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Monday, February 23, 2009

Up On My Soapbox Once Again

David likes to quote what he claims is an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Whenever I hear this, I always wonder how any time on earth could ever have been uninteresting. What would that mean, anyway? One might be rich or poor, ignorant or wise, live in times of peace or war, famine or plenty, town or country, in brute savagery or the most utter refinement or anywhere in between, and no matter how difficult a struggle life might be, how could it ever fail to be interesting?

No one today, I think, would deny that our day in history is interesting. What will happen next? Finding out is something to get up for. “Why go on living?” Schopenhauer asked. Curiosity is my bottom-line reason, when all else fails. Can anyone be said to be living if that person lacks curiosity? I also find it worthwhile to get up every morning simply to see my immediate surroundings. Usually I intend that term to cover all the senses--if blind, it would still be worthwhile, here, for instance, to feel the sun and the breeze and hear the birds--but in the context of reading Drawing on the Artist Within, by Betty Edwards, my thought narrows to the visual sense. Looking closely at something as ordinary as a pile of onions seems worthwhile to me. Also, pencil sketching is something I do in Florida (never at home in Michigan, where my life seems, even in our old farmhouse or cozy bookstore, like one mad rush-rush-rush from one must-do activity to the next), and Betty Edwards and Frederick Franck are the teachers in books to whom I turn again and again.

What strikes me this morning, though, as I read Edwards, goes beyond my trying to learn to make better drawings. This second book by hers (the first was Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) begins with a general discussion of creativity—what people have said about it, what it might be, and how she believes it can be taught. (She does teach, too, so this is not a case of a stranger to the classroom pontificating on what should go on in schools.) Surely, in our very interesting current times, when so many problems clamor for solutions, we need to think carefully about how human beings come to a moment of insight, that “flash of light thrown on [a] subject,” the illumination that is to ordinary mental plodding or recording or what David and I call “squirrel-caging” almost what joy is to being in a coma. And so we need to pay attention to people like Edwards, who makes the “modest claim” (which some will find counterintuitive, revolutionary or even suspect) that creativity can be taught:
Through learning to draw perceived objects or persons, you can learn new ways of seeing that guide strategies in creative thinking and problem solving just as, through learning to read, you acquire verbal knowledge and learn the strategies of logical, analytical thought. Using the two modes together, you can learn to think more productively, whatever your creative goals may be. The products of your creative responses to the world will be uniquely your own, your mark on the world. And you will have taken a giant step toward acquiring a modern brain. For in the years ahead, I believe that perceptual skills combined with verbal skills will be viewed as the basic necessities for creative human thought.

Her language is modest. I find the argument, on the other hand, riveting. Now there is a strong argument for teaching art in schools. A parallel argument can be and has been offered for music. Put them together, and voilà! Educating “well-rounded” students is more than an arbitrary option, a luxury to be pursued in times of wealth and ease but lopped off when budgets call for “austerity.” It is in these most challenging times that we most need to nurture creativity and the building of brains likely to generate or receive (the metaphysics of it don’t need to concern us) new problem-solving insights.

Our friend Willie agreed with me at dinner recently (after we had disagreed on many subjects) that every new solution creates new problems but that, even so, there are times when “doing nothing” is not an option. “Problem-free” will never be an attribute of human life, for solitary individuals or those in society. The best we can do is to figure out which problems we can and are willing to live with.

One of my philosophy professors in graduate school was also a musician, and another of his friends at the time (whose own insights all fell into narrow, scholarly lines) thought that the philosopher-musician’s guitar playing was a waste of his time. I don’t think so. More professionals of every stripe need to climb outside their cubicles and stretch and expand the power of their brains by trying something completely new.


Deborah said...

Love the photos.

Unknown said...

I don't think life is always interesting, but if I must choose the most important reason for me to live, it's the same as yours: curiosity!

P. J. Grath said...

Neige, I have to admit there are tedious moments, even hours--but "times"? As in a lifetime? That, I hold, can only be endlessly fascinating.

Deborah, I'm glad you loved THESE photos!!!

Anonymous said...

Sigh. My biggest complain about people in general: Nobody asks each other questions. People seem afraid to be curious.

P. J. Grath said...

Nobody asks questions? Go into retail! You'll find the the idlest browsers feel entitled to the most intimate details of your life, personal and financial. I'm not nuts about being questioned myself. I prefer to have a conversation evolve out of observations that reveal participants' interests and prompt response without the goad of interrogation. But that's just me. Some people need and are flattered by direct questioning. Then, too, so much depends on circumstances....

P. J. Grath said...

Another thought about curiosity. Isabel Allende remarks more than once in her memoir, MY INVENTED COUNTRY, that people in Chile are very shy of asking questions of one another, because if it turns out they were on opposite sides of the political fence, what with Chile's troubles in the late 20th century, who knows what unpleasantness might ensue?