beholden to the VCs, they barely recognize the company as their own after awhile. Something similar might happen to the cultural organization, the majority of which may no longer be non-profits.

Now that President Obama has signed the JOBS Act which will allow crowdfunding on a larger scale, this situation becomes more viable. (See my discussion of the proposed legislation last December. Good series of articles on the general implications of the JOBS Act as passed for crowdfunding on William Carleton’s site.)

Thanks to this sort of legislation regarding investment opportunities, people would be able to follow up on the project listings with a higher degree of confidence in their legitimacy. There will always be the danger of being scammed. A game being funded on Kickstarter was just outed as a hoax today thanks to the fact checking of some of the claims by the online community.

But as I said, in general, such a listing would be invaluable to the arts and culture community in terms of raising awareness of the scope and impact of the sector’s activities and marshaling support for them.

We’ve Discovered Creativity!

Creativity is getting A LOT of play lately. I have written on the subject at least six or seven times since the new year, including a discussion about the IBM study that found corporate executives value creativity over pretty much everything else. Thomas Cott features a cross section the subject in his You’ve Cott Mail today. There is the Creativity Post site which devotes itself pretty much entirely to the subject.

You’d almost think no one was aware of creativity until Richard Florida discovered it in 2005 launching a mad scramble to mine it.

Of course, it existed long before that..and we have proof! Maria Popova posted a videos of a talk John Cleese gave on Brain Pickings this weekend. At first I thought he just gave the talking in the last month, so timely did it sound. But he looked a lot younger than he did when I saw him a couple months ago. But you know, despite sounding so recent, he gave the talk in 1991.

Those of you who recognize Cleese’s name from Monty Python probably have no doubts about his credentials to talk about creativity. You may not know that Cleese also has a series of really good management videos, which come to think of it, I believe I first saw around 1991. He was the first to introduce me to the idea that good leadership means creating an environment which can effectively function in your absence, rather than requiring you to make every decision.

One of the things that Cleese says in the creativity video, which is borne out by research and recent writings on the subject, is that creativity is something you have to work at. He mentions that there was another member of the Monty Python troupe he felt had far more creative talent than he, but who would give up on an idea very quickly compared to Cleese because, in his view, there was a lot of discomfort associated with spending time working with a weak idea to make it stronger and more original.

Apparently research shows that people who are deemed more “creative” do spend more time playing with a problem trying to find a solution. These people learn to tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty rather than reaching for the easiest solution in order to gain the satisfaction of completion.

The need to be decisive runs counter to the process of creativity because creativity requires weighing many options. Earlier in the video Cleese talks about how it is easy to do small things that are urgent rather than taking the time to do big things which aren’t so urgent, like giving yourself the time and space to be creative. In the same manner, it is difficult in today’s work environment to escape the sense that you should be doing something (be it internal or external) long enough to stimulate creativity.

It has been suggested on Americans for the Arts Artsblog’s Private Sector Salons that the arts community has a lot to offer the private sector in terms of training in creativity.

My concern is that the arts community doesn’t really know how and why they are creative. There are things that we do that elicit creative thoughts like improvisation games, walks in the woods, etc., but we may not realize is that it isn’t the activities per se that make as creative as much as that they represent the carving out of time, space and environment separate from our daily lives in which we can be creative.

Teaching people to do improv games or telling them they should take long walks in the woods isn’t going to make them creative if they aren’t allowing their minds to leave their desks. If they don’t have the courage to embrace uncertainty, be wrong and appear indecisive, participation in playful activities won’t help. If arts groups are going to help private sector businesses become more creative, they need to be clear that the exercises they are teaching them are just tools to help them attain a creative mindset.

The activities are meaningless of themselves and interchangeable with many others that you may find convenient and enjoyable. Some are certainly more conducive to group interactions toward creativity than others, some may better suit the corporate culture, but no one activity is necessarily the key to magical creative synchronicity. You can be creative sitting at your desk if you have the discipline and courage to allow yourself to be.

The most interesting thing Cleese talks about is the importance of humor to solving problems. He notes that people may not feel humor is appropriate when addressing serious problems, but that it absolutely is. That is why I found it interesting. I would be afraid to interject humor into a serious discussion. Serious should not be confused with solemn he says. You can talk about serious matters of the day while laughing and it wouldn’t make the problems any less serious. Cleese seems to say that the use of humor can help mentally insulate you from the problem enough to arrive at creative solutions.