When IBM surveyed the world’s CEOs on how to thrive in business, technology, health and every other industry, the results almost unanimously pointed to one determining factor. More than rigor, management, strategy, integrity or even vision, creativity came out as the top skill. Less than half of senior leaders believe their businesses are equipped for an increasingly complex and volatile global economy, and their proposed solution is to bump up the value of imagination. Part of this plan is to set up projects like “skunkworks” — innovation theorist Everett Rogers’ term for a free-association think-tank on company time. The problem is that committees, by their nature, tend to kill ingenuity in favour of what’s comfortable. And what’s comfortable is usually what’s most familiar. In advertising, it’s called “status quo bias,” and brands rely on it to keep their customers coming back for the mediocre.
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Yesterday, I was being curious again about one of my little habits — a habit that some artists might relate to. I like to start a painting off in a mess and then try to harness and control the thing. It’s appealing to me to make something unruly into something ordered. Please don’t mention this to anyone — right now I’m compulsive about it.
A mile above the California desert in the San Jacinto Mountains nestles a sleepy hamlet populated almost entirely with artists. It began in 1946, when choral conductor and dean of the University of Southern California’s music department, Max Krone, and his wife, Bee, purchased 250 acres in the San Bernardino backcountry with the idea of building a remote satellite arts campus. Believing that arts education enhances human development, within four years they opened their fledgling summer school with forty students and eight instructors and called it Idyllwild.
The way I look at it, a work of art requires the presence of two spirits. The first is the spirit of the subject matter — the object or thing that the work is based on — Nature’s spirit. The second is the spirit or interpretation the artist brings to the object — the unique style or manner that only the individual artist can give. Subject matter alone — the slavish copying of nature — does not make art. But art also falls short, in my opinion, when it doesn’t lean to some degree on the stimuli of place or subject.
While staying as the house guest of an artist friend and her daughter, I dwelled briefly in the onslaught of raising a human. “It’s like throwing a party all day, every day, for the rest of your life,” a mother-friend once told me when describing parenting. On top of her all-day celebrations, this particular six-year-old seemed to team with the insatiable creative mania of, well, a six-year-old, bolting between rainbow looms, songwriting, playwriting, sign painting and imaginary worlds. I watched her help herself to physical space — in the house, in the garden — and re-purpose the bed sheets, stuffies, food, furniture and my laptop.
A wonderful email appeared in my inbox recently, suspiciously arriving six times and from six different people. Here’s one of them:
My name is George Barbara from California. I actually observed my wife has been viewing your website on my laptop and i guess she likes your piece of work. I’m also impressed and amazed to have seen your various works too, You are doing a great job. I would like to purchase one of your paintings “watermark, 60 x 60 inches, oil on canvas, 2014”, as a surprise to my wife on our anniversary.
There are all kinds of envy — including the kind that Freud thought he detected. The kind I’m talking about is called professional jealousy. Some artists have it bad. Salieri had it for Mozart. Who wouldn’t? It’s supposed to be one of the main sins. I’ve had lots of confessional letters from artists. They’re jealous of the success and talent of others. It happens everywhere — at art schools, with the artist next door, even sharing the same studio. One woman wrote to say that the envy she felt for her friend’s paper tole drove her to stop working in the medium.
A subscriber wrote, “I wonder if you have any thoughts about channeling negative energy into creative endeavors. The other day, one of my most valued friends and I parted company. I was pretty upset by his obviously calculated quarrel, and went over to my studio and picked up and attacked an old unresolved painting. I’m quite happy with the results. Another time I was irritated with the monitor of a life-drawing class to the point that I almost left, but instead focused on my drawing and did some powerful sketches. Nice to know that good things can come from an upsurge of choler.”
Some time ago, I wrote to you about Canadian artist Claire Sower, who’d recently signed with Agora Gallery in New York. For those unfamiliar, Agora is known for soliciting artists online — if you have a website, you may have received one of their emails. For a substantial fee, artists are given an 18-month contract for representation, a promotion package and, if accepted, the opportunity to exhibit at Agora’s polished, two-level gallery in New York. Though initially wary of a business model that profits from artist registration rather than sales, after some encouragement from a supportive gallerist friend, Claire decided to go for it.
Although some artists may put me down for this, I’m pretty sure that the production of art has to do with a sense of well-being. I’ve found that art is at its best when the art more or less takes over your life. It’s great if you happen to be a fan. Other specifics contribute as well, like the ability to access both sides of your brain. I call this “bicameral wobbling.” Sometimes “BW” is automatic, at other times you have to put a cattle-prod in your ear.