Last weekend I attended a workshop on teaching creativity to young people. My secret aim in going was to learn how to make traditional drawing classes less intimidating. The money was paid and my spot held when I received the note to “wear comfortable cloths and bring an instrument.” For some of you that may sound like an exciting weekend of fun, for me it signals impending humiliation, social degradation from which there is no recovery. When I arrived, there was a mosh pit of adults fighting over glue sticks and markers with which to make our name tags.
Over the course of the weekend I did a dozen activities that fall under the category of my worst nightmare (which I will leave to your imagination), and yet, I left learning some unexpected things about myself and it raised many questions for me about the nature of creativity. It dawned on me that I have never given the subject much thought.
I admire creative people whose life is their art, who are original and impulsive. They challenge expectations and understand that creativity can be expressed in everything from the way you cook, the clothes you wear to your handwriting. They are colorful and defy convention. For the person whose creativity is generalized, art is not a product but a lifestyle, the goal is entirely experiential.
Yet, when I think of the brilliant professional artist and thinkers I personally know, not one could be picked out of a lineup based on their appearance or actions. Their creative powers are almost entirely hidden and many of them are introverts. They appear ordinary although they are nothing of the sort. For these artists, their life is not their art, they save all their creativity for a narrow, focused beam of expression. They have the goal of producing a work of art, not being one.
When I started seriously studying art, just after graduating high school, my teacher told the class that the only student worth encouraging was the student who couldn’t be discouraged. Art is a serious venture and one of the highest attainments of the human intellect and we pursued it under Myron’s eye with the religious fervor of the new convert. If my chain smoking, finger pointing, art instructor could see me now, sitting in a circle on the floor taping my name-tag on my chest, he would immediately eject me from the ranks of art. However, I realize now that there is a point to general creativity (doing something poorly just because it’s fun).
Not everyone who draws is called to be an artist and yet there is a value in everyone learning to draw, even without skill, because the effort alone trains us to see, observe and appreciate life. Just as, perhaps, there is a value of me singing, even if I do it poorly, because it makes me feel happy just to be alive.
In wrestling with the issues, I believe that, although general creativity will not evolve into a mastery of any particular medium it does have a significant value. Broad creativity encourages a community experience and uniquely human skills. It makes one tolerant of mistakes and risk taking, it fosters an enlivening environment that celebrates active participation and engagement rather than passive consumption of entertainment. It fosters a low stakes sense of fun that is wonderfully restorative and heartening in a cultural time when any slip-up personally or professional can feel disastrous. It shows that creative exploration can be liberating- bringing out our best impulses to encourage and be supportive of one another, even if we are silly. In this environment there are no spectators, only participants and we are all very welcome.
Perhaps we can agree that there is a role for both general and specific creativity. Maybe, on a very good day, we can meet in the middle. Those uniquely creative types could be challenged with greater demands upon their energy by throwing some skill and knowledge into the pot. And perhaps those black clad legions of fine artists could use a little laughter that comes from taking a risk in a community of kind, generous people who give each other permission to play.
Are you creative?