Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Creativity Crisis (via Newsweek)

Here's a great article from the newest issue of Newsweek provides food for thought for those of us with kids, or who want to teach, or who care about art, or who care about America still generating great minds. Surely at least ONE of those criteria apply to you, right?

As Eliot Eisner and many other art-education advocates and theorists have noted, art education provides students with "Habits of Mind" (Eisner's term) which are not necessarily instilled through other, more academic -- and thus more typically privileged in a curriculum -- subjects.  These habits encourage flexible, creative thinking, which benefits students not only in the art class, but in other classes and for the rest of their lives as members of society.

All fine and well for theorists to talk up the arts, of course, but this Newsweek article cites several scientific studies which show that creativity exercises (such as those found in a good art classroom) literally strengthen brain functions.  It also states that American schools, and thus American adults, are falling behind Chinese and Asian schools in terms of creative thinking, which is hurting our industries and our ability to deal flexibly with important left-field issues as they arise.

Perhaps these are the angles from which to push for increased art-educational opportunities, in order to get the broadest coalition of supporters:  science proves it and it's for the sake of our economy.  

On a related note (and no, I am not saying that this project is exactly what America needs to regain its position at the top of the creative market), here are a few pictures of sculptures made by first-graders in response to a guided visualization I led them through while working as a student-teacher this spring.  In the visualization, I had them imagine flying in a spaceship to the end of the universe, landing on a planet unlike anything Earthlings had ever seen, and meeting an alien from that planet.  They then used homemade play-dough (which could be reformed - changing the shape) and found materials (which could be recontextualized - changing the meaning) to create the alien.

Sure, many of the aliens used similar materials - straws and toothpicks especially - but each student used them differently, and gave different explanations as to what the materials were.  On one alien, toothpicks were poisonous spikes, on another, they were wind showing movement in a direction.  One alien's snorkels were made with the same bendy straws as another alien's legs and the "laser sticky arms" of another.  Each student was encouraged to create his or her own solutions, and find his or her own problems.  American education needs more of that, not only from me (certainly not only from me!!) but from every teacher.

This alien is pretty much my favorite piece of student artwork ever - my cooperating teacher will vouch for me that I was all but in love with it.  The student found a teapot lid in the box of found materials, and quickly realized that this wouldn't work as a stable base for a clay alien.  His response was to make a mobile sculpture (it rolls in circles) with toothpicks, pipe cleaners and feathers reaching out in an arc which beautifully spins as the alien rolls.  This six- or seven-year-old was thinking about kinetic movement and purposing his materials as intently as Alexander Calder did when making his early circus sculptures.  

Anyhow, the Newsweek article makes a really good case for giving more students more access to the arts - visual, performative, musical, etc.  Here's hoping that principals and parents read the article, so that it isn't just bouncing around the creative-arts-teacher echo chamber...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"If you found ONE, they probably made a THOUSAND."

Your author would have looked just as stupid in this in 1991. 

Pretty much everyone I know who lived in Brooklyn in the 90s fondly remembers Domsey's, a Williamsburg-Bridge-area clothing place legendary for its by-the-pound offerings in the basement.  I found many staples of my ridiculous art-school-era "look" by sifting through piles of rags, ducking the bulldozers that were shoving bales of clothing, and pulling out the most gloriously weird stuff I found.

Nothing topped the mighty GRUNGE jersey, though.

A baseball jersey with an African-tricolor motif (red and yellow front panels, green sleeves, and a black back and hood), with five-inch-tall lettering spelling out the decidedly-not-Afrocentric word GRUNGE.  It was the sort of thing a computer simulacrum would wear when it appeared to the United Nations, had it learned the ways of Earthlings entirely by watching VHS tapes of MTV from 1991. I found it around late 1999 or early 2000, long after it would have been timely in its misguided squareness.

The best thing about the jersey, other than it being hilariously ugly and uncool, was that it was produced by Spike Lee's short-lived 40 Acres and a Mule stores, themselves a time capsule of that period in the 90s when independent film still felt like something...well, independent.  Unless the piece was a custom (not likely, given the price point of the 40A stuff when there was a store on Dekalb Avenue by Pratt), the GRUNGE jersey was a product which had been given the green light at least a few times between the drawing board and the coat hanger.  I like to think that Spike Lee himself looked at the design on paper and said "Yes - this is exactly what I need to promote my brand as a vital aspect of Brooklyn Afrocentrism.  Look out, Moshood!"

My wife (a costume designer who certainly knows her way around bulk clothiers) put it well:  "The chances are, this was not a custom, and if you found one, they probably made a thousand of these."

Sadly, before I was able to finally wear it to a Spike Lee signing, I realized that it had been several years since I last wore it (and that I never even wore it in a promo photo for my late hip hop project, for which it would have been a perfect statement of my "it doesn't matter if you cheer my name or hiss me" persona).  I ended up selling it to Beacon's Closet in Williamsburg about six months ago, and have since kinda-sorta expected to see it worn by some yahoo on Project Runway or in a band-promo photo in L Magazine

I wonder if, ten years from now, I'll see a piece of clothing made in 2010 that so completely got 2010 wrong.  Or am I now too old, too distanced from anything resembling the cool stuff?  Would I even recognize square anymore?

Push those gender roles early!

Seriously, MAM?