Phhsst! You Think You Are As Good As Me?

Often when the concept of Professional-Amateurs or the capability of everyone to be creative comes up, there is a feeling of resistance that rises up among arts professionals. The study on creating public will for arts and culture that I have been citing this week addresses that a little.

Finally, our research found A POTENTIAL FOR PUSH-BACK FROM EXISTING CONSTITUENCIES for arts and culture (e.g., some arts leaders, working artists, arts educators, and arts and culture enthusiasts). Here, some respondents expressed concern that a focus on creative expression represents a dumbing down of the conversation about the value of arts and culture. Some artists, for example, chafe at the notion that “amateurs” and “hobbyists” might be lumped into the same category as those who have dedicated years of study, practice, and exploration to their art.

…Rather, the question of framing the subject is not either “creative expression” or “arts and culture,” but both/and. To those ends, our research suggests that framing the discussion in terms of creative expression is an entry point through which more people are receptive, increasing and diversifying the audience for whom the conversation has relevance.

Getting more people engaging in a conversation about arts and culture is a good thing. One of the benefits to people becoming more interested and invested in their hobby or area of interest is that the more they learn, the more they realize what they don’t know.

The only problem is that people are often satisfied with what they already know and don’t seek to learn more. As involved in the arts as I am, when I saw the “I Could Do That” video I included in a post last week, I had new respect for Piet Mondrian’s Tableau I. I wasn’t aware how difficult it is to execute using oil paint.

While I have never been dismissive of the work, I could have gone my whole life unaware of the technical skills necessary to create it.

But it can be valuable to remember that the arts aren’t the only arena in which people underestimate the degree of skill required.

Every year millions of kids around the world play baseball. It is a game that is easy for amateurs to participate in. Everyone understands, however, that only a select few have the skill to hit a baseball traveling in excess of 90 MPH…except for thousands of fans jeering at the ineptitude of the losing team.

Sports are still better served by having leagues of people of various ages, abilities and degrees of organization participating rather than athletes feeling threatened by the idea that people are being encouraged to think they have athletic ability.

It bears noting that participation in sports is waning both among those interested in playing and audiences. There may be a growing opportunity to engage people in creative expression as an alternative pursuit…or this may be a sign of a decreasing trend in participation in all types of activities.

Being Great No Matter Where You Are

When it comes to stimulating your creativity to create new work, is it better to live in a place that bustling with other creative activity or working alone outside of the influence of others?

This is something I have been thinking about for the last month or so, spurred by some contradictory observations I encountered lately.

When I was in NYC last January for the Arts Presenters conference, a person I was wandering around with observed that the work of NYC based artists, even relatively unknown ones, was more innovative than in other areas of the country. He attributed this to the fact that the artists are surrounded by so many others who were experimenting and striving with new ideas.

When I was living in Hawaii, someone who moved back from NYC made a similar observation that ideas that were new in NYC seven or eight years before were just gaining currency in Hawaii.

But earlier this month, in an interview choreographer Trey McIntyre noted that basing his company in Boise, ID had

…bolstered his creativity.

“Being surrounded by other artists and companies is more of a challenge than being away,” he says. “As a choreographer when you watch someone else’s work, especially if you respond to it … that’s the culprit for how a lot of work gets to look the same. I’m appreciative of being cut off that way. There are so many other things to be inspired by.”

Certainly, there are a number of non-mutually exclusive scenarios that can be true. You can be an artist in NYC that is doing exciting work that looks a lot like the exciting work everyone else is doing. Below a certain level of saturation, you can be both exciting and derivative.

Another plausible explanation is that people of talent can and will be creative anywhere. It is just that you get a lot more recognition of your genius in larger cities. Being a groundbreaking genius in Spokane doesn’t make you any less of a genius. It is just that only the residents of Spokane know about it.

I have started wondering if exposure to new influences via internet and social media channels can replace the need for traveling and living in the cultural centers. Especially if you are mindful about exposing yourself to work you feel is outside your taste. Because really, you run the same risk of having a blinkered approach to your art form whether you only view videos that appeal to you and your friends taste or only attend performances that appeal to those same tastes.

Granted, you have a better chance of receiving unsought ideas from street corner/subway performers as you travel about the city and meet new people than if you get all your ideas from your laptop in your bedroom.

My hope is that technology will allow interesting and innovative work to be developed in smaller cities and towns around the country. I confess that my interest in seeing this happen was redoubled this morning by a cynical reading of the news that theater companies in New York City’s five boroughs are now eligible to receive the Regional Tony Award.

The regional Tony was “created to honor theaters that did outstanding work outside of the unofficial industry capital of New York City…” My first reaction was that now the judges no longer have to bother looking at anything outside the city. Instead of rolling these theaters in with the Broadway houses or creating a new category, they put them in competition with every other theater in the country.

(This said, the American Theatre Critics Association members which vote on the award are dispersed throughout the country and NYC based critic Terry Teachout regularly sends out a call for suggestions of theaters around the country that he should visit.)

I will also admit that my first reading of the phrase “widen the pool” in the sentence: “administration committee changed the rules for the regional theater Tony to widen the pool of candidates and give Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway companies a shot at the recognition, which can help with fund-raising and publicity,” was that there were insufficient candidates in the rest of the country to give the award to.

Knowing that there are many theaters that are struggling across the country, my reaction to that was that there needs to be a reversal of that trend and a cultivation of theaters on a more local level. I later realized that I may have been reading too much into that, but maybe I wasn’t.

Ultimately, whether another theater outside NYC wins the regional Tony award doesn’t matter to me as much as investigating and hopefully perpetuating evidence that you can consistently produce creative, innovative, work in interesting, livable communities across the country and attract attention (and hopefully visitors) to your work there.

Quirky Little Trick For Monetizing Creativity

A post yesterday on the Drucker Exchange blog caught my eye instantly. How could it not when it started (my emphasis),

The story is told that when Peter Drucker was asked how to become a better manager, he replied: “Learn how to play the violin.”

This was, apparently, Drucker’s way of saying that the best managers and knowledge workers are excellent critical thinkers, creative and open to learning new things—just a few of the attributes that, according to a recent article in Time, seem to be in increasingly short supply among recent college graduates.

…The magazine cited several surveys showing that large and growing numbers of job applicants lack “communication and interpersonal skills” or are weak when it comes to “communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.”

The article goes on to cite Peter Drucker saying that lack of social skills shouldn’t be the biggest disqualifier for a position because you are hiring them for their brains, not to act as a social director. It goes on to quote Drucker encouraging companies to hire someone based on the strengths they bring where the company is lacking rather than trying to hire to the job description.

But the entry later quotes a talk Drucker gave where he says the employee needs to be responsible for managing themselves. (this link isn’t the talk, but an article Drucker wrote on the topic.)

“For the first time in human history, we will have to take responsibility for managing ourselves,” Drucker declared during a 1999 talk he gave in Los Angeles. “This is probably a much bigger change than any technology, this change in the human condition. Nobody teaches it—no school, no college—and it will probably be another hundred years before anybody does teach it. In the meantime, the achievers . . . will have to learn to manage themselves, to build on their strengths, to build on their values.”

Drucker may be right that these skills are not taught directly in schools, but some part of them are required in the practical activities of performing arts classes. Teamwork, goal setting, communication, vision, deadlines, it is all there and is ultimately tested when the curtain goes up. All these things can be learned in a classroom or by participating in activities of your local theatre/dance/music ensemble.

(Though certainly recognition of and building your own strengths and values is always going to be something you have to develop on your own.)

There is a question of whether performing arts students are being properly prepared to perform and work in the new modes of expression and communication that will emerge in the future. Because we don’t know what those modes will be, the question is really more about instilling flexibility and creativity of thinking as well as a degree of entrepreneurship.

But is it enough? We keep seeing articles like the one in Time magazine cited on The Drucker Exchange or whenever people reference the IBM study where CEO valued creativity as crucial to ensure the future of their companies.

And yet an ever increasing number of standardized tests are administered every year despite the fact that the only standardized test you are regularly required to pass as an adult is your tax return. And they have software and people that will help you out by soliciting information from you.

The arts aren’t the sole source of creativity in the world, and the CEOs in the IBM study weren’t specifically looking for creativity as it manifests in the arts, but it seems like there is a huge unmet need out there and maybe arts people need to sit down and figure out how package it for Fortune 500 companies if they are so desperate for it.

It probably can’t be done in the same fashion as in college art classes. Drucker is right when he suggests that there is no formal way to teach soft skills. You can’t put together a 40 hour course on being creative and issue certificates confident at having instilled the ability in your pupils.

And yet, people commit acts of creativity every day. Some times with as much effort as it takes the grass to grow, other times with much angst, but with the knowledge and confidence that they are capable of it.

But it seems that finding a method to monetize effectively teaching/instilling creativity is about the only way these days to convince people not to dismiss liberal arts as a pursuit and that there is a Way of learning that does not embrace standardize testing.

Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been Creative?

There was an article on Salon this weekend which noted that while people in creative fields are facing increasingly difficult times, the amount of literature/media celebrating creativity continues to increase. The author basically concludes that the idea of creativity is valued, but society doesn’t really actively seeks out and support creatives.

He says the same basic examples are recycled over and over again to illustrate how beneficial creativity is to the economy, but there isn’t an expanding effort toward cultivating creatives.

It is the story of brilliant people, often in the arts or humanities, who are studied by other brilliant people, often in the sciences, finance, or marketing. The readership is made up of us — members of the professional-managerial class — each of whom harbors a powerful suspicion that he or she is pretty brilliant as well…the real subject of this literature was the professional-managerial audience itself, whose members hear clear, sweet reason when they listen to NPR and think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk. And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue. Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.

This reinforces the uneasiness I felt when I learned the National Endowment for the Arts decided to expand their definition of participation in arts activity to include viewing/listening to recordings and broadcasts. Suddenly 74% of adults were participants.

I support the idea that the survey should acknowledge that technology was a valid way to interact with the arts, but I was still left asking, “So what?”

That 74% was twice the number who reported having attended an arts event. That means that 38%+ did not view themselves as having participated in an arts activity.

Even if you went and told them, “Hey, that thing you do? It is participating in an arts activity,” they basically didn’t have to make an effort to change their lifestyle in order to continue being counted as a participant.

Those who cared about being considered a participant gained a measure of satisfaction they didn’t have and those who didn’t care could just live on.

Since that initial study came out in 2008, there hasn’t really been any initiative to encourage people to up their game and be more of an active participant.

I am not talking about fulfilling the self-interest of arts organizations to get people through their doors. That portion of the study didn’t really change anything for arts organizations. They knew long before then that people were watching broadcasts and listening to recordings and doing other things rather than attending and it was going to be necessary for arts organizations to change their approach.

There hasn’t been strong effort to say, what you are doing is considered participation, now try picking up a guitar, writing poems and short stories, sketching the clouds.

I don’t discount the possibility that people are already quietly doing this. Perhaps the next NEA survey should ask if listening and watching broadcasts and recordings has lead to further exploration through taking a class, experimenting with Photoshop, keeping a journal, etc,.

The very act of asking that question might reinforce the idea that creative efforts should be valued better than a series of television and print ads encouraging people to get up and paint in the manner of exercise campaigns.

In the past I have advocated asking people what they liked about their last arts experience when you encounter them at supermarket check out line or at dinner parties. It occurs to me we should add asking if people do any acting, singing, dancing, painting, writing, etc., themselves to introduce the idea there is value in self-improvement and education.

While the Salon article takes a fairly cynical tone about feeling self-important after reading a book on creativity or watching a TED talk, it is true that creativity can’t be achieved through passivity. Quiet time is certainly helpful, but the creative process is active, full of mistakes, risk, disappointments and blisters as well as the sublime.