How to teach the Arts: Debunking the myth of creativity

by Oubai Elkerdi, August 6, 2013

Part I.

In our shared imagination, a true artist is a vagabond with manic-depressive traits caught in bad habits. They are someone whose life depends on unsteady creative jolts—some successful, others only discovered and appreciated years after their death—that end up consuming her or him and leaving them at the footsteps of a grim and dramatic ending worthy of its own Wikipedia section.

This image has led us to believe that this is the ‘natural way’ of the artist. As an amateur artist and an informal student of the history and philosophy of art myself, I believe there is an alternative to this destructive, even promethean view.

Debunking the ‘creativity’ myth

In Kirby Ferguson’s view, almost everything is a remix and, in reality, “our creativity comes from without, not from within.” A similar point was made a few years ago by Elizabeth Gilbert who proposed the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius that is loaned to us “from some unimaginable source.” Throughout her talk, Gilbert gives examples of poets and musicians who described their art as something that came “at” them rather than something that came “from” them.

For the scientifically inclined on the one hand, psychology has repeatedly shown how malleable we are and how easy it is for us to be influenced by unconscious, external stimuli that affect our decision making and behaviour (see Thinking, Fast and Slow). On the other hand, “The deep mysteriousness of creativity also intimidated scientists. […] Most cognitive skills have elaborate biological histories, so their evolution can be traced over time. But not creativity—the human imagination has no clear precursors,” writes Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. He later adds: “The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere.”

Hence, the artist is not a source, but a conduit of ideas—a channel through which beauty finds its material form in this world. But how useful is this paradigm when talking about arts education?

The discipline of art

The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami wakes up at 4 am and works for five to six hours. “In the afternoon,” he says, “I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music.” By 9:00pm he is in bed and ready to sleep. “I keep to this routine every day without variation,” he remarks. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

This is quite interesting; in our collective consciousness, the words “art” and “discipline” are understood as antonyms. But Murakami’s discipline challenges the conventional notion that artists should lead organic, unorganized lives marked by occasional ‘awakenings’ and the usual, archetypal bohemian activities we all know.

In a 99u article entitled ‘How Mundane Routines Produce Creative Magic’, Mark McGuinness writes: “Murakami may have been joking when he mentioned mesmerism, but as a trained hypnotist I can tell you he was bang on the money. By repeating the same routine every day, all these creators are effectively hypnotizing themselves, deliberately altering their state of consciousness in order to access the ‘deeper state of mind’ that allows them to work their creative magic.”

In other words, the artist is responsible for creating the conditions—or ‘setting up the stage’—for the creative juices to flow. This agrees with what Elizabeth Gilbert said. Thus, if I am an artist, then I am responsible for the process (the ‘how’), not the result (the ‘what’).

Finding meaning through Islamic art

Everything mentioned so far is no news at all. In our previous discussion about the importance of improving arts education in the Arab world we mentioned how a rigorous study of the philosophy and inner meaning of Islamic art would offer excellent insights and a unique starting point for a deeper understanding of art and the human creative enterprise in general.

Consider the following passage from Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s book Islamic Art and Spirituality:

By being in perfect surrender to the Divine Will, the [true artist] becomes himself the pen in the hands of the Divine Artist, realizing concretely the Quranic dictum, “The Hand of God is above their hands” (48:10). He is himself like a pen with which ‘he’ writes the pages of his life as a masterpiece in both form and content, the [true artist] being himself a work of sacred art. Moreover, when he actually produces calligraphy in such a state, the pen in his hands becomes like his own being an instrument in the ‘hand of God’… But the sacred art of calligraphy in Islam was created by those who did become themselves a pen in the hand of the Divine Artisan. It is they who established the traditional norms which were then emulated by others.

This was a long quote, and I had to read it more than once to fully understand it. But it perfectly summarizes the anti-promethean worldview that brought about the unique components of Islamic art and architecture, the best of which were the works of spiritual masters who, in Murakami’s words, reached a “deeper state of mind”.

Imagine if art students, and creative innovators for that matter, were exposed to this worldview by serious teachers and mentors who believed and practiced it as opposed to simply presenting it in the form of meaningless platitudes. Imagine an art ‘curriculum’ that emphasizes discipline and self-refinement over torment and self-importance.

In the second part of this post we’ll further discuss the ‘how’ of teaching in the arts and share some systematic (and highly unconventional) principles that we can apply not just in the classroom, but in our own lives as well.

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Oubai is a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering at McGill University. He is interested in crowd-driven innovation and multidisciplinary collaborations. His main passion is human-design interaction and the role design plays in shaping society and culture. Oubai is also the cofounder of the Arab Development Initiative. You can reach him on his blog or on Twitter at @obeikurdy.

 
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