Tuesday, March 08, 2005

TheStar.com - Creativity confined

TheStar.com - Creativity confined

Mar. 8, 2005. 07:32 AM

Creativity confined
Has studying the arts become more about the pursuit of a career than the quest for craftmanship?


For the creatively inclined, the four walls of a classroom can become a box.

Look up the meanings behind creativity and education and you'll find them to be opposite concepts. Creativity means having the ability to create instead of imitate; to go beyond the conventional, while education means to drill in specific information, discipline, habits, routine, and methods. It's no wonder that these two very different notions struggle to unify.

What happens when artsty types go to school? Do they learn how to be more of what they already are, or do they get lost to the rigidity of instruction?

Lately, I've been fighting off the influence of a formulaic writing style that has been seeping into my pen. Since I became a journalism student, I've been wondering if going to school is a mistake — at least for certain people.

I'm feeling a little threatened. It's like my freedom to let my fingers pound away at the keyboard is gone. It's been replaced with rules that have names that sound like diseases: parallelism, subordinate conjunctions, inverted pyramids. The stories that we hand in are often as pale as the paper they're printed on. No one talks about ideas or questions. All we talk about is a structure, as if every story should come with a how-to manual. As if life does.

Sergio Elmir knew paying tuition fees wasn't going to make him a better writer — but writing more often would. Having recently left the realms of higher education to chase after freelance opportunities, Elmir says that classrooms and creativity don't mix.

"Obviously no one believes that creativity can be learned," the 25-year-old says. "School, or at least the education system, is based around teaching skills. It's all about the status quo and finding a foot in the door and all the other things that blind artists to the true meaning of art."

Not everyone looks at education like that. Toronto's Margaux Williamson, 29, was an art student at Queen's University in Kingston and at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland, and her work has appeared in New York, as well as high-profile Queen St. W. galleries.

"The argument that education in the arts will corrupt an artist is really condescending," she says. "The sentiment that ignorance will keep you strong is thankfully outdated in most fields and areas of life.

"If an individual proves to be so easily controlled or manipulated by an institution such as an art school through such means as peer pressure, an arbitrary grading system, or a negative professor, I can't imagine how they would actually function in the real world as an artist."

Williamson says schools help people express their art more clearly and help students get their footing in the field.

But Elmir argues that pursuing an arts education in general can be counter-productive.

He sees school as the ultimate in conformity, in which it wears people down and then moulds them into a predetermined ideal. Teachers often take on the role of employer and become more concerned with productivity than with intellectual development.

Instead of inspiring students, Elmir believes school dumbs them down. By striving to teach people, an individual's abilities are overlooked. Instead, classrooms become human assembly lines, with the end product being groups of people who all have the same skills.

"There's a focus, at least in my experience, of schools using repetitive action and other numbing exercises to make you learn something," he says.

"Sitting down and memorizing a list of terms will not teach me anything. Personally speaking, I don't think that schools are meant to produce artists. They aren't teaching art to artists as much as they are teaching them how to turn their gifts into a skill.

"I guess the biggest issue at hand is that school makes art seem like any other job in the world, which is the biggest insult to all art and artists."

Art students like Jennifer Castle have to be aware of the traps school can lead to, like getting into a curriculum that might have her colouring within the lines when she'd rather be drawing new ones. What she finds is her classes are heavy on technique but light on ideas.

After finishing a degree in anthropology, the 28-year-old Castle had been working on her art and decided to take it further by going back to school at the Toronto Art Centre. She says there are advantages and disadvantages to becoming a trained artist versus being self-taught. Castle now gets exposure to more media — everything from painting to sculpture to photography — and access to the school's facilities, but has to deal with her work being constantly critiqued.

"I don't get the chance to be experimental like I would be if I was working on my own," Castle says.

Her classes often focus on an end result — seeing a project through to the point where it would be able to be showcased in a gallery. And because there's such a strong emphasis on technique, Castle feels confined to what her classes dictate.

"It's sort of a hindrance having to produce something presentable. My work tends to be rougher around the edges. I like things half done so they can be changed around."

Art classes can lack an acceptance of the student's ideals. They can also shatter romantic notions of aesthetic talent being something that happens in people naturally. Castle admits that there is a formula behind art, but doesn't see technique as the beginning, or the end, of artistry. She points out that creative types will do what they want regardless of the rules.

"Art is about ideas and the expression of them," she says. "But art forms can be learned, someone can teach them to you through motor and eye training. But there are people who find ways to make things whether they know the technique or not."

Castle doesn't let school have a negative impact on her. Instead, she takes advantage of her time there and uses it to be more productive. "I used to think about things a lot more, but now I actually do them," she says.

Some students feel it's easier to just give up, like former fashion student Veronica Araujo.

She found that where she thought ideas would have been, there was a drive instead to make a profit. During a two-year stint at Humber College, she eventually came to describe the fashion industry as "ugh."

The 22-year-old remembers the moment when she realized she wanted out. It was in her second semester when she learned about trend forecasting — the industry's method of predicting and dictating what will be next season's "in" thing.

"I thought designers just pulled designs out of their heads, but they have teams of people going out to forecast trends for the next two years," Araujo says. "It's all about money."

She found her program overloaded with sales and marketing tips. And if there was a lesson in fashion, Araujo says it wasn't on being original but instead on how to get into the same clothes as everyone else.

Although she's given up on the fashion industry, Araujo still believes the truly creative will persevere.

"I think that people who have it in them will always be creative," she says. "You can learn the foundations and techniques which help to add to the craft, but if you're not creative you can't just pick up a paintbrush or write a poem just because you took some classes and read up on it. A creative person will find an outlet for their art, even if they are in a (situation) that doesn't allow for much of that."

For Elmir, school did have at least one positive aspect. He could either stay in school and work on a "pretend" newspaper, or get outside and write for a real one.

"School put me on a path," he says. "That I will never deny. If it wasn't for school, I wouldn't know what to do with myself. Even though school was basically everything I didn't want to do, it helped me narrow down my choices and focus on what I really want to do with my life."

None of the people in this story have given up on their talents. People who are truly passionate about art will continue with it, with or without formal study. And it's with this knowledge that Elmir feels he will find success.

"School can be dangerous because once you graduate you consider yourself a productive member of society," he says. "But in reality, as an artist, you should strive to live outside of society to facilitate your ability to look in and comment on what's happening to the world."

Liz Worth is a journalism student at Humber College. ID@thestar.ca


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