Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

On The Topic of Culture (3)

(This the third part of a reedited presentation to the Arts Umbrella community from September 7, 2011. The first part can be found here and the second part here.)

We need to understand that the creative act is never singular in character or in action, never clearly purposive although filled with intention. Creativity is very much about crossing and challenging boundaries not only between different disciplines but also among different practices.

As the distinctions between many professions and artists has grown wider and wider, and as the boundaries have become less permeable, it has become difficult for discussions to take place among the different and sometimes contesting sectors. There may well be many similarities in process and outcome among these sectors, but the walls between them have become more solid and not less as many assume.

The best example of this is the profound disempowerment of artists from the activities of programming for digital tools. A very small minority crosses this increasingly solid boundary, but for the most part artists have to use tools developed by computer scientists working from assumptions that are steeped in a misunderstanding of creativity and most importantly, the history of art.

Although David Hockney does some amazing things with his iPad and iPhone, he has no control over the programming language that is making it possible for him to work in the medium or with the technology. He has overcome some of those limitations but must recognize that he cannot push too far without having to learn much more.

My point here is that boundaries are important and although different disciplines have different histories and practices, one of the most important learning experiences for artists is their ability to break the mold, and to challenge conventions and expectations. When creative engagement is classified according to craft or technique and when artists are classified according to their ability to practice those crafts, the purposes of artistic engagement can and will be devalued.

Nomenclature is important but it also must be open to challenge. Training for example, is quite appropriate for certain professions because their activities are circumscribed, defined and quite concrete. We definitely want to train the pilots who fly our airplanes and the construction workers who build what our architects imagine. Some aspects of the cultural production pipeline need people who are well trained. The complexity of learning how to be creative, how to produce, make and distribute artifacts, how to bring inventiveness and innovation into material processes is not fully explained by the term training. We need to think differently about the interaction of craft, critique and creativity. 

So, let me return to an earlier point about whether creative engagement is an essential part of our society. As I said, arts organizations are always the first to be cut back as I might add are educational institutions. Have we missed something?

I speak to many different audiences from all walks of life. What always amazes me is the nostalgic warmth people feel for the arts. Many talk wistfully about wanting to be artists, others remember specific moments when they were moved by a poem or a painting or an opera. The extraordinary proliferation of digital cameras can be traced to this nostalgia, this desire to find some means, any means to express our perceptions, to summarize our experiences, to perhaps shed new light on the ordinary activities of looking, visiting or talking.

Yet these same people will rarely lift a finger when the arts are removed from high schools or local cinemas fail. And, make no mistake about it, policymakers know this and in some senses exploit what seems like a very obvious conundrum. My own sense is that the arts are both attractive and repulsive, the former because of this strong desire to be expressive in many different ways, the latter because creative release, creative realization threatens not only convention but also existing patterns of daily life.

More often than not, art disrupts and in the process lays bare some of the contradictions of our daily lives that we are sometimes not prepared to explore. This disruptive effect, so inherent to the learning and creative process, so crucial to growing and changing can also be profoundly disturbing. There is then a deep ambivalence about creativity and about our imaginations, about the dreams and nightmares of putting oneself on the line and about the risks inherent in exploring new ways of seeing oneself and the world.

The work of being an artist or a designer or a media creator is centred on rigour and on being able to sacrifice the time and energy to understand one’s intentions with as much depth as possible. This requires time, a real commitment of time, going beyond the boundaries made possible by a consumer oriented society and stepping with great trepidation into the unknown, a landscape without maps.

Here is a quote from Steven J. Tepper and George D. Kuh in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education:

“A recent national study conducted by the Curb Center at Vanderbilt University, with Teagle Foundation support, found that arts majors integrate and use core creative abilities more often and more consistently than do students in almost all other fields of study. For example, 53 percent of arts majors say that ambiguity is a routine part of their coursework, as assignments can be taken in multiple directions. Only 9 percent of biology majors say that, 13 percent of economics and business majors, 10 percent of engineering majors, and 7 percent of physical-science majors. Four-fifths of artists say that expressing creativity is typically required in their courses, compared with only 3 percent of biology majors, 16 percent of economics and business majors, 13 percent of engineers, and 10 percent of physical-science majors. And arts majors show comparative advantages over other majors on additional creativity skills—reporting that they are much more likely to have to make connections across different courses and reading; more likely to deploy their curiosity and imagination; more likely to say their coursework provides multiple ways of looking at a problem; and more likely to say that courses require risk taking.”

I will not comment on this quote in great detail because its message is so clear. Suffice to say, that we need new models of creative engagement that cross and create new boundaries among all creative practices.

Let me now briefly comment on the argument around the creative industries because the term carries so much power and is in my opinion fraught with difficulties. While it is true that 8% of the Canadian GDP is centred on a very broad definition of the cultural sector and this is greater than mining and forestry combined, the creative industries as a label both takes in too much and describes too little. The difficulty is that industry suggests assembly, manufacturing, production and trade. Its original 15th century meaning was more related to diligence, cleverness and skill.

“The current definition of the creative industries is based on an industrial classification that proceeds in terms of the creative nature of inputs and the intellectual property nature of outputs.” Jason Potts, Stuart Cunningham, John Hartley and Paul Ormerod, Social network markets: a new definition of the creative industries Journal of Cultural Economics Volume 32, Number 3 / September, 2008, 167-185.

You can begin to anticipate where I am going with this. It is not that markets and commerce are in any way in contradiction with creative work, it is that the label, the nomenclature makes it seem as if creative work can be framed and packaged. This is the dilemma. Entrepreneurship is at the heart of most creative work, and yet that is neither the sum of what artists do nor the metaphor that best describes their work.

Think of it this way. Ambiguity is at the heart of working on and developing an art work. There is no direct line from an idea to a product or a painting or a film. In fact, ideas themselves travel indirect routes from their progenitors to viewers or consumers. This is a complex system and not a simple one. There has never been a complete map of creativity because in large measure so much of the process is driven by multiple strategies, some intuitive and others more specific, more empirical. The beauty of creativity is precisely that we cannot contain its excesses, cannot simply frame its meanings, cannot reduce what we do not know or understand to simple formulae. Thankfully this is also the challenge of teaching and learning which is why we are so often surprised by our artists and teachers and students.

End of series.