Creativity and the Academy: Paint a Painting, Part One

Sand Dunes, R. J. Cox, 8 x 10, acrylic on canvas
Sand Dunes, R. J. Cox, 8 x 10, acrylic on canvas

One of the great losses in our complex digital age is the freedom for or interest in creative activities. Many will protest this assertion, referencing the creative possibilities of engaging with the Web itself or in the designing and implementing of new “apps” for our digital mobile devices. There is no doubt that creative work and play is involved in such activity. However, the intense interest in building technologies that think for us, make decisions, and generate predictions about behavior may be the result of a loss of importance in liberal education, that is, education where we build a knowledge that provides a foundation for life and careers, with more questions to resolve than pat answers and providing the tools for answering such questions as they confront us. I know academics who believe that unless you can measure something you cannot know it, eliminating elements of life such as art and religion. What kind of life is that?

There was a time when corporate leaders and those involved in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine — the now dreaded STEM — argued that a liberal arts education was a good, even necessary, foundation for functioning well in their fields. But that seems to have disappeared. Colleges and universities advise students from their first day to declare a major and to work towards an employable credential, making one wonder how this differs from a vocational-technical training institute. Higher education is just trying to be relevant, especially as tuition costs skyrocket far beyond the rates of inflation, and it has to promise a financial return on the investment. In doing so, the seemingly frivolous is cut away, and we lose courses on poetry, art, the classics, and history. We erode the enhancement of people’s imagination and then wonder why museum attendance drops off and contributions to cultural institutions wane.

In order to understand and use technology wisely we must be able to ascertain its societal implications and limitations, present and future, and this necessitates our ability to see it from legal, economic, political, moral, religious, and cultural (and other) vantages. Tools are meant to be used, but they must be used wisely and appropriately, and this means we must be able to see the bigger picture. In order to grasp the bigger picture, we must have a well-rounded education, one that does not mean staying on a narrow technocratic path when we are students or buying all the hype when we no longer are students. We must be exposed to the means by which we can examine problems as they emerge and develop realistic and ethical solutions. Undergraduate education should be as broad as possible for this purpose, but even post-graduate, professional education (that is, education in a school of business, law, medicine, education, or information) might encompass the liberal arts, sometimes to build on or make up for deficiencies in a baccalaureate degree.

Individuals face a lifetime of learning, if they are open to it — and I do not mean in narrow professional or experiential terms (although becoming more proficient in a field is important to us, our employers, and society). They need to step away from their computers, tablets, and smart phones and all the information in order to possess the critical information, assign it meaning, and use it in effective ways. When they step away, they need to take up some creative hobby, something that recharges them and helps them use a different part of their brain. Lots of possibilities seem to present themselves, even after we eliminate cyber-shopping and computer games. For example, one could take up painting.

I choose painting because it is what I took up, about a decade ago, in order to explore my creative side and as a form of self-therapy to cope with the normal range of stress and strain (there is nothing particularly onerous in my life that I have had to deal with that would make this unusual). I know few people who would discount the importance of creativity, but I also know few who consider themselves creative or who ascribe to being creative as the critical feature for their success. Episcopalian priest Matthew Fox deals with it in this way: “Creativity is not a noun or even a verb — it is a place, a space, a gathering, a union, a where — wherein the Divine powers of creativity and the human power of imagination join forces. Where the two come together is where beauty and grace happen and, indeed, explode. Creativity constitutes the ultimate in intimacy, for it is the place where the Divine and the human are destined to interact” (Matthew Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet [New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2004], p. 5). Howard Gardner handles it this way: “The creative individual is a person who regularly solves problems, fashions products, or defines new questions in a domain in a way that is initially considered novel but that ultimately becomes accepted in a particular cultural setting” (Howard Gardner, Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi [New York: Basic Books, 1993], p. 35).

Much of what scholars and professionals do can be compared to what artists do. Stanley Fish reminds us that writing, of any variety, is a form of artistic expression. It requires practice and experimentation: “To be sure, your eventual goal is to be able to write forcefully about issues that matter to you, but if you begin with those issues uppermost in your mind, you will never get to the point where you can do verbal justice to them. It may sound paradoxical, but verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales” (Stanley Fish, How To Write A Sentence and How To Read One [New York: Harper, 2011], p. 26.

But this problem is also implicit when President Obama only talks about supporting higher education in order to raise the scientific and technical knowledge of the students (and while there is certainly a need for creativity in those sectors, there is also a lot of creativity going on in the private studies of novelists, the back porches of poets, and in archives where historians and other scholars are reading documents). I would go so far as to say that what difference does it make if we have the greatest technical and scientific infrastructure in history, if we have lost the arts and humanities, religion and theology, and all that we have learned that has come before us. Indeed, many scientists are lamenting the demise of the humanities in our universities, as a harbinger of the loss of well-rounded individuals who desire to be scientists, engineers, and technologists. Or, in thinking about this, what’s the reason for living if we cannot do so in a society that cherishes art, music, literature and all that makes up what we think of as culture? And, to an increasing degree, corporate and other leaders who once decried the need for the humanities are now beginning to state the need for workers grounded in ethics and other subjects housed in the humanities programs in our universities. If nothing else, this poses the problem of the relationship between technology and creativity. As Mark William Roche argues, “A liberal arts education helps students make a transition to the worlds of business, medicine, law, education, public service, and other pursuits. Instead of taking technical courses, acquiring material that could be mastered on the job or in graduate classes, liberal arts students take courses whose content will not quickly become obsolete” (Mark William Roche, Why Choose the Liberal Arts? [Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010], p. 86). But this has been lost in the university today: “Our students’ education is often reduced to mastery of information and the acquisition of techniques; it is rarely viewed as serving the loftier purpose of helping them develop a philosophy of life and preparing them to answer a moral obligation or discern a sense of vocation” (Roche, Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, p. 103).

Next, I will discuss how and why I started painting.


One thought on “Creativity and the Academy: Paint a Painting, Part One

  1. “in thinking about this, what’s the reason for living if we cannot do so in a society that cherishes art, music, literature and all that makes up what we think of as culture?” <<This thought crosses my mind a lot. Especially recently as I struggle between what job I "need" and what I want. What I wouldn't give to just be a maker, and have that be enough.


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