Class is off this week for the Labor Day holiday. So for our bye week, I want to take the opportunity to share a recent article on creativity by Dr. Liane Gabora, Associate Professor of Psychology and Creative Studies at the University of British Columbia, that I found particularly insightful. In fact, I thought it especially deserved special recognition due to its fair perception of creativity as a double-edged sword. Being an ambassador of creativity myself, I have read a number of essays and books and seen many videos and lectures advocating creativity and its critical importance, possibly for our very survival as a species. However, few and far between are the essays that advocate on behalf of both the creative AND the non-creative alike! Of course we need innovators! But let’s not discount the importance of our imitators too!
You may have heard in recent years about studies suggesting that most teachers and employers dislike creativity and that creativity is in decline. How is this happening and what can we do about it, many of us wonder scratching our heads. Some like Ken Robinson tend to criticize schools for squelching creativity, and I agree with many of his arguments. Our calls for more creativity seem at the very least justified. (Phew!) But should we panic or make a villain out of non-creativity? Perhaps as a response to this feeling of ‘creative crisis, there seems to be a glut of creative consultants and proponents. Search for “creative” on a professional networking site like LinkeIn and you’ll receive a seemingly endless list of folks claiming “creative.” And there are probably some in the field of art education who could be accused of privileging creativity above all else. Yet we as a field can’t even agree on a definition of creativity. Can we even claim it as a primary objective or is it one of those ‘I know it when I see it’ type of things?’ It all seems a bit flimsy. Instead of a ‘cult of creativity,’ maybe we would be better off considering how we can advocate a ‘this and that’ approach?
How can teachers support innovation in their classrooms without abandoning imitation? I believe that originality and mimicry are two sides of the same creative coin. I often wonder if those who associate creativity primarily with originality aren’t missing the bigger picture. I have observed the reality of the innovator and imitator dichotomy many times over the years with my own art students. Take my drawing classes for example. In my teaching of drawing, it was important for me to make space for both innovation and imitation approaches. Students learn from both copying and generating ideas.
Some students would love the “copy draws” I offered, where students were asked to reproduce their choice of drawings from a portfolio of “American & European Masters” (a lucky hand-me-down from the retiring art teacher I took over for at my first job, though there is little representation of women and artists of color unfortunately). Later, I found great support for this approach in Howard Gardner’s chapter “To Copy or Not” from his 1980 book Artful Scribbles. The students loved reverse engineering these examples of mastery and picked up many tricks trying to align their hands with the hands of the “masters.” This copying benefited me a great deal as well. Beyond forcing me to look more closely at these images, they served as an invaluable tool enabling me to see through my student’s eyes. I was able to gain a window into their thinking and observational skills - I could see where they struggled and where they persevered or gave up too easily or adapted. This information can be more easily disguised in original compositions as there is probably not a direct reference for comparison. And I think the students also gained an appreciation for looking more closely and spending more time with artwork. One day I should test that.
These humble copy draws improved their skills and brought them confidence but I know there are art educators who might read this with horror! Perhaps they forgot how much they learned by copying their favorite artists? Could you become a skilled basketball player or dancer if you never watched or copied from another basketball player or dancer? In more experimental classes, I’ve let students re-perform performance art to embody it and understand it more deeply and so it becomes less alien. After all, if performing the works of other artists is good enough for Marina Abromavic then it’s good enough for my students. Why can’t artists cover other artists just like bands cover the songs of other bands? But Jim, I hear some of you exclaiming, you claim to be an enemy of “school art style” cookie-cutter art but you advocate that kids copy?! I do. Sometimes. Copying is excellent practice, but it is never the final performance. The performance you must make your own. Copying is just a tool, like a punching bag, that makes you stronger. Some teachers abuse that tool and that is where the “school art style” comes in. The students copy the style of the artist without any of the substance.
Back in my drawing class, there were other students that revelled in drawing projects that required ideation and divergent thinking, like my 20 variation project where students were expected to produce 20 different drawings based on an object they chose. Sure, they might produce a few drawings faithfully observing and reproducing an object realistically. But some students would not come alive until they were free to joyfully frolic through the fields of experimentation in their efforts to render the respective objective in unique and unexpected ways. For some other students, they would have to run into the same wall over and over, generally imitating or creating cliches, until their frustration or boredom would push them at long last to some break through. Perhaps especially in art class, we need to make space for our innovators AND our imitators. In fact, it might be best if we encourage our students to move back and forth along this spectrum rather than unfairly celebrating one while admonishing the other. Would that not be a kind of ‘art prejudice’? After all, don’t most of us, as Austin Kleon suggests, learn by mimicking our heroes? We try to be our role models, until we fall short and realize that what makes us different from our heroes can also be our strength or what makes us unique rather than a shortcoming. That for me is the spirit of creativity.
You don’t have to want to be a different person to be more creative. Even artists feel more and less creative at times. And I don’t expect teacher to try to become artists overnight or make dramatic changes to what they do. That would probably cause more trouble! About as realistic or helpful as just yelling at someone to ‘Be creative!’ Some people believe they are creative, just as some say they are athletic or funny. But many more falsely think that creativity is either something that you do or don’t have. Compounding this is the widespread and mistaken association of creativity with unlimited freedom - the proverbial ‘blank slate.’ And yet that for me is quite the opposite of creativity. The blank slate, complete artistic freedom, I would argue, more often than not leads to conformity through reproduction of what one already knows. On the contrary, creativity thrives amidst constraints. It is working with what you have, within very real, and possibly urgent, limitations. To think outside the box there must first be a box. To expand someone’s horizons, there must already have been an end to their vision. My naive hope is in the 21st century, society will gradually abandon such dualistic, either/or approaches, in favor of a more inclusive, and more mature, and/both approach. Creativity is not magic. It’s a process that is practiced through many baby steps and occasionally, if you’re lucky, leaps with many many mistakes and moments of vulnerability. What I want more than anything for teachers to realize is that, just like artists, they too can possess what I call a “creative growth mindset.” Your creativity is like a muscle that can grow stronger over time. BI think that sentiment is echoed in one of the books linked to by Dr. Gabora:
“Teachers need not adopt a new curriculum, radically change what they are already doing, or attempt to add more to their already overflowing plate of curricular responsibilities. Rather, teaching for and with creativity is often more about doing what one is already doing, only slightly better.” -from Killing Ideas Softly? The Promise and Perils of Creativity in the Classroom by Ronald A. Beghetto
There’s a lot more to dig into in this article than what I’ve been able to cover here and I’d strongly encourage you check it out yourself. While I’m not positive that we will be able to cover this article in my class this semester, we will definitely discuss some of the points and themes presented! Do you agree with the article? Disagree? Do you balance innovation and imitation in your classroom or do you privilege one over the other, and if so, why? Did you find the essay as insightful as I did?
The article is available at: https://theconversation.com/what-creativity-really-is-and-why-schools-need-it-81889
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where future classroom teachers learn about visual art-integration. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while also experimenting with a hybrid in-person / online curriculum.