Shapeshifter, mixed media on paper
Art is one of those things.
Both idolized, idealized as the epitome of talent-expression (think about “genius” and some artists’ names are bound to come up), and discarded as pretentious and irrelevant to everyday life. As dissipation, as the pinnacle of idleness – making art as navel gazing for (similarly) navel gazing, affluent strata of our world.
High-brow art and low-brow art are two other oppositions that come to mind: fine art, the art that rightfully belongs in museums and opera houses on one corner; on the other there’s pop-art, kitsch, entertainment– for-the-masses art.
Art for its own sake, or artistic skill and “language”, instrumentalized for the purposes of marketing, ideology, or propaganda. Or (even worse?) mere decoration.
What good is any of it? Most people I know have a kind of art-wound. We started out with crayons and paints, kids’ versions of music instruments, singing as a normal part of the day. Puppet shows, over-the-top costumes, dancing– this was all a normal part of life. For some of us, those natural human processes of expression, communication and understanding became (suddenly or gradually) packaged into a rigid type of performance. Either you were “good at singing/drawing/dancing/acting” or you weren’t. If you had talent, chances are you might continue to explore via classes, concerts, clubs, and so on. If you didn’t, well, you’d better focus on what you were good at, and leave the exuberant world of creative expression for its own sake behind.
My own work has taken me around the fringes of the world of fine art, especially with its post-modern articulations of philosophy and ideology, and the use of art/creative expression as a tool– for psychological healing and personal discovery. Weaving in and out, I’ve inhabited both and never been quite comfortable with either: something was missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I needed to explore art-making from many other angles before I could understand the elephant in the room that I sensed, but couldn’t describe.
I needed to look away from the paradigm of art as a performance for the sake of consumption and prestige. Art made to fulfill abstract, fickle standards of what deserves to be considered worthy of the name (and by whom). Art charged with academic histories of comparison between classes, genders, races, and species, to the point of becoming toxic.
The first thing I discovered was that I could understand art as dedicated creative practice and experience, in its broadest sense. As a mode of perception and organization of reality, which allows for multiple dimensions of knowing (objective facts, internally formulated ideas, values and concepts, together with affective tones and hues, as well as movement and sensorial modalities) to be integrated into a cohesive whole that blends the literal and the symbolic. The difference here between art and other multi-modality “projects” is that artistic expression centers around the direct experiencing of what is created: the layers are taken in all at once.
This type of direct-experiencing transmission of knowledge is a unique state, a liminal space where all these things weave together seamlessly and without contradiction. The state/space of art is not at all unfamiliar or foreign to us. It is integral to human instinctive being. And so, cutting ourselves off from it, or relegating it to a fringe activity is like taking one of our eyes out: the depth of our perception (and the resulting articulation of life on our planet) becomes flattened.
In my work in the field of high intelligence, an interesting parallel shows up. Our narratives about intelligence are similar to those around creativity– you either have it or you don’t. Intelligence too is objectified, and highly intelligent people are taught to relate to their intelligence as an asset that is to be maximized, but not enjoyed. Intelligence is simultaneously put on pedestals and reviled as arrogance. It’s conflated with academic achievement, with disconnection from practical day-to-day realities, with dissociation from the body, with eminence and with unattainable genius (there’s that word again).
The lived experience of highly intelligent people rarely even comes close to these stereotypes of intelligence; it’s much more nuanced, messier, more raw and “real”. Gifted people struggle, pay attention to the menial and mundane as much as the “lofty”, care about friends and family, feed their pets, go to the doctor, go grocery shopping, and like everyone else, seek safety, connection and meaning. In other words, the life of intelligence is tied up in the life of real people: it’s not a rarefied, disembodied phenomenon. Intelligence arises in the context of brains, and brains arise in the context of life on Earth. Both intelligence and creativity are experiential ways we human beings navigate with one another, in our specific, local ecosystems, families, communities and cultures.
And that’s how I knew the next clue to the mystery I’d been trying to put my finger on, as I wondered about art’s place in our instinctive human experience. Both intelligence and creative expression are inalienably connected to our relationships with each other: our communities in day-to-day life. Creating with and for others brings us intrinsic pleasure and joy, and a quality of emergence, that are not to be found in any other domain. As we create together, new vantage points of understanding, resolution, and connection show up in the process. We see and know the “thing” we’re exploring creatively, in higher definition when we have many minds at work on it. We learn about one another in the process, and form bonds that are inclusive of the many dimensions of ourselves. Sometimes, the creative space is the only place where parts of us come to light, to be seen, connected with each other, and with our wider circles.
The stereotypical “genius” is imagined to suffer anxiously in their ivory tower. While this stereotype rarely represents reality, there’s something telling in the collective imagination of an intelligent and/or creative person divorced of peer and social support, whose “gifts” are narrowly defined and channeled in furious pursuit of single-minded attainment. These imaginary characters are, more often than not, psychologically impoverished and fragile, which at the very least is a typical the outcome of dehumanization and isolation.
In this light, all cultures– even our current global culture– have used art and creativity for bonding, deep intimacy, multi-modal problem solving, meaning making, and forging paths toward new realities together. The essential, life-giving function of shared creativity is still there, waiting for us to re-connect with it, even if we’re still haunted by the voice of a teacher who said we weren’t good at drawing, or by being criticized about our singing voice, or a myriad other ways we’ve been taught to abandon our creative, expressive selves.
Whether we acknowledge our creative self, or not, it is there to serve a purpose that is bound together with our evolutionary past, and with our future as humans – especially as humans in crisis. This is a portal to reclaim both our embodied intelligence and our connected creativity, to engage with them faithfully, innocently, with each other, and to see what we learn in the process. What we discover is what will bridge us into a thriving, interdependent version of a shared future.
Your Turn: Starting Points to Explore and Deepen your Creative Discovery
One of my inspirations for this post were the words of Laura Geiger here. She posts a wealth of prompts, resources and inspiration on her social media (@thelaurageiger on Instagram), especially focusing on ways to integrate creativity, somatic exploration and embodied transformation. Check her out!
On my Earth-and-climate-advocacy project, I Heart Earth, we are exploring creative self-expression as a way to spark change in ourselves and collectively. As a jumping off-point, we shared this video by Austin Hill Shaw on creativity and our core needs
As creativity is deeply linked to both play and joy, it makes sense for us to explore both these important (yet neglected) themes, as part of the fertile soil in which to grow our creative expression. I recommend reading the books Play by Stuart Brown and Joyful by Ingrid Fettell Lee