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Tom Tresser is the author of the article around which I based my recent post on supporting arts education. We’ve exchanged some emails and he proposed that we bounce some ideas back and forth on our respective blogs on the subject; you Dear Reader are of course invited to add your comments any time. Here’s his first one:

Richard Florida and others have written extensively about the “Creative Class” and the role of creativity in America. Given that some 30 million people make their living from their brains (creative workers) and some 55 million people identify strongly with freedom of expression (so called “Cultural Creatives”) – the question is – Is there a Creative Class consciousness? Are there some set of values and mindsets that we all share across our geographic boundaries, across our discipline boundaries and across all the other boundaries that we have erected for ourselves? And if so – what might they be? Put another way – do artists and cultural workers and creative professionals have values and mindsets that we need in civic life? Are artists leaders?


Why is this question so important? Well, think back to the first time you heard the word “ecology.” For me (a 58 year old former Hippy), it was in a college class in 1970. What an interesting word, I thought. After a while I got that it meant an invisible web connecting all living things and the environment. We could not “see” this web – but we could see evidence of the web of inter-connectivity. To put it crudely – piss in the river and the polar bear coughs. The sun was the source of the energy that gives life to all on the planet and we humans are just one part of a very complex chain that uses and re0sues – re-distributes, it you will, that energy. Our actions have a profound impact on one another, on other living things and on the planet, itself. Now – more than 40 years after the first Earth Day (in which I marched in Boston) – the word “ecology” is no longer strange and we have had several generations of education, litigation, writing, images and campaigns to teach us about the invisible web. 40 years ago, when a candidate asked for your money and your support it was very unlikely that she had anything to say about the “ecology.” Today, if a candidate came to you for support and she said NOTHING about the environment, you would most likely dismiss this person as irrelevant or a joke.

I would say there is a “creative ecology” that is also invisible and which also binds us together. It is also a bit difficult to talk about and we are only at the beginning of the creative age where this metaphor is being fleshed out. Like the physical ecology – the creative ecology has a power source – only it is the creative spark inside every person. The ability of a particular person in a specific city in a specific country to BE creative depends on a number of environmental and contextual factors – economy, health, level of education, access to the arts and many other factors. What happens to a person’s creative output is also mediated by their environment – is their freedom of assembly and of speech, is there access to means of communication, is there a community of creative people that can support one’s creative work. But the point here is that – like the physical ecology -the creative ecology is affective by “toxic dumpers” and is hurt by bad policy (and can be helped by good policy)

So why aren’t politicians talking about creativity and innovation and the arts with the same level of intensity and detail as they do about the environment? We haven’t forced them to. We have not given voice to the same set of values and imperatives that the environmental movement surfaced and transmitted. So – ask yourself this – what values or imperatives regarding the environment cause you to pay attention to a candidate and want to support them? Now ask yourself – what set of values and imperatives around creativity would activate you?

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I had no idea that there were that many creative workers in this country. If that many people could get together and act in concert, there could be mountains moved. There are some prominent organizations with far fewer members that act as levers in centers of political powers to skew legislation to benefit only a few. Creative types may have a couple of inherent liabilities that work against doing such a thing: creative people are individuals, used to thinking and thinking independently, not necessarily as a group. Cows are easy to herd; cats are not. Creatives are more like cats. Thinking – and hence much creative work – must needs go on in private, at least part of the time. Creatives are (relatively) seldom found in political arenas, since much of that is the opposite of what interests them. Politics is drenched in ego, money, power, connections. Creativity is about ideas, creating stuff, imagination, learning about everything. It is mostly not wildly lucrative (like lawyering and business), but is endlessly fascinating and transcendentally fun in the best possible sense. Systems of education very early on suppress creativity. Educational systems have a strong component of socialization; they teach follow the leader – do as you’re told, memorize the one right answer. Convergent thinking. Creativity is about exploring, making mistakes, getting lost, discovering solutions (perhaps after hundreds and thousands of mistakes/failures/fruitless attempts). Divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is easy to teach, easy to grade, which makes it tempting to stick with exclusively even when it’s not any good. Creativity is messy, hard to grade, chaotic, unpredictable, and fun. In a healthy society, both kinds of thinking are vigorously promoted. People need to be able to work in a group; they also need to be able to think for themselves and learn to try stuff for themselves, to explore, gallivant and galumph. We get mostly convergent thinking in our educational systems, with not enough divergent; we’re out of balance. Divergent is the voice of distant experts – we need that. Convergent is your own voice – we need that, too, but it needs to be more encouraged to promote innovation. Innovation, after all, is the key to the future. There are plenty of problems to solve; we need as much imagination from as many people as possible to get us out of our multiple overlapping/layered international pickles.

I think that certain powers that be have no trouble cutting education because it’s easier to control people who don’t think much, who don’t know reductio ad absurdum (or other argument fallacies) from crushed pineapple. You simply aim lower on the brain stem, make and keep them afraid (of something, anything), and they’re yours. Politicians pay lip service to creativity and innovation, but it really makes them nervous. Creatives think. They are unpredictable, hard to control, and they might come up with solutions that don’t do what politicians want them to do (what, support solar, geothermal, and wind technology over oil?!!). Tom is right. They won’t move on any of this until we force them to. Creatives have the power individually and – theoretically – as a group to make stuff happen. It means some sacrifice in taking some time away from fascinating projects and… what? We will have to learn what: contribute time, $, energy, write letters, articles, have meetings, contact friends, contact strangers, use our art and arts to bring across messages we would like to see, rather than always getting the short end of every stick. Arts education is vital – it’s important in countless ways (some detailed in the previous post) – why is this message so hard to get through the thick skulls of our representatives? Creativity and innovation flourish in whole and healthy people and societies, and they are the products of arts educations. Not many students end up being professional musicians, singers, sculptors, and so on, but even fewer become mathematicians or actuaries – but math is heavily promoted while arts education gets cut. Both are needed – ever notice how many physicians and scientists are accomplished musicians? Arts education is vital, not a frill, but since art is hard to weigh or count, it’s easy to make it a scapegoat. This extremely narrow idea of what constitutes “education” is both defective and very new. The ancient Greeks would have gawked open-mouthed at current No Child Left Behind folly. Their education included physical training, poetry, music, arithmetic, astronomy, rhetoric. Music and dance were important subjects in the quest to develop the well-rounded individual. I know that the common instruments were the flute, lyre, and harp – but I keep hoping that more searching will turn up the horn….

Back to Tom’s questions. What would it take to earn my support? Someone who was committed to supporting education and the arts, for one thing. Those are vital to a healthy and innovative society. What I really would like to see is that our elected representatives come from more walks of life other than just the law or business. Legislative bodies are in desperate need of new blood, new minds; they need some poets, philosophers, musicians, fishermen, gymnasts, actuaries, bicyclists, small farmers, pastry chefs, elementary school teachers, firemen, cartoonists, novelists, lighthouse keepers, submarine captains, jugglers, architects, and so on. Not just lawyers. We need to do away with the Electoral College – perhaps we should institute a new system where anyone with an ambition to be president is thereby disqualified, and choose the new prez as the Romans choose Cincinnatus – going to his farm and calling him up to serve. OK, I’m dreaming, but it’s my blog and I get to dream once in a while.

I’m not sure I really addressed Tom’s questions. No matter. Gotta get the juices flowing. See what happens. Make mistakes. Get dirty. Try stuff. Fun!

PS: This just in: Chase Community Giving – vote for MENC – now! Today! Your vote will help the MENC receive a large sum to support music education for youth. Just click! Now

PSS: I asked a question above that made me curious, so I’ll try to answer it (or start on an answer):

Famous People Who Played an Instrument

Neil Armstrong – euphonium

Alexander Graham Bell – piano

Louis Braille – organ

Charles Dickens – accordion

Thomas Edison – piano

Albert Einstein – piano and violin

Donald Glaser (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1960) – violin

Frank Lloyd Wright – piano

John Quincy Adams – flute

Benjamin Franklin – guitar & violin

Thomas Jefferson – cello, clavichord, violin

Condeleeza Rice – concert pianist

Steven Spielberg – clarinet

Harry Truman – piano

Chester A. Arthur – banjo

Woodrow Wilson – violin

Samuel L. Jackson – French horn

George Washington Carver – piano

Johnny Carson – drums

Richard Gere – trumpet

Steve Martin – banjo

Julia Roberts – clarinet & oboe

Meryl Streep – violin

Ansel Adams – piano

Bill Clinton – saxophone

Dan Akroyd – tuba

Aretha Franklin – tuba

Ewan McGregor – French horn

Prince Charles – cello, piano, trumpet

Louis XIV – guitar

Alan Greenspan – tenor sax

William F. Buckley, Jr.  – piano

Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) – trombone, piano

Emeril Lagasse – drums

Albert Schweitzer – organ

Katie Couric – piano

Drew Carey – trumpet

Jack Benny – violin

Vanessa Williams – French horn

Clint Eastwood – jazz piano

Halle Berry – flute

George Segal – clarinet, banjo

Dudley Moore – jazz piano

Anthony Hopkins – piano

Tom Selleck – saxophone

Oscar Robertson – jazz flute

Knute Rockne – flute

Gary Larson (The Far Side) – jazz guitar

Mark Twain – piano

Ken Follett – bass guitar

Dave Barry – guitar

Charlie Chaplin – accordion

Jeff Goldblum – jazz piano

Andy Griffith – guitar and tuba

Bob Hope – saxophone

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