The ideas in this post were built with other Fellows who met through the Fellows Artists' Network in September 2017.
In a society under strain, it’s right to focus energy towards what is essential – putting our limited attention where it is most needed. But it is well worth examining the choices we make and challenging assumptions of value. I want to suggest that in an obsession with creative product we have forgotten some of the rare and important value in creative practice. By creative practice I mean making things for the joy and/or expression – distinct from any attempts to persuade, sell or impress. The pure pleasure found in the things we make, and in the process of making them.
You can have a creative practice in anything from cakes to classic cars, from flowers to furniture, from painting to poetry. Humans love to create and not just as a hedonism or a hobby. Instead it can be seen much like sports/exercise: something profoundly good for individuals that has wider benefits for society; something that’s too valuable to be restricted to professionals. Let’s look at a few of the many benefits of a healthy creative practice.
Creative practice is to satisfy ourselves. We do what we want, improve skills over time, and are proud of our progress. It is dignity-enhancing and the dignity of a maker extends into other parts of their life. A creative practice cements the sense that your own lines of enquiry are worthwhile, and that you can be satisfied by what you do. Increasingly mass-produced products and services leave the individual citizen more and more irrelevant, so any uplift in agency and dignity is a much needed counterbalance. What would happen in society if every citizen had a stronger sense of self?
There is increasing awareness of the power of the arts in therapeutic settings, even something as simple as writing how you feel in a journal. We process what we face in what we make – both overtly and obliquely. Along with other things like owning a dog or spending time in nature, creative practice is an investment in our mental health. In it we build the muscles of integrating with reality, and of bouncing back from difficulty. These things all interrupt the stresses of life with joyful colour, sound and rhythm. What value could we place on a more resilient society?
There is a cultural cliché that ideas are quick sparks. But in Steven Johnson’s analysis of where good ideas come from (speaking at the RSA here) he speaks about the ‘slow hunch’ – the development of an idea over time. This diligent exploration deeper and deeper into an idea is what happens as we pursue a creative practice. Creative practice doesn’t just get you deeper into particular ideas, it also develops confidence in your own view and confidence in your own voice. Is clear-sighted vision an optional extra in the complexity of modern life?
I have written elsewhere on what it takes to build a creative practice and so here I’m going to leave three proposals for further conversation:
- We need to see creative practice as a powerful part of human life, not just a profession or a pastime. In the same way that we encourage exercise for the good of society, we should encourage creative practice. We all benefit from a population with dignity, resilience and vision.
- We need to not only defend creative education but go on the attack – making the case for the value of the arts. Young people are growing up to face an increasingly complex and changing world, and more than ever they will need the strengths that a living creative practice builds.
- There needs to be wider cross-discipline conversation about “creativity” that moves beyond creativity-to-solve-problems. It is when we foster a creative practice that we discover ourselves, and that unlocks big shifts for individuals and society.
With this in mind the perspective of the artist is as pragmatic as that of the designer or politician.
This post owes a debt to conversations with other RSA Fellows:
Jane Boyd is a fine artist who works in light-based installation across a many different architectural/historical contexts.
Doug Shaw is an artist who leaves art around his local area, as well as using art in organisational development work - to explore resilience, connectedness, and confidence.
Jonathan Petherbridge is director of London Bubble, a company committed to inspirational, inclusive, involving theatre, which shares stories that animate the city and its citizens.