Nurturing Artistic Creativity

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 14, No 3 (Fall 2003)

Susan Berresford
The following is an excerpt from a longer address given at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on June 23, 1998 at the presentation of the Philadelphia Award. The award, given annually to a man or woman who has "done the most to advance the best and largest interests of the community," was given to Anne d'Harnoncourt and to Jane Golden.

Awards are important because they signal values and reinforce them. Tonight's awards are a public affirmation of the central place of the arts in Philadelphia and in American society generally. The awards' signal is well-timed, because today it seems that many communities devalue the arts.

I worry about the devaluation and marginalization of the arts. Apart from artists themselves, too few communities seem concerned about support for artists and their work. We neglect arts education in schools, a practice that became particularly clear after the tax revolts of the 1980s. We fail to provide sustained support for developing artists and arts groups. And, too often, we subsume the arts into a broad, generalized category of entertainment – as just another nonessential, market-driven leisure activity.

These trends are dangerous in at least three respects. First, at the most fundamental level, artistic talent is a core human capacity. We cannot suppress it without high social costs. From the earliest cave drawings to the work of computer artists, artistic talent has been present in all human societies. When we neglect this talent, we say to the people who possess it, "You don't matter. We have no place for you." Failing to develop individual artistic skill with the same energy we devote to scientific or other talent can crush the hopes of artistic men and women and waste human potential.

That potential is not trivial and it is not a luxury. Artistic work expresses human identity in the most fundamental ways. People affirm their place in the world through art. Art helps people define who they are, where they come from, and what they think.

History shows the tragic consequences of suppressing this key component of group and individual identity. Look at the experiences of native Americans, Australian aborigines, and other conquered or colonized peoples. Suppression of their dances, language, songs, stories, and images had powerful negative effects on their ability to grow and prosper. This sort of repression still goes on, as we all know, in such diverse places as Tibet and parts of Eastern Europe. Again, the consequences have been tragic.

So that is my first worry – that we do a poor job of developing the core human attribute of artistic talent, and we thereby snuff out possibilities.

Of course there are people who agree that artistic expression is a core human attribute worthy of attention, but many still think of artistic work as separate from the main business of society, and that generates my second worry: that the arts are not being recognized as a very practical form of human endeavor.

Even if we restrict our view of the arts to the economic sphere, we must recognize their tremendous practical value. For example, Philadelphia derives important economic benefits from tourism generated by the special exhibits and permanent collections of institutions like this great museum. The practical, economic aspect of artistic works leads thoughtful people to be concerned about the loss of arts education in the public schools. Not long ago, I talked with the head of a major design school in New York City. He said he believes that cuts in New York's arts education programs in the public schools will ultimately undermine New York's role as an international center for fashion and design.

The powerful connection between the arts and the economy was also made clear to me three weeks ago, when I visited the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. That hand¬some new structure offers a superb venue for performing artists and their audiences. On my visit there, I was lucky to be among several thousand people who heard Jessye Norman sing a program of German, French, and Spanish songs to one of the most ethnically diverse audiences I have ever been in. But the Performing Arts Center is more than a showcase for the arts. It is also spurring revival of a deteriorated section of downtown Newark. Developers are now taking a second look and investing and building in an area many had written off for decades. So when we devalue the arts, we not only undercut a core aspect of humanity, we discard a powerful development tool.

Finally, I worry about marginalizing the arts because they have transformative power. They convey feelings, ideas, and thoughts that can change people and societies. As we walk through the city's neighborhoods, who can remain indifferent to the messages of the murals created by local artists? They reveal a wonderful zest as well as beauty; they prompt reflection on the economic, ethnic, and social concepts they portray; and they demand our attention. Whether it is a Cezanne or a Brancusi at the Philadelphia Museum of Art or a wall mural depicting black family trees at 20th Street and Watkins, art has the power to transform us by making us question and think. That power of art to make us think is especially important in today's fast-changing world. The dizzying speed of change and the uncertainty it produces lead many people to look for simple solutions to complex problems. But simple solutions are not always right, in fact they are often dangerous and misleading. Art, on the other hand, offers symbolic elements prompting exploration of complex meanings and relationships. Thinking and reflection can help foster a deeper understanding of the dilemmas we face.

Art's ability to peel away layers and expose public issues in new light is one of its most important contributions to the democratic process. The drama, music, and painting created during South Africa's resistance to apartheid made this point powerfully. In South Africa, artistic expression exposed coded messages, underground lives, and hideous cruelty. It also helped generate worldwide support for the liberation struggle. This is just one of the ways, as Jane Golden says, that art saves lives.

Another contemporary example of art's ability to stimulate thinking about social issues is seen in the work of theater artist Anna Deveare Smith. She recently concluded a stay at the Ford Foundation as our first Artist in Residence. Some of you may have attended her performances. Two explore the tensions behind the riots in Los Angeles and the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Smith went to the neighborhoods involved in these disturbances, interviewed people on all sides of the controversies that generated the riots, and then wrote plays that incorporated the speech, thoughts, and feelings of members of the community. In her one-woman performances, she becomes each of the characters, symbolically reminding us that we are all one – one human race – though differentiated by our gestures, manner of speech, color, or situation. These highly nuanced theater works enabled audiences to see the complexity of the concerns of the people involved in the riots and their aftermath.

Works like Smith's challenge us to think more deeply about issues that are too often oversimplified, politicized, and reduced to single dimensions. In fact, we seem to give artists like her a special license to explore troubling problems and, over the long term, that can help people become more open to their resolution.

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