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Forget Art School — Creativity Will Save the World

I went to at least three different universities and conservatories in different places around the world to study music, and have had continuous music teachers in both violin and classical singing since I was about eight (roughly 40 years ago).

At all those music schools, the main focus was on learning the craft and technique of music performance. The actual art of it — the musicianship and expression, the understanding and expression of the musical idea — was less important than technique.

This makes logical sense, in a way. Most teachers, especially in the West, don’t teach you about ideas, about genius, about amazingness. They see their job as turning you into a technical wizard. Anyone who understands the classical music world will get this, because that world is chock full of technical wizards who rush through everything in a furious effort to impress. At that point, technique has taken over. It eats the expression for lunch, becoming the end game and the only thing that matters. The genius of the music is lost in yet one more mechanically driven demonstration of virtuosity.

Least important of all were the reasons for being a musician in the first place — for me, the role music and art could play in personal development, in developing creative capabilities that could actually contribute to a better world.

These were simply never talked about.

Yesterday I listened to a young violinist, just 25 years old, whose technique was brilliant, strong, and more than capable to play the virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra. And yet despite the brilliance, his playing had no character, substance, or warmth. He had nothing to say. It was like his motive for putting such enormous dedication into his playing was unclear to him. It certainly was unclear to me. I would hazard a guess that his motives are influenced by the desire to be recognized as brilliant, amazing, special.

That’s what they teach you in art school. This is what we were all trained to be like.

A world that values mechanical culture and vapid celebrity as our does is one that bends every artistic pursuit towards narcissism. I realize; that’s a mouthful. Simply stated: training for ego just builds big egos.

What about the development of the person who is the artist? Isn’t this how we’re going to get truly great art? I mean duh — but there it is: the blind spot.

Photo by Jallen Fosati

I remember asking one of my colleagues: Why do you play music? What motivates you? After a fair bit of thinking, the best he could come up with was, “I like it.” Freaking eye roll; who cares what you like.

After college, I developed a chronic injury which brought my music career to a crashing halt. I found myself asking big life questions as one does when in the throes of a crisis: Who am I actually? Who do I want to be?

Big surprise: I had no idea.

The answers came slowly over time and in retrospect only after I grieved the loss of not only my violin career but also my identity, my ego, my brilliance, my prospects — everything I knew.

Art can be a healing force, when not used to amplify narcissistic tendencies. Being creative should be a practice of self- and world discovery, where we deepen our sensitivities to everything that makes us more human, more whole.

This I only discovered much later.

This kind of creativity — the kind that makes you more of a person, not less of one — requires a set of capabilities and know-how that certainly isn’t taught in art schools. But anyone can learn it.

Let’s make this super clear: CREATIVITY IS NOT ABOUT YOU. It’s actually the bigger world, trying to push into you and ignite your love and your imagination. If you go with it, you will come alive in service.

I would go so far as to say that without this definition of creativity, our future is looking pretty grim. Because we’re all focused on the wrong things — ourselves.

For those of you out there trying to save the world, this is especially true.

Photo by Damien Checoury of the Paris protests, May 1st, 2017

The best way to immerse yourself in creativity’s wiser lessons is to begin a practice of “first person science:” the phenomenology of you. Phenomenology means: studying the phenomena without preconception, without projecting concepts onto it. The phenomenology of you means, the phenomenology of your own consciousness. Learning to see your consciousness as a living reality and as something that can be changed, healed, developed, inwardly strengthened.

So you may be thinking, isn’t this narcissistic, all this focus on myself? No — because your personal inner life is a fractal of the collective inner life. As you objectively and systematically get to know your own consciousness, you get to know, from one tiny corner of the world (your corner), the nature of human consciousness in general. If you can observe in yourself how thoughts, feelings, and actions arise, then you begin to perceive and understand the nature of these phenomena in general. I know, it seems a stretch — but it’s actually simple. We’re not all that different from each other.

I see a sunrise; you see a sunrise. I feel irritated; you feel irritated. I see a triangle and think, wow, 180 degrees — and you see the same triangle. If our inner worlds were completely unique and belonged solely to us, we would never have mathematics, art, or a shared appreciation for nature or humanity.

If you want to help change the world, you will appreciate a huge benefit of this kind of knowledge: you can learn how the “collective interior” works at larger scales, and utilize this know-how in service. But that’s a topic for a different day.

I truly hope you invest heavily in getting to know your own inner terrain, that aspect of the creative medium as it expresses itself in you. If you do, then you will undoubtedly change; you will awaken to other realities of which you were previously unaware, and you will develop new organs of perception that will help you see into social realms that were previously invisible to you.And finally, you will begin to see the subtleties and devilish details of what hinders and harms those invisible fields and connections (implicit bias for example), and what is truly regenerative (empathy, interest), what is truly the creation of new and healthier social realities. Let’s live, love, and work informed by this kind of wisdom!

Because nothing else will save us from ourselves and our continued destruction of our world and each other.

I truly believe that this reframe of understanding each other better through the lens of creativity is the antidote for our hard times and for the coming future.

Art schools could reevaluate their value proposition by shifting their mindsets away from producing wannabe stars to producing significant contributors to society! How ‘bout it, art schools?

And besides, this would be way more fun and meaningful don’t you think?

10 Comments

  1. Jordan Walker on September 28, 2017 at 12:30 am

    Well done!

    • Louisa Barnum on September 28, 2017 at 8:16 am

      Thank you, Jordan! We love getting comments and encouragement 🙂

  2. Donna hogeland stusser on September 28, 2017 at 6:20 am

    This is a very helpful message which calls me to both my desire to go into my inner
    World and my outer immediate community challenges both .
    Thank you so much Jeff and Louisa for your brilliance and compassion.

    • Louisa Barnum on September 28, 2017 at 8:15 am

      Thank you, Donna! Yes, paying more attention to both the inner and outer, you are right on there. Your outer challenges can often be a reflection, or a picture, of your inner world. And if that is true in your case, then that can be helpful as a place to inquire: what is going on in me that I am having these experiences? Thank you for your comment! Warmly, Louisa

  3. Lena on September 28, 2017 at 6:44 am

    Thank you! This internal challenge gets brought up for me when money is involved with the exchange of creative medium. When my arts come from deep within, like from passion and excitement and curiosity, time and money are not the driving force. It feels so good and true. And my works quality is so much greater. I’ve found it to be a very important thing for me to try and cultivate that mind and heart set for my life. It’s going to take a lot of practice because the other is so encouraged in our current society.
    Thanks for writing your piece!
    Love
    L

    • Louisa Barnum on September 28, 2017 at 8:07 am

      Thank you L! Yes, the exchange of money for creative effort has a dilemma built into it as you pointed out: when you have to create for money you are no longer as free, and freedom is very important to creativity. The need to make money and compete is really not conducive to the sensitivity and receptiveness you are trying to cultivate – and that you need in order to get into flow with your work – when you are in that creative activity. It creates a conflict. There are ways, though, that you can build a bit more of a membrane between your art practice and making money. It takes some out of the box business design thinking but it can be done! Thanks again for the comment!

  4. Katy on September 28, 2017 at 9:22 am

    Such a thought provoking and rich piece, thank you! My experience has mirrored this in some ways–trained as a scientist with a focus on “saving the world” but the lack of mentorship and training in creativity has been limiting. Too much function and not enough form! More marriage of art and science, please.

    • Louisa Barnum on September 28, 2017 at 12:23 pm

      Thank you, Katy – indeed a marriage of science and art to bring the mysterious and inexplicable – in other words let the phenomena speak! – back into play. I know you will relate to this because of your Goethean science background… Science as art goes both ways because we also need that rigor and discipline that science has developed to such a wonderful degree in our study of the phenomenon of the medium in which we are creating. Whether that be the medium of business building, inner development, relationship healing, or art… It’s a 1st person science where you are both the object and the subject. Difficult but possible! Thanks again for your stimulating comment!

  5. Pete Buotte in TX on September 30, 2017 at 9:30 pm

    Such a good, heart-felt article. I too saw the lack of empathy in the art schools I attended in Maine, NYC and Paris. There was some technical direction, a lot of laissez-faire lack of direction, and little to no focus on trusting intuition and emotion as the strongest source of creativity. It arrived organically thru much trial and error. Probably the most eye-opening comment from a fellow MFA student was ‘Don’t think the line, feel it’. That really pushed me from technicality and correctness into the world of empathy- first for me, and then the work. Now I can vacillate and depend on both when necessary !

    • Louisa Barnum on October 3, 2017 at 2:16 pm

      Thank you, Pete!! I can see that empathy holds a world of implication and meaning for you personally and in your art which would be interesting to unpack sometime and learn more about. You came to that through trial and error and thank goodness you did! And yes, depending on both technique and empathy is a nice way to put it. I do think that if we only see emotion and intuition as the strongest sources of creativity, then there is little hope to bring the rigor of science into our study of creativity. I think we need a more precise vernacular to describe the phenomena. The source of creativity… well that is another very interesting subject to unpack sometime… Thanks again Pete!

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