In Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed dystopian thriller, Never Let Me Go, art is literally a lifeline for the novel’s doomed characters, Tommy and Kathy. “That’s the whole thing about art,” explains Tommy. “It says what’s inside of you; it reveals your soul.”
Cuts to CreativitySome would say, therefore, that the Dunedin City Council made a soulless decision in betraying our city’s greatest asset: creativity. In the world of arts and culture, Dunedin has a well-founded reputation. Many of our country’s most renowned artists have strong ties to Otago, and Dunedin is bursting with upcoming talent in music, visual arts, literature, design, and commerce. In a penny-pinching move of philistinism, all funding for public art has been postponed until 2016 – 2017. After that, backing for public installations will be halved to just $25,000. Essentially, our city’s creative funding is being reduced to less than the average StudyLink debt.
By cutting creative opportunity from nil to nada, art in the real world just became an even riskier vocation. But it’s always been a capricious career, demanding unflagging confidence. Even the University of Otago website states that “Students taking Humanities at Otago are encouraged to combine their liberal studies with papers and programmes that have a professional or vocational orientation, especially by doing a double degree, for example, BA/BCom, BA/LLB, or BA/BTchg(Prim).” These recommendations aren’t unsupported; research shows a bleak fiscal future for “pure” arts students, as humanities graduates tend to have lower starting salaries than almost everyone else.
A recent Ministry of Education study compared what graduates earned after four years of starting work. Unsurprisingly, four years after graduating, health professionals were reaping the highest salaries. “Performing arts” brought in the lowest average income ($30,000 per annum), and “Visual arts and crafts” was still well below the level of “All bachelors completers” ($45,000 per annum). This study didn’t include unemployed artists or those without tertiary qualifications.
Learning the UnteachableIf you’re likely to be poor for the rest of your life, then is it really worth beginning your creative career as an indebted student? This is a contentious argument among academics and artists alike. Creativity is generally considered an “unlearnable” power. It requires imagination in addition to skill, and is usually associated with artistic endeavour to produce a novel invention of value. New Zealand’s best-known poet and literary rock-star, Sam Hunt, warned me to be wary of the conformist clutches of tertiary institutions (despite being university-educated himself). “Remember that poetry itself must always be the focus. University courses often overlook the art of writing,” he says, “and academics can be f***kers.” Albert Einstein famously articulated similar sentiments: “It is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.” International education advisor Sir Kenneth Robinson believes that a radical reform of our educational systems in favour of creativity-based subjects is necessary for progression of the human race. “Every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects,” he wrote, “and at the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on earth.” According to Kenneth, our concept of intelligence is “predicated on the idea of academic ability,” and this ensures that, by the time we’re adults, most of us “grow out of” creativity.
As a student at the University of Otago’s English Department, I’m pleased to admit that I consider the above concerns fairly irrelevant to my classes. I’ll not deny that – even within the wider university community – stereotypically “artsy” degrees are constantly derided and stigmatised as frivolous pursuits, extraneous to the so-called “real world”. However, creativity shouldn’t be relegated to arts subjects; it’s an important component in every facet of education. To gain insight into the value of creativity across a range of subjects at the University, it seemed fair to consult views from both extremes of the academic spectrum: the “most creative” and the “least creative” departments.
MOST CREATIVE“Most creative” was a no-brainer. Have you heard of Dr Glam? He’s (one of) the 1970s inspired, hang-drum playing, glam-rock “performative alter-egos” of Executant Lecturer in Contemporary Music Ian Chapman. If you haven’t met Dr Glam, it’s difficult to imagine the uninhibited transformation of softly-spoken Ian. Physical expressions of creativity don’t end with Ian’s alter-ego. His workspace isn’t an office per se. Rather, it’s a floor-to-wall display of eccentric inspiration, adorned with posters of David Bowie, stacks of CDs (I spotted Madonna), a coffee-table book about the Rolling Stones, and eerie masks, amongst other eye-popping paraphernalia.
From the corner of the room, a toy guitar spasmodically blasts horrendous electric sounds (“It’s haunted,” Ian explained).
Ian’s research into “music iconography and image creation” spills outside the realms of contemporary music, and involves consideration of visual arts, theatre studies, and literature. He also encourages his students to appreciate the “interdisciplinarity of music”. In Ian’s opinion, creativity is valued to different extents across the different departments at the University. Although creativity can’t be taught, universities can provide students with a proverbial “tool-box” of knowledge, which they can then apply selectively to their creative pursuits. “The tricky thing about creativity is that it’s difficult to grade according to a marking schedule. Our students first have to learn, and are assessed on, the ‘rules’. Once they know the conventions, they’re encouraged to go out and break them!”. Rule-breaking is integral for creative work. Originality, by definition, must depart from the status quo. Humans are creatures of habit, subconsciously favouring certainty and structure, so creative value is difficult to measure. For this reason, we sometimes take years, decades, even centuries, to appreciate creative brilliance (think El Greco, Galileo Galilei, John Keats, Vincent van Gogh). “While public opinion may be a good indicator to an extent [of creative value], it should definitely not be relied upon fully for judging artistic standards,” says Ian. For this reason, creative careers are rarely financially rewarding. “It would be good if that were the case,” Ian points out, “but it’s not.”
LEAST CREATIVENaturally, the Department of Accountancy and Finance was my next stop. Professor Timothy Crack, Chair in Finance, acknowledges that “many people outside [the field of accounting and finance] underestimate both how mathematical it is... and how creative that quantitative material can be. I have written books that are not novels, but they still tell a story from my perspective, even though they are full of high-level math.” Despite stereotypes, Timothy says that creativity within his department is “extremely highly valued. It creates independent research contributions that we can publish. It leads to better teaching. It produces better research, better graduates, and puts money in our pockets.” Timothy also believes that this attitude is reflected in wider society: “I think creativity is very highly valued, and very highly rewarded in almost all cases. It goes hand in hand with problem solving for clients, firms, the country.”
But what about those archetypal starving, suffering artists? Well, if any of you are reading this, unless you feel like a slap in the face, I’d suggest you skip the next paragraph or so. “The only exceptions,” Timothy continues, “are when ‘creativity’ leads you to selfishly create something that is worthless. That is, if you create some piece of modern art or modern music or even academic research that stinks, then you won’t be rewarded. You don’t have to create something that fits in with modern taste or style, it can be completely new and unheard of, but you do have to create something that genuinely serves a human need. Create rubbish, and you won’t be rewarded.” Tough love, indeed.
“EVERY CHILD IS AN ARTIST”- PicassoRubbish or otherwise, where does creative ability come from? “Creativity is a way of thinking,” Ian says. “All children are born with creative capacity, but as most people age, this diminishes. Some retain it more than others... it’s squashed, to an extent, by education systems, societal ideologies, and parents who... What’s the phrase? Steal the magic from their children’s eyes.” And eyes are windows into the soul, aren’t they? “Steal the magic from their children’s eyes.” The soul’s magic, therefore, must be creativity.
Now, for those of you who haven’t read Never Let Me Go, I should mention that Tommy and Kathy are clones – genetically engineered organ donors. One “special” school, Hailsham, encourages students to embrace art, drama, and music, in the hope that this will prove that clones are capable of humanity: “We took away your art,” said the headmistress, “because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or, to put it more finely, we did it to prove that you had souls at all.”
Creativity isn’t just for artists – it enriches every university department (clearly, some more than others). “Dunedin should fight to ensure it retains its unique, creative soul,” Ian urged. For the sake of our education, and for society in general, it’s our responsibility to agree.