Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Creative Urge

The director Tim Burton was on Charlie Rose recently talking about his art show at the Museum of Modern Art. The show is a collection of Burton’s drawings, doodles, and paintings over the years. Rose asked Burton if he started this at an early age:

"Well, like every kid, you know? I think most kids draw. I mean, the fascinating thing to me is by the time a lot of kids are ten years old, they say 'I can’t draw.' And that, to me, was always a very interesting signal about what society does to people. "

It seems kind of a simple observation but it stuck with me. Nearly every kid draws, doodles, colors, etch-a-sketches, paints. But they do more than make pictures. They write and perform dramas and comedies with improvised props and staging (play-acting). They sing and dance, sometimes to their own music and choreography (the school talent show). Heck, they even sculpt (Play-Doh or silly putty or sand castles).

Pablo Picasso made the same observation. "Every child is an artist," he said. "The problem is how to remain an artist." The creative urge, the desire to make art, exists in nearly all children. And then it dies.

Most adults are mere consumers of art. We watch movies and television. We listen to music. We read books. Even the more artistically inclined among us satisfy our urge by reading poetry or going to a museum or a play – but never, God forbid, actually painting a landscape or writing a song or performing a soliloquy from Hamlet.

Why is this? Or to frame it Burton’s way, what does society do to people that kills their creative urge?

Why do we put our crayons away?
A few theories come to mind. One is suggested by Burton when he says kids stop because they say, “I can’t draw”. Like Adam and Eve ashamed to realize they are naked, we get older and realize we aren’t particularly good artists, actors, or singers, and stop out of shame or embarrassment. One can debate whether Burton’s doodles are worthy of an exhibit at MoMA, but he’s clearly a talented man who has had a hugely successful career in the visual arts. Of course he didn’t stop.

Or maybe the less talented among us stop because it’s simply not fun – drawing a stick figure superhero flying through space (a specialty of mine as a child) is plenty of fun when you’re a kid, but the inadequacy of the drawing doesn’t cut it for an adult.

Or maybe we stop because we’re busy. One of the truly wonderful things about being 6 is that you have a lot of free time. When you’re 46, not so much.*

* I named this blog FreeTime because when I would occasionally write and share essays with people I’d often hear “You must have a lot of free time.” Nobody ever says that to people who go to the gym five days a week or watch television every night or play golf every Saturday. But write a blog and people wonder where you ever find the time for such a frivolous exercise.

Or maybe we stop because, to paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, when we become adults we put childish things aside. Is there something about art that is childish? Picasso thought so. "The greatest artist in the world", he said, "is an uninhibited child at play."

There is something to all of these theories. But let me try out a new theory on you. Technology killed the creative urge - but it also has the potential to bring it back.

Creative Destruction
You don’t have to go back very far in human history – about a century or so – to discover a time when you couldn’t go to the movies or watch television or even play recorded music. Museums were few and far between – at least, fewer or farther between than now. Books were certainly available but there wasn’t a Barnes and Noble in every town or an Amazon on every desktop. Heck, you couldn’t even go down to Sears to buy a few paintings for your walls.

In the year 1900, if you wanted to be entertained by the arts, you damn near had to create it yourself. Okay, I exaggerate a bit. If you were wealthy individual in a major city you could go to the opera or see a play.

But creative entertainment in the 19th century consisted mostly of whatever you conjured up yourself. Sister Sarah played the piano. Uncle Bob sat around the fire telling stem-winding tales. Particularly educated families would learn and perform scenes from Shakespeare.

But now there is no need for any of that. With a press of the button we can hear Vladimir Horowitz - or Billy Joel - play the piano. I can turn on my television and watch world-renowned actors perform Shakespeare's plays - with special effects that would have astonished the Bard himself.

Technology obviated the need to create art because it brought the world's greatest art - or at least whatever form of art and entertainment we each prefer - to our doorstep. Don't believe me? Click here.

Technically Creative
But I'm starting to think, just maybe, technology could play a role in bringing back the creative urge.

Take this blog, for example. I don't consider FreeTime to be a blog in the way it is usually defined. I don't do an ongoing diary of my life, nor do I focus on any particular topic. In fact, I share very little about myself here.

For me, a "blog" (a word I despise) is merely a publishing platform; a way for me to easily engage in my favorite form of creativity - writing. Technology makes that possible.

In the past year I've watched my daughter discover the wonders of iMovie, Apple's remarkable video editing software. She is ten years old, and is filming and editing short videos with outstanding quality. Technology makes that possible.

Digital cameras and photo editing software have made photography - not just the snapping of pictures but the transformation and curation of those pictures - into something far more artistic than anything the previous generation knew. Technology makes that possible.

Even video games - yes, the dreaded video game, killer of children's minds - may play a larger role in the recovery of creativity. As my 13 year old son plays his assorted games I am aware that he is not simply watching - he is engaging in story scenarios in an interactive way that requires far more imagination than watching any old movie would require.

So take heart, Tim Burton. The curators at MoMA won't go rummaging through our drawers in order to show our doodles to the world's art elite. But maybe, just maybe, more and more of us will break out our digital crayons, and rediscover the artist within.

1 comment:

Sadia said...

I just stumbled across this post, and it rings so true! I've recently felt an urge to be creative--paint my house, write, sew, something--and am trying to figure out where it came from. Perhaps my four-year-olds don't need me to encourage their exploration any more, so I'm looking elsewhere? Perhaps work has become so constricting that I need to create in my personal life?

Whatever is going on with me, your essay was a reminder to do what I can to encourage my daughters to remember the creativity they now take for granted.

Thank you!