creativity, imagination and the future

One thing that does worry me about this need to be uber professional – I wonder if it has an effect on our attitudes about work and the creative process. Ken Robinson’s TED talk about schools and creativity comes to mind.

There is quite a bit of a punishment or disincentive to being “wrong,” which is a natural part of the process of experimenting to find new things that are viable, built into the education system and a lot of workplaces. When everyone is encouraged only to show the best of the best and you never see the ideas that failed, it breeds the perception that creativity is something that can’t be taught, that you either have or don’t have, and if you have it, you have the ability to churn out one successful work after another. Isn’t this part of the reason that the idea of genius is so popular?

I love the fact that any and everything can be addressed through art, but I wonder if more can be done on a systemic level to foster creativity not only in art but in all fields. If creative endeavor was more respected, the arts would be less grudgingly funded. It seems that the public loves to partake of successful art (whether that’s out of love of art or a need to display sophistication is another question entirely), but when it comes to career choices for children, many parents would steer them clear of art. Out of certain circles, announcing yourself as an art major elicits looks of pity or derision. It feels like the equivalent of saying, “I’m not competent at anything useful” or “the only thing I want do in school is party.”

How might we begin to encourage folks to associate creativity with productivity? A question I’ve been asking myself is – what does the manufacture of ideas look like? I’d like to address this question in Sept after I return from a trip to China in the coming weeks. (Congratuations to me, I’m going to China!) After all, the reality is that many successful people have gotten where they are because of creative thinking. Many tech gurus are making careers out of thinking up new ideas and implementing them. There is no doubt more money in creating something new and interesting than in doing what you’re told, but we train our kids to do what they’re told. The most memorable moment in the video is when Robinson notes that little kids are always asking questions – why this? why that? – but somehow by their teenage years they are no longer doing so. We train it out of most of them! (Is this a consequence of busy working couples plopping their kids in front of the TV with an ‘educational’ DVD to get some quiet time to themselves?)

He argues that most primary schools are a vestige of industrial times when we wanted to train children so that they would be prepared for lives of dull routine, but now, with the automation of everything and costs of living such that having your average white collar office job is no longer enough to pay for much of anything, we’d be wise to train children to generate new ideas, to think creativity, critically, divergently. This happens more frequently at universities, but oughtn’t we start much earlier than that? (How many interviews with working photographers – and successful people in many fields – yield answers that begin “when I was a kid…”)

Alec Soth posted some thoughts on art and schools when he was still blogging: Can / Should Art be Taught? I do think creativity can be taught in the sense that it can be encouraged. Half the time the people who are better than you have just spent more time and effort at it. It’s somehow more romantic or accomplished to be self-taught, but schools offer the benefits of any large organization. There is manpower for advising and support, it is a natural meeting ground to start building your social network and there is of course the access to equipment and expertise.

The end of Soth’s post is interesting – student have no idea what their career will consist of. Which makes me think that school if anything should be focusing more heavily on career-building at the college level. All successful artists are in essence self-taught anyways, since no one can possibly teach you what’s coming, what’s next in the future of art. What’s perhaps more valuable is learning your own process of being creative, which is something that is only partially about knowing theory or history, a lot of which can be had for free online these days. What do schools have to offer that the blogs haven’t shown me already?

Then of course there’s the issue of cost of school and how artists must make a living in existing markets while hashing out something new. Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City just wrote a very interesting article on the matter.

We should figure this out. There are reasons to encourage creative thinking beyond the technological or economic. I think creativity is the flip side of the ability to question existing paradigms. On my bookshelf: The Death of Why? The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy.

And if creativity and imagination are correlated in anyway, this second TED talk by Dan Gilbert suggests that we use imagination as a future simulator. Is forethought the result of imagination? The main topic of the video is happiness, but inside is a nugget on imagination:

It sure explains something I’ve been stumped by for a long time – why do we love stories? Perhaps it’s because we use it as a way to imagine ourselves in similar situations, to mentally explore what we would do in those situations. Maybe it’s why coaches tell their gymnasts to visualize themselves doing the routine successfully before the meet. Haven’t studies shown that this actually changes physical performance? (Google search.)

Bottom line is that there are a lot of benefits, some potentially unexplored, to increasing creativity!

And you know what really can’t be taught? Having a sense of humor. That’s the one thing that can’t be taught.

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~ by Jin on August 19, 2009.

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