In a moment of serious existential threat, it may appear that I am being ostrich-like in proposing to write about art and creativity at this moment in our history. I say ‘our’ advisedly of course, as there are now clearly, and increasingly, a number of versions of history depending on your news input/outlet and state culture. One might allege that Donald Trump legitimised the craft of bare-faced denial in the face of undeniable ‘fact’, by declaiming everything that didn’t suit as fake news. The reason I alight on this here is that, in my experience at least, the process of art-making is frequently about peeling back the layers of self-deceit and conceit in the earnest quest for an understanding of the work that one is creating. This as an attempt to reconcile rather than debunk any feedback or signs which might be undesirable or hard-to-take.
For most creatives, this process of aligning one’s perception with received feedback/critical commentary is gradual, painstaking and frequently painful, especially in the early career stages where the gulf between intention and reception is often the most pronounced. It is therefore essential for the artist to understand and differentiate what exists as egocentric wishful thinking on the one-hand, and what is widely understood by the audience on the other1. Through the process of engagement in art education, one’s world view as an artist becomes tested and tempered by listening to differing perceptions of reality until one is able to and inhabit, conceptually at least, a pluralistic rather than monotheistic position as an imaginative maker. You may think this irrelevant, but the test bed of Western art schools and art teaching, and the underlying model of collective to individual critique in the arts has been an absolutely fundamental critical apparatus in shaping the arts over the past century; a tool for privileging explicit creativity over implicit self-delusion, and by implication a toolkit for promoting empathy and the civilising effect of the arts in society over xenophobia. The process of calibration I have just described is also accompanied, increasingly, by a geopolitical awareness of the thinking and outputs of other creative practitioners in the field. When, in 1929 the author Frigyes Karinthy articulated the fundamentals of Six Degrees of Separation2, (based on physical contact), he could not possibly have anticipated the arcing effect of the internet and social media, which effectively means that notions of intellectual proximity or social reach lead to only one degree of separation. In terms of identity theft or plagiarism, this might read as 0 or a moral -1.
It has occurred to me many times over the past five years that if our politicians, civil servants and industry leaders had undergone the kind of interrogative or dialogical education that can be provided by the best creative arts degrees, that we might be living is a very different, and potentially better world. For too long, the arts have been portrayed by the centre right as the orbit of liberal hobbyists and left-wing intellectuals, who, so long as they cause no social harm, should be left to get on with it under sufferance. The plight of the arts in the UK and USA during Covid, and the meagre box-ticking ‘support’ offered as crumbs from the state table to the creative industries, by politicians (who have no idea what these are) was symptomatic. I am not naïve enough to think that in the face of a pandemic or war that the arts should somehow take precedence, but I would advocate that the types of thinking which eventuate such events might be prevented at an earlier stage of education, and through an arts education specifically. It saddens me that at a time where critical thinking will hopefully be needed by future generations (WWIII notwithstanding), teaching in schools and colleges is driven by STEM3 for the few at the expense of many. To qualify this, the capacity for STEM subjects teaching and study has proliferated, driven by governments who are focussed on GDP and wealth creation in post-industrialised societies. To be clear, evidence clearly shows that AI and automation of routine manual work will mean that there will be a massive future oversupply of STEM qualified graduates accompanied by a corollary massive oversupply of disenfranchised, unskilled/agency service industry workers4. I recall the time back in the 1970’s, when my uncle, who was an accomplished scientist, explained to me why it was that, to get a job as a gardener at his establishment, one had to have a PhD or Post-Doctoral experience. When I asked why this was, he recounted that they were all waiting for a science job vacancy to come up at the college. Disillusioned, many of them retired as clever gardeners or gave up and found careers elsewhere.
In summary, artists and designers are by necessity mentally and emotionally resilient, flexible thinkers and practical problem-solvers. By contrast it seems, even the best of our politicians and industry captains originate from public (private) schools, educated at Oxbridge or Ivy League, Sandhurst, West Point by ‘reading’, (regurgitating or revising) the classics, politics or military history or some such. If this appears as an oversimplification then I agree, it is, if it comes across as just sour grapes I apologise. I just can’t help feeling, very strongly, that if there were more arts-educated leaders, we wouldn’t be in such a fine mess as we continually seem to fall down the gap between reality and its re-packaged representation to us.
1 You will note here that I have intentionally not covered with the Postmodern ‘Death of the Author…’ narrative in terms of the division of labour and responsibility here. Labour = interpretation and creation, but to give pre-eminence to interpretation, whilst being an attractive social science methodology, isn’t so helpful to the ‘author’ in the developmental stage of the process.
2 Everything is different: Chain-Links, Karinthy. F, 1929. Available as e-book.
3 Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (the drive to add Arts to make STEAM has been largely successfully resisted by STEM interest groups internationally).
4 See for example Hal Salzman’s compelling article in Issues, volume 29 no. 4 Summer 2013: “What Shortages? The Real Evidence About the STEM Workforce”.