Counting the cultural cost of utility

I am not a strict formalist. Systematic approaches to learning a craft have value. But I also understand there are limits that are intrinsic to any particular system of training. That’s just the nature of systems. They give voice, but they do so within a certain framework of vocabulary. We are facing such limitations and influence of systems on our cultural voice and perception of our worldview even now as we confront them with the #metoo movement.

I happen to think there is not such a hard line between imagination and creativity. They do not exist in such a bifurcated form any more than reason or emotion, material or immaterial, sacred or secular. Reductionism can help in understanding one aspect or another, but when our nature is as intertwined as these things, even creativity and imagination, something is sacrificed when dissected.

R. Buckminster Fuller said we are born comprehensive problem solvers and the education system beats the creativity out of us. The goal of specialization is to do less and less with more and more. The opposite of creativity.

Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, and others were enamored by child creativity, uninhibited by how things should be. They have no thought as to how to draw a tree or a house. Given the task they plow into it without fear, without any concern whether anyone will “get it”. Picasso said all children are born artists. The problem is to remain artists as we grow up.

Even Sir Ken Robinson has lamented that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. We get educated out of our creativity. When asked what she was drawing, a young girl answered that she was drawing God, the adults said “No one knows what God looks like”. She replied “They will shortly.”

We are creative from birth. There is no escaping it. It is part of our nature. It may well be the essence of our nature. To say there is a step from imagination to creativity, in my mind, is to say there is a step from living to breathing. It’s like saying reason is seperate from emotion, that the natural is seperate from the supernatural, that the material exists independently from the immaterial.

From a perspective of faith, theology begins with a creative God creating, “In the beginning, God created…” Faith without works is dead. God created because to not create would be to not be God. Being created by a creative God (I would say even if that god is evolution) requires creativity as our nature or else we perish. It is impossible to exist and not be creative, from learning to walk and talk, to the smallest thing of every day life, to the greatest master pieces. Love itself is the greatest force of creativity. To Van Gogh, there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. Our lives are ultimately our greatest work of art.

The problem we are faced with is how to retrain our creativity after almost two decades of having it beat out of us by systems that exist contrary to creative nourishment and encouragement. While I am not a strict formalist, I do believe we have to put in the work and this is part of the work. I do believe making art is a deliberate act.

Part of that work is learning various techniques that may or may not fall within a particular school or style of art making. But make no mistake, these techniques are constructs, neither the imagination nor the creative act of art. They are means to create something in particular in a particular way, not anything. And they are not the art, not the creativity. They are the particular vocabulary utilized to make something ultimately useless. And excellence in technique does not automatically ensure good, much less great, creativity or art.

Art needs no justification #

Another part that we have to overcome is a construct of what is worth creating, or acceptable. Utility is very much part of this problem. If these become prerequisite qualities for what is or isn’t creative or artistic, then we have killed art and creativity before it begins. These are things of commerce, of propoganda, of populism. There is nothing bad or wrong about these qualities intrinsically, but these are not the foundation or even necessary effects of art.

If anything art is more about generosity than utility. Or as artist Makoto Fujimura puts it,

Utilitarian pragmatism is tied to a world in which vision is stripped of transcendence.

And in further explaining his concept of Culture Care,

Culture Care values reach far beyond materialism to the ultimate human value of love — toward a generative reality.

(Fujimura, Makoto. Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life. International Arts Movement and the Fujimura Institute.)

When we go down the road of utility and acceptability, we constrict what is possible. This is a degenerative process. It is the opposite of creative. It eliminates, not creates. This is the stuff of culture wars. And culture wars ultimately serve no one.

To further illustrate effects of utility and acceptability on our culture we need look no further than the news of the day. We apply these qualities to our definition of humanity when we are only willing to allow people into our community or workplace that we find acceptable or can serve a utility. These are dehumanizing qualities. Human value is assessed, not intrinsic. I find such a position quite immoral.

I hope I have contributed to the conversation.


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