Creativity and the Academy: Paint a Painting, Part Two

I can only comment, with any authority that is, on how I experimented with regaining some balance in my own life, and it is an experiment still underway. About a decade ago, as a complement to our arts and crafts era collecting, we started to buy small landscape paintings. Working within a limited budget, we began to scour antiques shops as well as galleries, flea markets as well as art festivals. As I examined the work of past and present artists, I began to think that perhaps I could try my own hand at painting (especially as part of the arts and crafts philosophy was the notion of being able to build your own furniture and to express yourself creatively such as in making pottery – and the idea of sharp tools in my hands that I would need to make furniture is a bit too scary). It was a slow, and sloppy, process, but I also realized, no matter what the result, that there was something distinctly therapeutic, relaxing, and distracting about painting (making pottery seemed a bit more dangerous with the need for a kiln). And, unlike other areas, my failure to produce a painting that I liked was not frustrating at all; indeed, the occasional victory in creating something I appreciated outweighed all the canvases that I set aside to return to and to paint over (or, even to throw out).

The early results were quite mixed. Focusing on landscapes, the favorite theme in the Arts and Crafts era, I painted a lot, with only an occasional painting that I kept and that I was at least modestly happy with the final product. I began to buy and read arts magazines, such as the American Art Collector and the American Art Review, in order to understand the nature of landscape painting and even to practice copying examples that I liked. But I also discovered something else, what must be quite obvious to art students and accomplished artists, and that is how I began to look more critically at paintings in museums and galleries. I discovered what so many others, such as Dreyfus and Kelly, have observed, that “works of art work; they gather practices together to focus and manifest a way of life. When works of art shine, they illuminate and manifest a way of life, and all other things shine in their light. A work of art embodies the truth of its world” (Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age {New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011], p. 102). This can also be seen when we consider the immense challenges in teaching art ((see, for example, James Elkins, Why Art Cannot Be Taught [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001]); my experimenting on my own also reinforces how and whether this can be done.

Moving from my own clumsy efforts to paint something that looked like a landscape to reflecting how real artists had succeeded with their own work, I became bolder with my efforts and discovered that what I sensed as being more abstract painting actually resulted in finished paintings that better represented (from my vantage) landscapes or, increasingly as well, seascapes. I also discovered patience. I set aside a painting, revisited it weeks or even months later and painted over sections or even the entire painting and repeated the process until something emerged that I liked. I realized that this process was similar to what I did in writing or preparing for teaching, and then I discovered that that I could combine these various processes. It also prompted me to think about the need to apply creativity to scholarly writing, something rarely done except for those who venture into the testy and uncharted territories of public scholarship. In a sense, what I am trying to do with this blog is precisely that.

Now I often paint, write, and read together, alternating rapidly from one to the other, as the spirit leads. I find that each exercise positively influences the others, and while I am no specialist on brain science, I assume that each fires up the right parts of my grey matter. Sometimes the words on the page conjure up images that find their way onto a canvas, and just as often I find that the attempt to paint a landscape or seascape inspires a sentence or two or more that forces themselves into an otherwise dry academic essay. More importantly, perhaps, I find my interest in dry academic or professional writing to be waning (which is why I am trying to write this essay, and some related ones). Here is where creativity enters into the process, making me realize that the way to reach a broader audience comes from writing more imaginatively with no assumptions or preconceptions about what my audience might know. Some will say that this is merely the perspective of a tenured, full professor who has the luxury of experimentation. And, yes, I do confess, there is truth in this assertion. But I also believe that the university needs to inspire faculty (let’s ignore administrators for a moment) to strive for more creative approaches to their teaching, research, and the synergy between the two. Trying to do this often runs head on into resistance to change (often a serious problem in the academy). As one study about the academy and the changing of scholarly publishing notes, “In the main, we’re [academics] extraordinarily resistant to change in our ways of working. . . .” (Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, [New York: New York University Press, 2011], p. 10). It might be a little hard to do this and be creative.

A final word is in order. My experience in the academy has been in a professional school in a research university. When I first arrived in the late 1980s, as a lowly lecturer, the emphasis seemed to be on publishing research with a realistic synergy between teaching and research. Research funding, or any external funding, was a bonus, not a necessity. All this has changed. Now money is the driving force for many disciplines, and it is difficult to imagine how this arrangement encourages anything remotely like creativity. Perhaps, the real creativity will occur by faculty who determine how to break out of the corporate university in order to pursue their love for the forming and disseminating of knowledge via teaching and publishing. At the moment creative scholarship is something you carve out on the side or you earn the right to do. If we are to have healthy universities in the future, this needs to change.

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