My husband manages to find the most extraordinary artists on Instagram. During these months when we have not been able to venture out as much as we would like, it’s been very refreshing to …
My husband manages to find the most extraordinary artists on Instagram. During these months when we have not been able to venture out as much as we would like, it’s been very refreshing to share a random sampling of images as artists and curators all over the world capture the sublime and the endearingly foolish. Older, familiar works can take on fresh meaning in the context of the current state of health, politics and the environment in our country. New works confirm humanity’s basic need to understand and illuminate, to create beauty, expand perceptions and enjoy a little visual humor.
There’s a compelling body of evidence attesting to the cognitive benefits of enjoying and, especially, of making art, whether as a profession or an avocation. Beyond the emotional benefits of self-expression, striving towards mastery in an arts discipline activates areas of the brain that improve focus and concentration, and studies have found that students who experience high-quality arts instruction improve their performance in other parts of the curriculum.
Theatre was my first love and the focus of my academic training and early career aspirations. While that early ambition did not play out as I wished, I’ve often thought that my early training gave me useful tools to deal with all kinds of work. Arts skills translate to life skills, and creativity in one sphere can inform creativity in other areas of work and life. And, as mixed up as the world seems to be at this moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the discipline, modes of communication, habits of mind and problem-solving practices of artists at their best can inform the processes of community engagement and policy-making. Perhaps if we practice these skills in the arena of civic engagement and polarized debate we can model a different way of interacting. Because what we are doing doesn’t seem to be working.
I have observed actors and other collaborative artists do certain key things that our adversarial political culture lacks. First is the conscious practice of creating a safe place to work and experiment in an environment of trust. It takes generosity of spirit to make this work, but the result is that respectful disagreement can produce a synthesis of ideas and approaches. Perhaps this happens among our elected leaders behind the scenes, but just as it’s important for leaders to be seen to wear a mask in public to model this health-preserving behavior, I think it’s important for leaders to be seen in public having a genuine discourse and engaging in a good-faith process.
Artists also internalize a concept of discipline and continuous improvement. Training is never finished. There is a constant practice of taking and giving constructive criticism—constructive being the operative word. Some of my most vivid memories of my conservatory days are memories of the day-long “post-mortems” with the entire teaching staff that followed each block of work. Praise was specific and meaningful. Criticism was completely frank but never unkind, designed to help us identify our weak points, our blind spots and the emotional and technical tricks that can become bad habits. Continuous improvement doesn’t grow from ideology; it flows from trust, objectivity and hard work. A great choreographer once said this: “Dancers are the ultimate realists. The foot is either pointed or it isn’t, and no amount of wishing will make it so.”
The third thing I would mention in this small space is the active cultivation of imagination. A well-exercised imagination empowers us to listen actively, to entertain different points of view and foresee the possible consequences of our actions. It helps us empathize with experiences outside our own and change our style of communication from adversarial debate to a mutual search for solutions. It takes imagination to build real understanding, and we cannot solve our problems without making a much greater conscious effort to achieve real understanding.
We are very good at envisioning the worst that can happen and scaring the daylights out of ourselves. Right now, on the environmental as well as the health front, we need to spend more energy imagining the best that we can do. As with climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic brings the risk of “well-informed futility syndrome,” a phrase coined by an American psychologist named Gerhart Wiebe in 1973 to describe the despair felt by television news consumers during the Vietnam war and, more recently, applied to feelings of helplessness about climate change. I think our greatest challenge is to research, imagine and keep depicting the good things we can achieve if we face these calamities realistically, bringing all our skills and humanity to the task.
Edward DeBono, the British doctor, psychologist and researcher who coined the term “lateral thinking,” has written extensively about the creative process. In “I Am Right and You Are Wrong,” he describes two ways of thinking: rock logic—the hard zero-sum logic of argument and rhetoric—and water logic—the logic of creativity, the integration of ideas, and processes of synthesis and fusion. Water logic, he says, is the logic of humor, which upends expectations. Rock logic takes a stand and must defend it; water logic shapes its world, flowing, converging, deepening, lifting heavy loads and wearing away obstacles, inevitably and irresistibly.