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Keeping the Vision - Why Creativity and Artistic Ability are Not the Same Thing

One of the interesting things I have noticed is that people often lump creativity and artistic ability into the same subject.  They are definitely not the same thing.  Creativity is often measured by how many uses one can conjure within a limited time frame for a single object.  This is often referred to as keeping a child-like frame of mind, ruling nothing out.  How many uses for, say, a can with several holes punched in the bottom?  That creative child might come up with all kinds of answers: an apartment complex for spiders, a way to capture only the largest raindrops, as the smallest ones will fall right through.  Don’t get me wrong: creativity is a wonderful thing.  I do not discount this.  Creativity is not always wasted on youth, but the scientists can tell you that as people age their creativity, as measured by their answers, often declines.

I am not a researcher.  But I read the products of their research.  And I might as well warn you, I often don’t agree with their interpretations.  Oh, I don’t dispute the data or the results of numerous test subjects, but I think they often test for the wrong things.   Perhaps someone past age 60 can’t come up with 25 imaginative uses for a can with holes punched in the bottom, but perhaps, equally, it isn’t because he is losing his creativity but is evaluating the potential usefulness in each invention.  Age does bring with it some economy of effort, whether good or bad depends upon the age of the evaluator.  But this is why I often look at research about age and creativity with a jaded eye; it’s so easy to be clinical about the effects of age when you haven’t attained the honor of being old.

Artistic ability is much harder to define.  Why is this, you might ask?  We all understand when we see it, we know it.  The Mona Lisa.  John Singer Sargent.  Name one example of artistic ability that comes to mind, and as much as you might love them, the drawings that your children did in second grade are not likely to be on that list.  No, artistic ability relates to something much harder to measure or define than keeping a child-like attitude.  There used to be rules, then there were none, and now there are rules again, but no one really agrees on what they might be, which atelier you belong to, or groups you associate with, or magazine you examine cover to cover, or which gallery or corporate entity supports your work.   In this age of self-identified artists -  an outgrowth of Modernism in the legitimacy of the no rules self-expression approach -  everyone’s an artist.  We feel the intense desire, even if we don’t understand the why, or how.  

Something drives us.  I hear from so many artists who say they feel compelled to do this – but become frustrated when they can’t identify what that means.  What happens when we reach the age of 50? Certainly not the kind of identity crisis that used to be the red convertible and a comb-over hair style: no, this is something much deeper, and worthy of our introspection.  You paint.  You create music.  The time when you are immersed in your inner world stops as you seek what you can’t define.  Is it only art if it exists in the commercialized, corporate-controlled version that has established the careers of those who are granted entry?  Is it only art when there is economic benefit?  Does art require some societal value to exist, or has the function and social value of art taken on a new role? 

I am like you.  I am torn between these questions of where to place value and needing to do the work.  So I do the work.  Like the reed in the river, I bend to the need to put paint on canvas and try to find that expression of truth.   Perhaps that is why we feel compelled.  Not out of a desire for self-importance, but a need to identify some truth for ourselves…not narcissism, staring down at our own reflection in the pond, but a quest to capture a moment…to hold it...keep it for someone else. 

“The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”  -- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

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