Songs for the Struggling Artist

Do People Really Have an Aversion to Creativity?

The science in it seems sketchy and it’s not clear which people this may be true for – but the New York Times put out this article about how there’s a Creativity Problem and it feels true to me. Obviously, my feelings are not good science but if what this article posits is correct, a lot of people have a subconscious aversion to, or are pretty ambivalent about, creativity. They’ll say they like it, that they want it, that creativity is valuable to them. Then underneath, their subconscious seems to reflect the opposite experience. All the questions about methodology and sample sizes aside, if this is true, it does explain a few things. It explains why people’s stated values are so different than their actual values. It explains why people can say they support the arts while cutting all the arts programs. It explains why here in the States, we have no arts funding to speak of – because even though people say they like creative people and things, they don’t actually.

One of the theories that got floated in the article was that most people really prefer the status quo and art is disruptive. That is, it’s especially disruptive if it is innovative or creative. That is, if it’s more than just decorative, it’s probably shaking things up. Maybe that’s why people associated creativity with a word like vomit. Vomit is also very disruptive. Maybe people’s subconsciouses were going super deep when they went this way. It’s not that they don’t LIKE art, they’re just making word association visceral metaphors. (Says the artist who likes to make metaphors.)

The article suggested that even when companies declared that they valued creativity in their staff, in truth, they tended to revert to the status quo when hiring because middle managers don’t like novelty. This is not a surprise to me. I know ARTS middle managers who don’t like novelty or innovation and they’re theoretically IN creative fields. I guess we live in a world of middle managers, even in the arts.

This difference in people’s stated values feels true to me because while some people are charmed by my creative life choices when they meet me at parties, there is often a kind of underlying hostility about it that I’ve never been able to understand. I thought it was a kind of jealousy, like, everyone really wants to be as creative as they were when they were children and so it gets expressed as resentment to adults – but it may be this disgust, I suppose, this association with vomit or other negative words. It may be a subconscious resistance to status quo disruptors.

I’ve seen people get really mean in on-line discussions of artist housing that I’ve seen. They call us freeloaders who should get no special treatment and tell artists to get “real jobs.” There are some people who’d just rather we didn’t create. I guess there are more of those than I realized. That’s kind of a bummer.

I suppose I understand. Maybe my subconscious hates my creativity, too! (I doubt it. I’m a pretty clear outlier in these things.) Creativity is messy. You can theoretically want your kids to be creative, for example, but then, not let them paint without the smock and the drop-cloth and the mop at hand and really it would be easier to just not get into this painting activity. Let’s just watch a video!

You can think music is pretty cool but oh, those drums are so noisy and please stop playing that harmonica and why are we hearing that same phrase over and over?

Art makes a mess. Sometimes you can dress it up and put it on a stage with an orchestra and invite people in fur coats to come and see – but even the most refined work is messy at some point. It is inconvenient. It can bring something back up that you were hoping to never see again.

But, of course, people expressing a kind of ambivalence about creativity as a concept, as a preference doesn’t mean they don’t actually like art, or don’t engage with disruptive work or don’t respond to creativity in performance. They might love it when they see it. Actually. No ambivalence.

I suspect that folks might like art, actually – but just don’t really trust us artists. That’s okay. I really don’t trust middle managers. The feeling is mutual.

What a mess. Maybe better to just sit quietly in a corner running numbers all day. Don’t paint. You might mix up your colors or something.

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Dasani and the Arts
December 20, 2013, 9:06 pm
Filed under: art, education | Tags: , ,

When I saw the New York Times article about “The Invisible Child” go through my Facebook feed, I thought, “That kid could be one of my former students.” I didn’t read it, though, not at first. Given that I’ve taught thousands of young people in the last 15 years, I figured every kid looks like a former student. It wasn’t until I’d seen the article go through my feed for the fifth or sixth time that I finally clicked on the link and read it.

Turns out, the child at the heart of the piece IS, in fact, a student I taught. While she’d grown up a bit since I last saw her, it was clearly the same Dasani that I’d worked with at PS 67 in Brooklyn a couple years ago.

Like many of my friends, I found the article moving and fiercely compelling. (I stayed up well past 2am one night reading it.) It’s a remarkable piece of journalism and I felt some bittersweetness in having some experience with its subject and her narrative. But I think there’s another narrative that is hiding within this one, one about the Arts and how Dasani became the self-reliant, articulate kid that she is.

We don’t see Dasani before she goes to the Arts school in Brooklyn. We don’t see her fall in love with dance. We don’t see how she came to be the kind of kid who would figure out how to get to Harlem from Brooklyn on her own for a rehearsal. I don’t know what the links in that narrative chain are but I do know what some of the conditions were at Dasani’s elementary school that allowed those things to happen.

1) Her school, unlike MOST public schools in NYC, had a dance studio in it and Dasani had a dance teacher and a regular dance class. Additionally, her classroom teachers expressed a great deal of interest in what their students did there. They were great supporters of dance and tried to integrate their movement work into their class work.
2) Similarly, her school had a music teacher and a music room and a music class. And the students’ work there was featured in their classroom teachers’ presentations.
3) Despite the article’s suggestion that PS 67 had no resources, her school did, in fact, have a computer room and her class had regular access to it.
4) Dasani not only had a theatre residency with me, she had teachers who would take what the class learned in theatre and then integrate it into their studies. Before the grant ran out, the school had an ambition to make sure students got exposure to theatre in every grade.
5) She had teachers who gave her, and her fellow students, writing and public speaking skills, which they practiced regularly. The students also often wrote creatively and practiced articulating their feelings and analyzing them. I saw it in action.

The Arts were a major part of Dasani’s childhood and they have clearly continued to play a large role, in that she’s gone on to study dance.

Dasani is a remarkable kid. But I will say, she was in the company of dozens of remarkable kids at a remarkable elementary school. And yes, I worry about her. You couldn’t read that article and not worry about her. But I actually worry less about her than I do about all of the students in her position who didn’t have the elementary education that she did. You can probably tell from the article that Dasani has a remarkable store of self-reliance, resilience and charisma. There’s something about her that makes me feel like she’ll somehow land on her feet.

But – what about the students who never found a reason to fight to go to school, who don’t have loving relationships with teachers and administrators, whose experience of poverty doesn’t have the bright spots that Dasani encounters?

It’s funny to think of a kid living under the conditions that Dasani has endured as having some advantages but that’s weirdly how I see her. And the major advantage that she’s had, in my mind, is an arts-based education. I think Dasani’s experience of the arts probably helped her to become the sort of kid a New York Times reporter wants to write about. It helped her become a spokes-kid for others in her situation.

If you’ve ever tried to teach a kid how to think metaphorically, you know how tricky it can be. Throughout the article, Dasani uses metaphor and expressive language like a total pro. And I believe that it was her exposure to the Arts that gave her that skill. I just wish we could give that gift to more of her peers.

Sometimes in Arts Education, there is a sense that the Arts can save kids in terrible situations. I think it’s important to recognize that the Arts aren’t going to get Dasani a home or solve her family’s difficulties. But what the Arts can do is give a kid skills to look at the world creatively, to find a reason to go to school, to develop valuable passionate discipline. And The Arts can’t do that in a piecemeal sort of way. It doesn’t happen with an occasional residency with a teaching artist. It doesn’t happen with a single visit to a museum. It comes from a sustained and integrated commitment to the Arts. It comes from having dance AND music AND visual art AND theatre AND having them on a regular basis. I want that for every kid in New York City and I want it for Dasani, all the way through the rest of her education.

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