Amateur: On Personal Creativity

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Two factors are critical: appreciating the anxiety that goes with learning at any age or stage of artistic development and keeping constantly aware that creative expression and technical mastery are related, but not identical. Students at different stages of development or with different levels of ability to commit time and energy to develop their skills will achieve sharply different levels of technical mastery. It is equally important not to assign a moral value to this level of achievement. An accomplished professional or highly skilled amateur has every right to take pride in what they’ve been able to accomplish, but the inverse is not true. The struggling neophytes or adults with limited time to develop their skills need not be made to feel bad about their limitations.
It’s not that mastery is irrelevant, but rather that it’s not the whole story. Their are those whose technical accomplishment is astounding, but whose work is soulless. And there are also those with limited “talent” who are able to communicate intense, complex, and nuanced emotions and perceptions in their more technically limited work. Strictly speaking, creativity cannot be “taught.” It would be more accurate to say that the best teachers inspire their students, that they ignite the creative potential already present in the student, while the worst undermine and sometimes all but destroy their student’s creative urges. The need to create is inherent in the student, could even be said to be integral to the human spirit. Those who cultivate this need, who stimulate their students’ self-expression, enable the student to actualize their full potential.

If the only music worth playing, the only art worth creating, were that of those few who tower above the rest, the vast majority, would give up. This problem is exacerbated by the venerating the achievements of the past in a way that diminishes the present. While valuing the great work of those who have achieved the status of cultural icons can be inspirational, it is sometimes made so overwhelming that it can feel that everything has been done, that there is nothing new to discover, that such heights have been reached in the past that current creative efforts are trivial and meaningless.

Sadly, many do give up, losing the pleasure, excitement, and meaningfulness of creative self-expression. For far too many, the consequence of the denigration of personal creative effort is that the need for creative self-expression drops from conscious awareness. Sometimes this happens as early as elementary school, while, for others, the decline comes when the demands of adulthood — work, raising children, dealing with complex emotional issues — make continuing pursuit of creative development feel increasingly inaccessible.
Popular media facilitates this decline with its power to seduce us into progressively greater passivity. Media corporations from movie production companies to video game console and software manufactures have developed increasingly hypnotic techniques that require only repeated interaction, but not complex effort. For all the marvel of the ability to instantly access even quite obscure information instantaneously via web browsers and Wikipedia, the dark side is that they require no more from their users than typing a few letters and clicking. Neither memorization nor analysis is needed. Less and less is asked of the user.
This passivity is the antithesis of personal creativity. Creativity requires going beyond what its readily available to integrate inner experience with external reality is a way that empathically stimulates a receptive audience’s response. This applies not only to creative genius but also to everyday forms of creativity within the potential of all of us. Even the value of creativity from the perspective of the audience depends on the degree to which the audience actively participates in the art. Watching Avatar in giant screen 3-D, for example, may be entertaining, but it would be difficult to argue that it’s a creative experience on the viewers’ part. Similarly, promenading through an art exhibit primarily for the purpose of saying that one has seen it has little in common with taking a long, careful, thoughtful engagement with art.
While the internet does provide an opportunity for more active participation through the creation of their sites, videos, and blogs, it also places a high value of immediacy and a much lower bar for creative expression. While some internet offerings are thoughtful and thought-provoking, the vast majority are superficial, quick bursts of ideas and immediate bits of reaction, rather than serious, long-term commitments to the personal struggle creativity requires.

Despite the “interactive” label commonly applied to the internet, it’s predominant mode is nearly as passive as traditional media. Watching the latest amusing YouTube video is fun but asks almost nothing from its audience. There’s nothing wrong with relaxing, taking one’s foot off the accelerator. As entertainment, current media is astounding, but it doesn’t even doesn’t even require us to pay attention, instead grabbing our attention for better or worse. While there’s nothing wrong with passively enjoyed entertainment, per se, it’s disturbing the degree that this becomes the culture to millions of people. Despite its creative potential, the internet also seductively encourages being a spectator, often crossing the line into voyeurism, of experiencing life virtually rather than actually. It’s easy to become so addicted to preprocessed, freeze-dried and conveniently packaged products, that — as the psychologist Erich Fromm recognized many years ago — we define ourselves as consumers rather than creators.

The appeal of the passive state is increased in proportion to the stress of the nature of work in this society. Long hours of tedious, repetitive, and unchallenging work drains our vitality and makes passive acceptance the only viable path. The vast majority find their work more enervating than stimulating — simultaneously exhausting and mind-numbing. Only a rare few hold jobs that bring them personal satisfaction that exceeds their relief at getting through another day, another week. Far more often than not, the work is personally meaningless. The strict hierarchies of work and the frequency that people who enjoy the use and abuse of power attain higher rank, often make our work lives interpersonally demeaning, exhausting emotional energies as well as physical stamina. While this difficult everyday struggle makes a creative outlet all the more necessary, it simultaneously drains us of the the energy and of the sense of one’s potential that are key ingredients to struggle to develop creative talents.

Yet, despite all this, many adults do continue to struggle to express themselves creatively. Much of this work is done by amateurs, people who do not intend or expect to be remunerated for their efforts. While some are non-professionals only because they are in early development stages of developing their abilities, adult amateurs commonly have another pursuit that is their primary focus and main means of earning a living. Unfortunately, the word “amateur” has become nearly synonymous with second-rate, dilettantish, lousy. Some of these negative connotations are well-deserved. Many amateur endeavors are unendurable, no matter how much allowance is given for the “nonprofessional” level of the work. Amateur work does not always succeed even by its own standards. Amateurs are not immune from producing work that is soulless, gutless, uninspired. Just as professionals can listlessly duplicate prior achievements, so can amateurs fall into traps of egotistical self-aggrandizement and enervating rote performance. Amateur status doesn’t justify being lazy about learning one’s craft. Creativity requires consistent energy as well as soulful inspiration.

Grandiosity and self-importance are as much the enemy of amateur creativity as they are of the professional’s work. Whether it’s the societal push to respect only the “star” or our own personal insecurities, it’s easy to fall into over-inflating the experience. If we take ourselves too seriously, the spontaneity and fun dies; often the creativity also dies. From inflating one’s achievements, deflation often follows. From imagining themselves as artistic geniuses, overreaching amateurs easily fall to feeling their work is meaningless, is nothing at all.

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