Amateur: On Personal Creativity

[amateur — French from Latin, amator = lover]

Wherever we find remnants of human habitation, we find art. Art in the broadest sense: humans creating, expressing their souls. Sixteen thousand years ago, the inhabitants of the Dordogne Valley in France painted hauntingly beautiful images of bulls, horses and arcane symbols deep inside caves where sunlight penetrated only a single day each year; flutes made from bird bones dating back 35,000 years have been discovered. The human need to create, to express ourselves, to communicate our hopes and despairs, our visions of reality and flights of fantasy, our joys and our misery, define our humanity. We do not merely struggle to survive, but to transcend, to go beyond the limits of our existence to express who. Our species constantly seeks ways to express itself, to communicate creatively with our fellow beings.

Despite the evident importance of creativity in human evolution, its expression among adults in our (i.e. Euro-American) culture is far from universal. Societal ambivalence about the importance of creativity begins in the school years. Art, music, poetry, and drama are commonly seen as “nice-to-have’s,” relatively insignificant additions to schools’ curricula. When budget reductions are demanded, arts programming is often the first to be cut. While a few children are singled out to focus their energies on the development of their creative abilities, the vast majority are at best introduced to a various art forms, plod their way through uninspired classes, and grow to adulthood with little sense of needing to express themselves creatively.

By adulthood, even among those who thrived on music, art, theatre, dance, poetry, or literature as children, most have cease any active participation in the arts; their creative abilities stagnate and atrophy; only a small minority continue to seek to express themselves creatively. The end result is that the vast majority of adults consider creative expression to be a world apart from themselves. At best, it is something to be appreciated in the work of others; at worst, it is seen as negative, scorned as of interest only to effete snobs.
How does this happen? How does the need for creative expression, perhaps as basic as our sexual drives, become repressed, driven so far out of most people’s awareness that they have little or no sense that anything is missing?
Many are discouraged from developing their creative abilities because their earliest teachers did not perceive they had sufficient “talent”. This is natural enough in a society in which nearly everything is ranked in a form of a “zero-sum” equation in which one person’s accomplishment necessarily implies another’s failure. Comparison among individuals and competition are perhaps inevitable aspects of human nature, but the particular form this takes in our culture, depreciates all those except the most obviously primed for “success.” Success is defined extremely narrowly: Only the very strongest matter. If a growing children or young adults do not show the potential to become “great,” there is a sense that their creative efforts are essentially a waste of time, a useless diversion rather than the pursuit of an essential human need.

Students who do not show clear promise of becoming superior are commonly either ignored or confronted with disdain. All too frequently, arts educators decimate their students with brutal critiques that model stereotypical autocratic master teachers of previous centuries. Nearly equally undermining is an approach that praises everything students do as though there were no specific challenges that the students need to take on in order to become more proficient. In either case, the message is conveyed that developing into a talented creative person capable of expressing fine artistic sensibilities is essentially hopeless. In a form of the “star system” so common in our society, any student who does not appear to have outstanding ability often provoke teachers to react as though they had a bad taste in their mouth, as though they’d been forced to drink sour milk. There’s even an implied ethical judgement, as though the less gifted student were morally inferior to those who excel.

Ignoring, falsely praising, or openly deprecating those who do not appear to be emerging stars is part of the larger problem of the commoditization of art. In our culture, everything is given a value. Even inane videos posted on YouTube are rated in stars and hits. The potential for commercial viability becomes the criteria for continuing development of creative abilities. But creativity requires the ability to explore, to find oneself in order to express oneself and to express oneself in order to find oneself. Commoditization crushes this creative spirit, impeding the flow of creative energy, invalidating the urgent need to participate actively in the creative process regardless of whether the product will garner significant financial reward.

This narrow view of creative process is exacerbated by the way we study “great men” (and, notably, only an occasional woman) from kindergarten through adulthood with a sense of near idolatry. It is as though no one else mattered at all. We are taught to revere a few singular masters of painting, music, theatre, literature as if the millions of others who played the xylophone or crafted haikus were nothing at all. Most of us have been taught that creativity exists in strictly limited quantities. Creativity becomes equated with genius and fame – things that are by definition reserved for the very, very few. While this narrow view of creativity spurs some forward by the drive to be the best, many more are depressed and defeated. They lose heart, feel they have no right to continue devoting significant energies to developing their creative abilities.

The focus on standards that are unrealistic for all but a very few also infects the teaching of creative arts. Too frequently teachers mentally compare their students to the finest practitioners of their art. The teacher’s disdain — often not fully conscious — may be expressed in demanding progress at a rate beyond the student’s capability or, alternatively, by asking too little, accepting whatever students do without seriously challenging them to develop further. Both attitudes communicate the hopelessness of the students’ desires to express themselves more effectively, ignore teachers’ crucial role in determining the most logical next step to optimize their students’ progress. All educators face this challenge: Helping their students to determine the most significant next attainable step. There’s a zen to it, meaning only that we must start where we are, not where we wish we were already, and proceed forward as best we can. The only comparison that really matters is the comparison with oneself: Am I learning? Am I growing? Is my work true, does it express what I’m trying to communicate?
Teachers of adults sometimes forget that their students’ egos can be as fragile as those of children. Our culture does not make it easy to let our training wheels show. We learn to cover up what we don’t understand or can’t easily do. Both adults and kids are uncomfortable when their weaknesses are publicly exposed, even if when they know it’s necessary in order to learn. When teachers‘ frustrations — either with their students’ uneven progress or, perhaps unconsciously, with the teachers’ own disappointed aspirations — emerge in the form of subtle or overt irritation with their students stumbling attempts at learning, they feed their students‘ despair and starve their creative potential. A line can be crossed, sometimes without even knowing it, where the student turns from hopeful striving to a sense that they should not have tried at all in the first place.

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Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning