Marc Mayer is strategic adviser, Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, and former director and chief executive officer of the National Gallery of Canada.
As creatures go, humans have one big advantage: our peerless ability to create. Creative problem solving is how we overcame the big, scary challenges that should have done us in: hungry carnivores larger and quicker than us, terrible weather, discord, disease. History is the epic tale of leadership and creativity, or more often the lack thereof, in the face of adversity.
We rely on creativity for the R&D, the research and development, of every new thing. But what about the unexpected challenges, the curveballs that fate and our ever-more-complicated world throw at us? Is there an R&D for that? You would think that after countless centuries of enjoying our one big advantage, expanding and refining it, that we would have transformed creativity into a universal tool to vanquish random surprises, an ever-ready SWAT team to reverse bad news. You would think.
According to psychologists, scarce are the innate problem solvers and innovators among us they call Big-Cs, or eminent creatives, people particularly good at life’s tough calls. If eminent creatives are so precious and rare, we probably take good care of them, right? Well, think again; creativity is essentially homeless. Our modern societies are based on specialization and set up to accommodate only one kind of eminent creative, deeply focused experts such as Albert Einstein who are at home in one specific field. But what about the generalists of genius, creativity’s ravenous omnivores? What about Leonardo da Vinci? Today, we usually refer to them as dilettantes, amateurs, dabblers, bricoleurs, “jacks of all trades and masters of none” who won’t amount to much. We should stop that.
In his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, author David Epstein convincingly exposes the madness of this cliché. He shows that the early specialization advocated by “tiger moms” works great, but only in a handful of “kind” environments, such as chess, golf, or classical music, where uncertainty is a negligible factor. Mostly, though, life is made up of “wicked” environments where uncertainty is the norm. It should follow, then, that generalists with broad experience and various frames of reference stand a much better chance of solving “wicked” problems. According to Epstein’s investigation, they overwhelmingly do.
The visual arts attract both types of eminent creatives, the specialists who are driven to dominate and transform their medium and generalists with bolder ideas who have driven art to a state of ultra-“wickedness” that makes it so hard for the uninitiated. The latter gravitate toward contemporary art because it’s where they can be themselves without being made to feel freakish. The various characteristics for which they are known, and for which the standard workplace has a low tolerance –unpredictability, insatiable curiosity, procrastination, sartorial unorthodoxy, unusual work habits, alternative lifestyles, bursts of enthusiasm, frequent distraction, a propensity for synaptic leaps and a non-linear cast of mind – have all been part of standard artist culture since the Renaissance.
But the primary characteristic that makes visual art seductive to eminent generalists is the unsurpassed range that their predecessors have given it. Unlike elsewhere in our modern world of tightly structured specialization, visual artists enjoy exclusive use of the broadest field of inquiry and the widest forum for creative activity there is: no rules, no norms, no prescribed subject matter, no authorized mediums … whatever you like. Nirvana.
Unfortunately, the art world is a Venus fly trap. Eminent generalists may be built for art, but the art world was not built for them. Art, and the smallish “world” that supports it, are separate realms that share a commodity – the work of art – and little else. Booming as it may seem, the art market, the central feature of the art world, is incapable of supporting more than a tiny fraction of the smart people who graduate from fine-arts programs annually, heading for a life in art like so many caribou jumping off cliffs. It may feel like home, but it’s a harsh place.
And it gets harsher. What the art market wants – variations on easily recognizable “branded” artifacts – is diametrically opposite to what a creative artist needs, whether specialist or generalist. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi tells us that, similar to an athlete, an artist needs a challenge in order to achieve “flow,” the bliss of a good work session that makes you avid for the next one, the kind of noise-cancelling concentration that yields invention. But if you are churning out the same merchandise day-in and day-out to keep the lights on, you are not creating, you are not inventing, you are producing and that ain’t flow.
The art world should not be where creatives go to die. It should be where they are stimulated, encouraged, developed, supported, managed, dispatched, engaged and celebrated. It should be where those with its rare gifts can be properly trained and adequately compensated to inspire many more of us than art reaches. It should be where entrepreneurs find the open and searching minds they need to make better products and services for our constantly evolving needs. It should be the very hub of human creativity, not just the hall of its appearances.
The art world needs to be a bigger tent; what if it expanded its understanding of art and returned it to its ancient origins as the commons of creativity? And we really must deliver a much bigger audience to advanced art, the kind you see in our small, underfunded contemporary art museums entirely dedicated to creativity in its limitless forms. Such institutions are crucial to a thriving society. Every child should be taught the basic skills to take advantage of contemporary art and put art museums to a lifetime of constructive personal use. Surely there is no better place to frequent if you want your kid, or yourself, to think more like an obstacle-busting generalist?
We should start treating contemporary art museums less like showrooms and more like research institutes and training facilities. They are already agoras of genius and of wonder, places where your brain can get a good workout and where you can actually see what creativity looks like. These are the places where thinking happens, by artists of course, but especially by viewers.
Through these institutions, other professionals might connect with the eminent generalists that art nurtures to be their thinking partners. Imagine tackling a vexing problem with someone as intelligent as you are and acquainted with your frame of reference, but who thinks very differently and has a broader range of experience. In this way, we might introduce more cognitive diversity into our specialist strongholds, we might stand a better chance of fixing what’s broke. If we could figure out how to fund eminent generalist creativity directly, rather than only indirectly through its souvenirs, more than just the art world would change.
With some tweaking of education, a bit of vision and a fresh financial plan, art could become more than the cerebral paradise it has long been, it could become creativity’s home base, the R&D of everything. Let’s move in that direction.
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