By Tom Parker
Creativity is always associated with risk taking. In that regard, I commend Dean Good for asking me to speak at this Founder’s Day Convocation. Can you imagine anything riskier than giving Tom Parker a podium and a microphone in a church without Charlie Ess around to keep order? Dr. Ess is on sabbatical this term, but I trust we will hear a response from him, since some of my remarks will touch on the subjects of freedom and critical thinking.
A hundred years ago, a group of young painters in Paris began an experiment which allowed them to move away from the pictorial image an in its place stress the joy of applying color with abandon. Their innovative use of paint we would subsequently call “expressionism.” The measure for success in this kind of painting is: “What feels good is good.” Obviously an artistic extension of French Hedonism and the Hedonic Calculus. Matisse, Derain, and Braque were key members of that small group, dedicated to opening the painting process up to realms of emotion and physical sensation, and they succeeded rather well. Their paintings appear charming and a bit tame to us today but the critical response at the time was absolute outrage. “Ils sont Fauves!” “They are beasts!” screamed a headline in le Figaro. The reviewer/critic then asked rhetorically, “Do these so-called artists think they can just do any damned thing they want?” That was precisely what those artists thought and the first Fauve exhibition provided the opening salvo in the great culture war of the 20th century, which in many respects, continues unabated into the 21st. The same rhetorical question was asked by the Legion of Decency when Constantine Brancussi’s first New York exhibition was closed because his sculptures appeared to some as “phallic”, and it is the same question asked by a group of self-appointed pious critics, led by Springfield’s Paul Summers, when the large, abstract, yellow sculpture by John Henry was installed on city property in front of the Springfield Art Museum. Pius conservative eyes tend to see works such as these as a scandalous indulgence of the senses, and “we all know where that could lead” – forgive us the thought.
The past century, along with the latter half of the 19th, will doubtlessly be called the Modern era. Modernism is too complicated a bird to dissect in my allotted time, but let it suffice to say that it embraces a number of paradoxes – for example, the conflicting, but equally utopian aspirations of freedom for the individual on one hand vs. a well-ordered society on the other. A hundred years after the first Fauve exhibition, the culture war rages on and that very same tension remains at the heart of it today.
Another hallmark of modernism is the relentless pursuit of progress with faith that the world can, and should be, improved. To the modernist, culture is assumed to have the potential to move ever upward as it moves ever onward. In the Modern era the values and methods of the status quo, are clearly open to question, attack and reformation. The past is no longer assumed to be the appropriate model for the future, and the word “creativity” in the 20th century, emerges to join the lexicon of words worthy for inclusion in the college mission statements. Prominent conservatives among us vow to “take this country back!” in the words of Pastor John Hagee. Back to what? I suppose to the first half of the 19th century, a time well before Darwin, Marx, the New Deal and other indulgences. I am, in part, sympathetic. As an art history teacher, I am greatly enthralled by the past, and who could be adverse to the security provided by a little bit of order? We live in a time of collective cognitive dissonance. But, make no mistake, freedom of mind, not order, is the necessary condition for creativity.
In 1950, as a college freshman, I heard a convocation speaker (probably on Founder’s Day) state categorically that freedom and creativity are a function of “discipline.” This sounded convincing at the time, but later I had occasion to look up the meaning of the discipline. “..to submit to authority, to become a disciple.” Wait a minute. What authority? A disciple of whom? For years I entertained fantasies about rising during that convocation and challenging that esteemed professor to explain what he really had meant. I suppose that today I am, at long last, afforded that opportunity. “Sir, creativity is something quite apart from discipline!” And then, I would suggest that he check with Michel Foucault’s frightening book: Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of Prison.
My son, Rick, on the other hand, who has spent his life to date as a professional musician, suggests three guiding principles for the creative artist, which I’ll share with you:
1. There aren’t any rules.
2. Make your own rules.
3. If you break the rules, carefully consider the consequences.
Not bad! A place like Drury offers its students the opportunity to do just that. We encourage our students to explore creative directions, often of their own choosing, and then help them critically evaluate their results. This happens frequently in the arts, but it also happens in many unexpected venues on our campus. Our SIFE team (Students in Free Enterprise) from the Breech School of Business Administration has succeeded spectacularly because they dared to approach their competitions creatively. We call ourselves a “liberal” institution precisely because we give our students the opportunity to think and act freely, and then take responsibility for the results. In the course of life, school offers a unique possibility. It is not the world. It is intentionally only analogous to the world. The stakes are purposely kept low. If a creative decision leads to a negative result, no great harm is done, and in terms of what the students might learn about their creative rhythms and faculties, a failure could ultimately be quite positive.
We require six semester hours of “creativity explored” coursework at Drury. That is generally two courses. The intention, when we devised the curriculum, was to let a student take one of those two courses in the Arts (theatre, music, architecture, creative writing or the visual arts) and the second in their major, or a related field. I still believe in that. The idea being, that creativity, as an empowering process, is not or should not be solely the province of the arts or any other endeavor.
I challenge the faculty, in all departments on our campus, to bring that scheme to life by creating courses that actually do give tangible creative prerogatives to students, and list those courses, and only those courses, under the rubric of “creativity explored.”
The business of encouraging creativity is crucial and indeed political. One could make the case, and I hope I have, that offering students creative venues during their education, provides invaluable practice for becoming citizens in a free society; citizens able to function both freely and responsibly, unfettered by prescriptive ideology and anachronistic dogma. I suggest to you that creativity is a vital ingredient for the success of a dynamic and democratic society.
Those of us in the quote “creative arts” have waited patiently during the past two amazing decades of growth and construction at Drury University. The Art Department will soon join Architecture in the “adequate facilities column” when the new Poole Art Center is completed. Music will inherit Lydy Hall, which should solve most of their space problems and Creative Writing is well situated in the recently renovated Pearsons Hall, leaving only the Theatre Department without a proper home. I understand that those responsible for the new Master Plan are currently discussing possible remedies for that problem.
Before I close this morning, on behalf of the arts at Drury University, I would like to thank the theme year planners for focusing on creativity this year and thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here today.
I appreciate your kind attention.
Related Links:Tom Parker bio