Art and Creativity

I recently undertook a University module titled “Art and Creativity” and I was fascinated by the fact that it was about neither art nor creativity – for the following reasons: it didn’t impart new skills (craft) or hone the intellectual skills to facilitate the creation of expressive forms, or engage in a social critique through a visual medium. It did not feed the western artistic imperative to lubricate the egos of the rich or expand the consciousness of the viewer.

The best metric is that the course is probably closer to therapy than art. The worst view of the course is of busywork, designed to introduce the uninitiated to the fine arts. If this view is the correct one then it can be seen to discourage rather than bolster fine arts involvement because it is so detached from artistic practices, or stimulating creative thinking.  

The purpose of the course is to equip student teachers in delivering art to secondary school students. However, the class failed to engage sociologically with the notion of what creativity is or the social value of creativity and art. It didn’t engage with the notion that it is possible to create art that is not creative in any sense, and, interestingly, that was arguably what was produced by all the students in the course (myself included).  The course could have engaged with leading thinkers in the field of art and creativity such as James Elkins or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, instead it centered around a “clayton’s approach”, embracing Edward De Bono’s lateral thinking - which is acceptable if you are teaching business students to “think differently” rather than art students to look at the nature and importance of creativity within the teaching sphere.

The course consists of a set of labyrinthine exercises - predominantly an analysis of public artworks, and a myopic definition of the importance of these works. Designed to get student teachers out the door and conduct busywork, it excludes personal insight and has such narrow corridors of investigation that creativity could only arise as an accidental by-product of pleasing the institutional requirements.

In the course of completing this degree I have been told by people too numerous to name that I ought to “keep mum”, “don’t make waves” and “give them what they want”. If that is the expectations of the general public for a person at our nation’s Universities, our centres of learning, our bastions of knowledge and empirical discernment then it is a great concern to me and it ought to be for others as well.

Art schools have a very difficult relationship with the University. This is an historical truism due to the invention of double-entry book-keeping by Fra Luca Pacioli and Leonardo Da Vinci in 1494. It heralded such a revolution of change that Universities went from being theological institutions to empirical schools within centuries; utilising verifiable and repeatable methodologies and results. Like theology, during that same period, art went from being a trade commodity used to project power, authority and stature to something less readily and immediately definable.

Art could not become an instrument of empirical scientific enquiry because its foundations are theological; it is a self-referencing loop argument which does offer insights into the larger world, but which is more akin to shamanic practice than scientific rigour.

The type of thinking that produces art has systematically become lazier and hazier and this has caused much distress historically between the University and the humanities. The University is a creature of political and fiscal expedients, but at its foundations are the empirical method. This is seldom the basis of the humanities, with its emphasis on pseudo sciences such as psychology, philosophy and fine art.

Paraphrasing James Elkins; “Art (…schools) exist and deserves to exist because they exist” but within the context of the University; understanding and quantifying the importance of creativity as well as the social function of art is an avenue of intersection with University interests which offers art schools a more solid rock to build upon. Sadly, art schools the world over have failed to embrace the meaningful connections and importance that art has to society at large. In the Art and Creativity module I have just undertaken this is clearly a significant part of its failings. The writers of the module do not have the intellectual acumen to feel comfortable placing the art school within the University tradition. They know that their time is limited in the hallowed grounds of the University and they have not comprehended sufficiently the importance of the fine arts upon creative thinking or the connection that this gives it to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “big C” creativity.

Ask any academic, artist or art teacher what the sociological importance of art is, and you will probably discern very quickly my point. The answers you will receive are frequently: “airy”, “emotional”, “meandering” which offer little or no overt comprehension of the importance of creativity (via the fine arts) to the human animal or society.   

The experience of this course being neither artistic or creative is so familiar to artists and students of the arts that it is considered status quo. The course’s embrace of creativity and art is reminiscent of very dispassionate bureaucracies and apparatchiks attempting to mate with each other while in freefall.

As may be gathered, I'm finding the course underwhelming and disappointing on a pedagogical and artistic level. This has caused me great anxiety because I have dedicated 35 years to fine arts practice and 12 years to the institutional and formal study of the fine arts. My interest is “the sociological importance of the fine arts” and “the sociological importance of creativity in human psychology and society”.

It drives me to ask the questions: Why do we have art schools? What is the significance of the art museum or gallery? What is the purpose of those institutions and do people really need a picture in the hallways and living rooms of a civilised society?

Before I get labelled as just another student who is having a hissy fit because they are incapable of academic delivery, I will now divulge that I have a decade’s experience teaching in Art & Design Colleges (Enmore Design School, Billy Blue, Swinburne University, UTS), I also worked at Sydney University for three years as an educational designer.

I hold a Masters in Printmaking from the National Art School, my thesis was not the usual exegesis but a less solipsistic and I think more interesting examination of “the sociological origins of art institutions in Australia”. I think that art is important and bemoan any art teacher or art institution who cannot tell you exactly why that is the case.

I own and run my own artist printery in Central Victoria ( HipCat Printery was established in 2013 as an editioning & access print studio for artists, designers, students and novices. In 2018 it opened its doors as a printmakers' Gallery. I have been making art and exhibiting it for 35 years. At various times, I’ve had an international following of my work. I've been a practicing, professional artist since the age of 19 (with work acquired by the National Gallery of Australia by age 21). I was also the youngest person to attend the East Sydney Technical college Dept of Fine Arts since 1956. I worked at COFA – UNSW and completed my Post Grad at Sydney College of the Arts - Sydney University. I've had no less than 12 years in art schools as a student and can make reasoned and sound evaluations of the theory and pedagogical nature of art teaching, having taught at the Undergrad, Post Grad and Master’s level. I have written courses for the Royal Australian Navy and TAFE NSW.

My work is represented throughout Australia and overseas including the National Gallery of Australia, The Art Gallery of NSW, The Art Gallery of Western Australia, The National Library of Australia, The State Library of Victoria, The State Library of Queensland.

As you can see, I’ve quite a lot of skin in the game, and I have dedicated my life to the fine arts. This isn't a case of "I can't do the assignment"; it is very much a case that I have listened to, examined and investigated the work of the lecturers as well as the material and artists which they are asking us to examine and am left feeling that there is quite a gap between the cup and the lip.

This raises the question of the misnomer of the course’s name and its actual aims! It is deceptively titled "Art and Creativity" but it neither approaches notions of creativity, in the academic tradition of such examinations, nor the nature of creating or teaching art. What I am seeing is a course presenting an abridged version of public art presentation techniques, which does not in any way have a causal relationship to teaching/learning or art and creativity. If it is a professional practice class where eliciting public funding and garnering curatorial attentions with a view to exhibiting, then it is also a massive failure, in my opinion.

James Elkins, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Malcolm Gladwell, even Greyson Perry, provide more stimulating and up to date thinking about the nature of creativity and its importance to society or the individual. Edward De Bono’s lateral thinking is a step forward for business"men" seeking an intellectual edge, but his insights with regards to the creative process are now so dated in relation to the fine arts that a basic NLP reader offers more valuable insights. I’m surprised that the set text isn’t the now neurologically discredited Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain or Man and His Symbols (which is arguably one of the defining works in stimulating the creative imagination of modern art students).

The artschool embrace of the University system and funding models appears to be the defining aspect of this and many arts courses. If art schools are to be valued and nourished into the future then arts practitioners and teachers need to be able to explain the value of the arts, personally, socially and biologically to the public. As it stands art schools are now dwindling and given that most artists and art schools seemingly do not know their value or how to defend themselves this comes as no surprise.

The social impact of that loss is a metric which is very difficult to quantify but if offered as a metaphor; it becomes clear that we need to begin to understand the nuances of the impact of the fine arts in society. Art schools exist in sacred space between the prison and the church, they offer the lowest in society the opportunities for greatness. They teach critical thinking outside of the empirical traditions of university and science, while facilitating communication that can break through the social strata of our society. This is one reason why the modern artist so often takes the role of the court jester and it is why Art schools are maligned, misunderstood and conversely so desirable.

Preference: A Kiss Print, or a Deep Impression?

It's a bizarrely and surprisingly complex question. The history of print according to the print historian Ivan’s is a history of removing muddy water from a deep ditch. In his appraisal offset lithography leaves the paper in a pristine state and is that which printers have always sought. It is the technology that all printing strives toward.

I personally find lithography even in the hands of a master printer who prints on stone by hand to be nothing better than a sterile reproductive method. It’s lack of impression a form of metaphorical denial of the nature of being. Offset lithography is like the edifices of religion, powerful, impressive but lacking soul and substance.

I’m biased however; as a younger man I saw a lithograph by Leonora Fini which was so striking in its orange hues that I decided than and there it could never be surpassed. I spent some years as a lithography technician and nothing managed to convince me that my view was flawed. From Tamarind to Tom Phillips & Jim Dine, the effect is always a posterised visual lumonosity. Lithography makes great gallery art but it is not intimate and it is not texturally rich.

I have patrons, not as many as I need but I’ve always had a patron or two (although did I mention that currently I could do with more and wealthier), and one of my Patrons had a page from the Nuremberg Chronicle which at 18 they insisted I take from it’s protective envelope and run my hands upon. The first thing you cannot avoid noticing is that it is printed on a paper that is texturally rich. The blocks and type run deeply into the flesh of the page. You can close your eyes and feel it’s richness. The smell of the paper offers the senses the same promises that a great library offers. You literally feel it’s antiquity when you hold that work. The impressions of block and type cast shadows on the page, the shadows like trench’s in the earth rise and fall and guide the eye around the work. It is intimate and tactile and beautiful to view, to hold, to smell.

I still remember the smell of my first comic book which I bought 31 years ago. I remember the feel of that pulpy paper. The over inking of the pages. The precise artwork which fought back against the sloppy work of the printer

Works of ephemera and works of art, drive deep into the senses. They have to work intellectually upon the mind and seduce the touch, lure the sense of smell.

The tactile nature of a print needs to be more than a formulaic deep emboss under the 9 ton pressure of a T-Platen; which has its own perfect sterility so appealing to many “hipsters”. The intimacy of holding a piece of printed art, of feeling the piece, of not allowing your eyes to lie to you is part of the rich subtle nature of the printed work.

A first edition Franz Mazereel book, hand set in fractur font, printed from his hand cut blocks excites in ways that elicit a physical reaction in all but the deadest artistic sensibility. Art at its intimate best works sculpturally as well as intellectually and visually.

The eye needs to rest, and the eye rests best on imperfection. The imperfection of a ditch filled with muddy water.

I was told recently that paintings of sunrises are as rare as sales of green paintings. Artists historically don’t seem to (generally speaking) be early risers (staying up all night to watch the sun rise doesn’t count, I was informed) and the human eye sees green amongst all colours far more richly than any other colour so a painting in green is a painting which often lacks nuance to the eye. It’s a mechanical reality; I was informed.

Printing by hand, with an emboss upon the page can at its best be a subtle and textural food for the eye. Clumsy deep embossing lacks subtlety, offering a gimmick, it is formulaic clever art. It is everything which Tyler Durden dislikes in art. Tyler Durden is a fictional character of course although he is expressing a very real contempt for “clever art”.

Art is frequently an intellectual pursuit and as such it is the embodinent of knowledge under will. Married to the mechanical skills, it works on the linear narrative of visual acuity, it tells us stories. Great art allows us to project our stories into it, equally great art rejects your efforts to project your stories upon its nakedness.

You can have it both ways. That’s one of the great things about art! There is no formula but there are so many tricks and combinations and what you are left with is work and play...

I’ve seen masterfully applied deep embossing that borders upon genius. I’ve seen amateurish deep embosing which is shallow and gimmicky

I’ve seen shitty printing saved by masterful content. I’ve seen masterfully great technically astute and intellectually stimulating work destroyed by shitty choices of colour and terrible printing.

Great print work relies as much upon intuition and aesthetics as they do upon technique.

As I said it is a surprisingly complicated and stimulating question (if that is your passion) and books as they say have their fates depending on the comprehension of the reader...

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