Creativity training for all?

A recent interview with Alan Moore caught my eye, “Alan Moore on Science, Imagination, Language and Spirits of Place”. Moore’s politics may be lumpen and wrong-headed, but much else he says makes good sense…

“Yes, when I was a child, comics and books dealing with fantasy or mythology were incredibly stimulating, but I think that has to be seen in a context of what was, for me, a far greater stimulus to the imagination, this being my otherwise complete lack of imaginative stimuli. What I’m talking about here is leaving some un-colonised space for a child’s imagination to grow into, rather than rushing in to fill that space with an insatiable desire to flog as much merchandise as possible to a malleable audience of trend-conscious juveniles.

As an illustration, when I was around seven years old and first discovering American superhero comics, I would have probably given just about anything for a set of, say, Justice League of America toy soldiers. However, such things didn’t exist in 1960, and even if they had existed, my family would not have been able to afford them. Thus, if I wanted to play with a team of toy superheroes I had to invent one myself from the motley assortment of mismatched toy soldiers, cowboys, Indians and Trojan warriors that I already possessed. This required a certain amount of ingenious re-purposing: an Indian Chief-type figure became a time-travelling medicine man with magical powers. A seven-inch tall American G.I, probably from a non-regulation set of soldiers I’d acquired somewhere, was obviously a superhuman giant, and by the same logic those tiny little Airfix military [kit] figures that used to be available could be pressed into service as heroes with shrinking abilities. A plastic Robin Hood give-away figure from a box of cereal became one of the ubiquitous masked archers familiar from my superhero reading, and as I recall the green plastic robot figure from an arcane general knowledge novelty board game – The Magic Robot – was re-cast as a more science-fiction oriented non-magical robot, possibly with a human brain. As a headquarters, I customised and decorated a cardboard shoebox, and as a principal villain I took an unpleasant bruise-coloured lump of merged and forgotten Plasticine discovered down the back of the settee, and re-imagined it as an amoebic shape-shifting alien monster from another planet, capable of engulfing my heroes and thereby somehow stealing their powers. My point is that, lacking a ready-made set of Justice League of America toys, I had to exercise my imagination by creating characters and situations of my own. Whereas I fear that kids today, assuming they or their parents can somehow scrape the money together from somewhere, can completely satisfy any imaginative whim without having to do a stroke of (actually very enjoyable) work or exhibit any creativity of their own.

In my opinion, this has been an increasing problem throughout the closing decades of the 20th century and has only been greatly exacerbated in the opening decades of the 21st. And, if I’m right, this is only likely to get worse. By not investing in the imaginative growth of the young we would seem to be setting up a massive failure of creativity, progress and imagination for the not too distant future.”

Broadly I think that the general increase in the level of pre-made mass-media stimulation is a good thing, especially for the 30% of dull children who are not very imaginative and never will be. It provides a crutch for their disability, and must at least widen their horizons a little. Far more so than was the case a century ago in the 1920s, for instance, when their imagination might have been limited to sport and its heroes. For the other 60% — the ‘mundane middle’ children — the constant media stimulation is probably no worse now than in the 1970s. It seems most dangerous when left unregulated by “can’t say no” parents and enabled by ubiquitous access to screens at all times of the day and night. This risks adding screen-addiction and premature exposure to adult content, to the older pre-existing problem of affluent children becoming ‘spoiled’ because they are given everything they want. It appears to be a real problem, and has already affected the Millennial generation in terms of their selfishness and ‘snowflake’ qualities. One might have hoped that — along the way — they would have acquired a savvy self-starting talent for ‘media dieting’, but for many ‘binging’ young consumers that seems not to be the case.

This problem of early media saturation is probably best addressed for the current generation of children by a blanket ban on screens (including TV, expect perhaps for a twice-weekly curated set of quality cartoons) until age 8, and then a ban on phones and hand-held games until age 14. If ‘long car-travel boredom’ is a real problem, then give them noise-cancelling headphones and audiobook stories instead. A good deal of ‘free-range’ outdoors activity will probably also help matters, ideally free of nagging and fussing parents, which will mean providing kids with the ‘wilding’ skills and tools to be able to enjoy such autonomous freedom.

Beyond that 30% + 60% group, I’d suggest that what Moore is really talking about is the problem for society in any early identification of the 10% of ’emerging creative makers’. But this assumes these children can be reliably spotted as young as 8-11, by teachers and parents who are not themselves creative producers and makers. Since no sit-down test will pick up that kind of tentative recombinant ongoing emergence, expect among the 0.1% of brilliant savants (who will not need a puny test to uncover their obvious talent). Nor will a test pick up the different kinds of often very-tentative emerging clusters of creativity, such as…

* curatorial systematising
* expressive translation
* adeptness at depiction
* emotional re-shaping in media
* “what if” future-mapping
* word-wrangling

Such a test would also assume that creativity emerges at a uniform early age. When we know, from biographies of powerful creatives, that their painfully-fashioned working coherence of talents only emerged years after the expected age of 11 or 12.

There would be a risk in such early identification, if this 10% can be somehow roughly identified as an emerging ‘creative class’. The state will then feel the need to play up to parental demands and provide standardised creativity training. Such a school-based approach, being easily identified and channelled into obvious and easily-delivered niches in music, dance, acting, graphic design and the like, would probably not do much harm to children who show an aptitude for such endeavours of technique and timing. Many teachers know the type well… the ones who are creative, but who are very reluctant or unable to combine this with deep reading in books.

But such training could potentially do great damage when applied to bright ‘bookish’ kids who have not yet found an expressive talent and niche, for whom Moore is suggesting the opposite approach. Moore is really talking about the more literate 3-5% who sit within this 10% of truly creative children, those who have the potential to harness the accumulated power of language to their own vivid imagination. Those who are able to freely engage in “visioning on the vacant air” (Hardy), and who can in time harness this not only to language but also to historical consciousness and future speculation. He’s saying that we might do best to just leave this group alone, and remove from them a great deal of the fully developed pre-packaged media stimuli with its torrent of words and shoddy distractions.

I’d add: also remove the inevitable bullying of such bright imaginative kids; introduce them to others with similar interests; guide them to the best stories and then align these stories with do-able real-world short-term projects. If possible, entirely remove this 5% from the stultifying conventional school system and its mundane and often-incompetent third-rate teachers. Which may also help to reduce the possibility that a fraction of this 5% might find malign and criminal outlets for their imagination, since they would not have a chance to fall in with the ‘future criminal class’ at school.

“The Symphonic Ideal” (Oct 1916)

On the day when the UK so gloriously votes to leave the EU, it seems somewhat apt to re-publish H.P. Lovecraft (of all people), on the joys of hope and looking on the bright side, and the perils of a sour and biting cynicism. The co-incidence of the vote and my having the article in digital form is just that, yet there does seem something here which speaks to the sour precautionary grindings currently being heard from many British media commentators.


We live in the midst of a new and outspoken cynicism; the result of declining orthodoxy on the part of the religious, and of aimless iconoclasm on the part of the philosophical. The happiness once acknowledged in our minor joys and moments of respite from the burden of life, is now laughed at and despised as a mere narcotic to the intelligence; and we are bidden to dismiss as unreal those simple and honest delights which alone make human existence endurable. If aught but the severe satisfaction of perfect intellectual, artistic, aesthetic, and moral beauty chance to please us, we are straightway damned as superficial, and censured for our childish triviality of taste. [Lovecraft has a connoisseur of flavoured ice-creams and cats, among many other small pleasures suited to his extreme poverty]

   There recently appeared before the public a rather unsophisticated volume entitled “Pollyanna”, which preached a sweetly artificial doctrine of converting ills into blessings by the contemplation of possible calamities still more direful. After a period of enthusiastic laudation from the “jeune fille” [young girl] type of admirer, poor “Pollyanna” became the target of every penny-a-line hack reviewer and little-wit in Grub-Street [in the mainstream press]. They loftily demonstrated that the easing of melancholy by force of imagination is a vastly unscientific thing. Impossible, they vowed! Or, even if possible, it ought not to be; since ’tis a frightfully callow sort of mental regimen, quite unworthy of the mature mind! They all swore ’tis an affront to the eternal verities to be able to stop thinking of the world’s evil and to gather a little joy from that idyllic goodness and virtue of which the world undoubtedly possesses, or seems to possess, a little. The New York Tribune, in fact, deemed the inoffensive “Pollyanna” sufficiently culpable to merit a sneering editorial. [“On Being Gladder Than You Are”, New York Tribune, Sun. 3rd Sept 1916, p.2. On the occasion of a New York City stage adaptation of the book.]

   So runs the worldly-wise current of twentieth-century life! Your modern philosopher had rather be mature and miserable, than childlike and contented; and he deems you a monstrous imbecile if you can be happy at a time when he thinks you have not sufficient cause to be happy. Heaviness of spirit, he doth asseverate, is a sacred obligation of every thoughtful and responsible citizen. If you lack woes of your own, then go mourn at the wretched state of mankind in general!

   The Conservative [Lovecraft’s amateur critical journal] confesses to no little amusement at the wailing of these worshippers of morbid maturity. He even ventures to exhibit a leaning toward the side of immaturity; for is not maturity but the full-blown precursor of decay? It is dangerous to dabble in realities, and if more of us were able to retain the happy illusions of our infancy, those illusions would be so much nearer truth. Can any of our apostles of sophistication define what they mean by real happiness? Is it not more likely that all happiness is unreal; a golden fabric woven by fairies from the moonbeams of yesterday, and visible, like the Milky Way, only when more garish and conspicuous things are banished from the sight? A moment of retrospection, a snatch of song, a cadence of rhythm, a glance at the blue empyrean [the sky], the playing of the sun with the leaves of green trees, a chance act of benevolence — all these things sometimes bring what we uncultured barbarians are pleased to call happiness. Must we be utterly condemned if such happiness be found to have no cause save in physiological reactions or psychological stimuli? It is certainly grateful surcease from the pain of living, and what more could we desire? Is not fragrance fragrance, whether it come from the woodland violet or the stately cedar? If these simple pleasures be only drugs to help us forget reality, then let us accept the oblivion they offer. Nature designed them to soothe the roughnesses of our existence, and we should accept the gift with gratitude, rather than reject it with scorn. On the pleasures of the fancy rests all the mighty framework of art, poesy, and song. Stark, mature reality leads to the suicide’s vault. [Lovecraft would restate this sentiment a decade later, in the opening of his famous “The Call of Cthulhu” and also in the opening of “The Silver Key”]

   […] We are all much too serious, and too little disposed to promote the comfort of society. One refreshing zephyr of naturalness, whether in the primer-like and humour-lacking form of a “Pollyanna” or in the subtler shape of a Symphony, is to our weary spirits worth an hundred laboured essays on the art of correct thinking or the science of being wisely miserable. Wherefore, though Reason may goad us on in our sterner search for Truth, let us not contemn [Lovecraft’s deliberate use of the archaic form of ‘condemn’] the happiness which blooms by the roadside, nor cast aside unthinkingly the protecting cheerfulness of the Symphonic Ideal.

   —— H. P. Lovecraft.


Further Future festival 002

An interesting music ‘n talks electronica festival happened recently, out in the Nevada desert. At first glance Further Future was a sort of Burning Man-meets-TED, but luxury-brand friendly and seemingly quite heavy on spa treatments for upmarket 30-something hipsters. What makes it interesting for this blog is that Further Future 002 pitched itself as…

“an untethered home for a newly forming and borderless society carrying a shared vision of the world we are making together.”

Visual News had an interview with the lead organiser…

“… our society is in need of an alternative narrative about our future. We find popular culture and literature increasingly obsessed with dystopian futures filled with disaster and darkness. There seems to be a sense of inevitability within this narrative that is corrosive to our ability to find a better direction and solve the challenges confronting us.”

The flyers give a clear insight into how the organisers envisioned their invite-only festival should be. Personally I’d pay not to see or hear the band Caribou, but the hard glam futurism of the flyers certainly offers an alluring Vogue-on-Mars feel…

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Doubtless the reality was dustier, but the festival seems like an interesting twitch in the antenna of culture.

Beauty and Ugliness

I’ve been thinking recently about the near-total exhaustion of contemporary white-wall gallery art (even the paintings — see any recent issue of Modern Painters, for instance). Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal points out a small-p political dimension to this, in “Beauty and Ugliness”

“Our view of the world has become so politicized that we think that the unembarrassed celebration of beauty is a sign of insensibility to suffering — and that exclusively to focus on the world’s deformations, its horrors, is in itself a sign of compassion.”

Collect the set!

doctor-gloom-card

Socialist Supervillians: Doctor Gloom. This is just my quick Sunday morning prototype for a possible series. I’m open to offers, perhaps for a regular paid slot as an illustrator for a political magazine? Could be shown alongside the back of the card, which would contain a somewhat-topical and chuckle-inducing description of the character.

Project Lascaux

News of a beautiful ambitious large-scale art project, that also connects to the Long Now: “Artists complete replica of Lascaux cave paintings”

Three years of work has gone into creating a true-to-life replica of renowned Stone Age cave paintings in southwestern France, and the 46 segments are ready to be transported and installed in a hillside near the original site in Montignac, in the Dordogne, about 500 kilometres south-southwest of Paris. The International Centre of Parital Art, 150 metres long and 9 metres high, will open by the end of the year [2016].

The original cave, discovered in 1940 and closed to the public since 1963, contains nearly 2,000 Upper Palaeolithic wall paintings depicting rhinos, horses, bison, deer and panthers – Europe’s most important collection of prehistoric art, by the oldest known modern humans, who came to Europe from Africa via Asia.

The website for the project is www.projet-lascaux.com.

LascauxIV

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Solarpunk

Steampunk Journal has a useful short appraisal of Solarpunk, a new trend that’s mostly literary and also very hesitantly artistic. It’s a nascent cultural trend that’s still rather vague and adolescent, at present.

But, at its most intellectually ambitious, think: News from Nowhere‘s artisanal quietist anarchism meets the practical individualists of Galt’s Gulch.

Or that the grungy unwashed males of the contemporary maker movement were to one day fall in lurv with the confident Edwardian beauty of steampunk crafts. After which they go ‘live free’ in an off-grid dome-home set amid a lush Bey-ist autonomous zone, where they snuggle down together to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and watch Miyazaki movies.

solarpunk-by-imperial-boyPicture: “Solarpunk” by Imperial Boy.

There’s also a vague hope for a non-corporate future in the mix, mixed with some fingernail-nibbling about allegedly dangerous levels of global warming and eco-tastrophe. There’s some youthful dislike of ‘ugly’ old people and ugly imagination-free suburbs, too. I’d say that those particular strands may be enough to attract anti-capitalist clicktivists to solarpunk, aiming to hijack a hot young trend as a platform for their muddleheaded old politics. It’s happened before, hundreds of times, it’s just how parasitic leftism has operated since the 1930s. Even in the left’s present decrepit state, their tiny cadres are still pretty good at that particular Gramscian maneuver. Then, once a movement’s media cred is used up, they just spit it out — before the movement has even had a chance to find out what it was for itself.

But, for now, it seems that that the intelligent ideas wing of solarpunk is still mostly happening somewhat-safely out-of-sight in the world of literary science fiction, and in the ugly usability nightmare that is Tumblr. Indeed, the core of it is still locked up in un-translated Brazilian Portuguese, in the sci-fi anthology Solarpunk : Historias Ecologicas e Fantasticas em Um Mundo Sustentavel.