Arts and Innovation: What's Our Problem?


A few months ago I posted about the artist’s creative cycle, which was basically a diagram I developed to visually simplify the creative process. At the time I was thinking specifically about artists in the most traditional sense, and my goal was simply to chart (both for artists and less intuitively creative thinkers) what the cycle looks like. For artists in particular, it might serve as a good visual for identifying where they were in a cycle at a given time and think about ways to help push them through to next phase. For starters, I’d like to revisit a pared-down version of that diagram to talk a bit about the arts (and by “arts” in this context I mean the classical arts: visual arts, dance, music) and how they’re relevant to the process of innovation in any context. It’s pretty common to talk about how about the arts are “good for you,” but we don’t hear very often exactly how. So, let’s start here: at the heart of innovation—the process of coming up with something “new”—is a cycle of perspective that very much mimics the artist’s creative cycle I mentioned above.


What we see in an innovative process is a cycle of perpetually forward movement (sometimes with a little waffling back and forth, but for simplicity’s sake…) of passion for an area of exploration, vision of what might be possible, the discipline activated to make it happen, and the excitement of progress that refuels that passion… all strapped on the back of courage. To be perfectly clear, it takes courage to find the best way to do something and then do it that way. Let's expand.



First, let’s talk about the element of discipline. I’ve long been harping on the relationships between jazz and fundamentals as the ultimate expression of the commitment to discipline and correctness within music. Without deeply ingrained discipline and drive (the monotony of learning scales is real), the spontaneous creation of something new—that moment of innovation that is great jazz—could not exist. The artist-cum-innovator develops a sense of vision during practice; a young musician sees the direct connection between the drudgery of scales and the freedom to play anything he pleases down the line.


Intensity and Focus

Artist James McMullan [1.] says, “Drawing is a process of engagement for the artist, a period of both time and struggle that pulls the artist deeply and intensely into his subject and his ideas.” Isn’t that exactly what every innovator strives for? Deep, intense consideration, driven by vision for what might be possible and the practical application of discipline to get there, is the breeding ground for all innovation.


Problem Solving

Eight or nine years ago my friend Will and I stood in a studio at Florida Atlantic University staring at a block of plaster about the size of a small cooler. [2. Plaster is typical Intro to Sculpture material because the process of creating anything from it is purely reductive, just like sculpting in granite or marble, but without the commitment. Granite is sort of expensive to experiment on. In reductive sculpture, once you take something away, it’s gone.] Will was being daring and turning the plaster into something that looked like a giant, magnified piece of pumice stone; the man was making Swiss cheese out of this thing. Here’s what I remember most about talking through that process with him:

1  . We were talking it through because he wanted to bounce his ideas off someone else.

2  . It was nerve wracking. Every time he scooped out another piece plaster, we held our breaths, praying the thing wouldn’t collapse.

3  . The design was in process, too: as each new cavity and tunnel appeared, new relationships between space appeared that drove the next move.

In short, we were innovating. You don’t have to aim to become a jazz pro or hope to show in MoMA to benefit from the enhanced concentration, attention to detail, and focus developed during artistic pursuit. A 1977 study [3. "Problem Solving and the Arts, Journal of Curriculum and Supervision v13 n4 p328-38 Sum 1998] found evidence that “music instruction enhances the same higher brain functions required for mathematics, chess, science, and engineering.” That the arts benefit innovation isn’t a matter of opinion; ironically, it’s scientifically proven.…and yet American arts participation is at an all-time low. [4. You can check out any National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts for more info.]I don’t want to leave this as a “why art is good for innovation” post, though. I think it’s most important to address why, when the correlation between arts participation and innovative thinking is absolutely clear, we’re still cutting the arts from our schools and our personal lives. We’ve got to get over this.


Pithy Potential Reason We’re Blowing Off The Arts A.

We don’t believe arts help.

As in, we actually can’t wrap our brains around the arts availing something beyond the painting or performance itself. We still think that the creative idea alights on us from above in a magic moment, instead of accepting it for the fresh connection between existing ideas and knowledge that it actually is.


Pithy Potential Reason We’re Blowing Off The Arts B.

We’re lazy bums.

Lack of discipline begets lack of discipline. Maybe hours of practice (either making your kid do it or doing it yourself) just seems too awful. Perhaps we’re honest-to-goodness too far removed already from this kind of discipline as part of our daily lives that we just can’t deal with the idea of bringing it back. We’d rather cut our losses.

Pithy Potential Reason We’re Blowing Off The Arts C.

We think fun stuff can’t yield serious results.

No pain, no gain. Look, scientific research shows that to cut the arts out of one’s life in the interest of more time to innovate on other fronts is to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. At the end of the day, the very same sets of character traits and processing skills that are cultivated learning the cello or applying brush to canvas are those that drive the quest to cure cancer or develop a fuel efficient pollution-free vehicle. If you’d like to invent the next iPad, it may be wise to swap out your computer’s keyboard for one attached to a piano. If we know all this is true, what’s our problem?

Elizabeth KingComment