First, Create Meaning. The Art Will Follow.

Ultimate procrastination tool Ted.com has up an excellent video today, one that makes me think not just about being an artist, but also about how I am as a parent and how I have been as a teacher.


Too many people think that art needs to be perfect; too many people think that art needs to be excellent; too many people think that what art is is beyond them. It is a creative analogue
to the idea that God is “that above which nothing can be imagined”–art is that above which I can’t create. Perhaps this is because many of us get our sense of what art is, and by extension what creativity is, by visiting museums or reading books, and only being exposed to the greatest works available. If you want to consider your merits as a painter, maybe Monet and Richter and Rothko are not the ones you should be comparing yourself to. If you want to be a photographer, maybe Adams and Leibovitz and Gursky are not not the ones you should be comparing yourself too. If you want to be a musician, or a writer, or a chef…you get the picture. Somehow, we tie the idea of art and creativity to the idea of genius and greatness, and end up with the destructive idea that only the great, only thee brilliant, only the special can create art.

Art–but more importantly, creativity, as the process that results in art–originates from something far simpler: the search for meaning. But even that sounds a bit too highfalutin’, so let me rephrase: creativity originates from trying to figure things out…i.e., from thinking, which is something we all do to varying degrees. The act of creativity is the act of building meaning up around the mundane details of our lives. Making something the subject of a creative act imbues it with significance, and then you begin to ask yourself why it is significant. You have created a work, you have created an idea behind it, and that, at its heart, is art.

Not all art is destined to hang on the wall of a museum, gallery, home, or refrigerator. Much of the production of these acts of meaning-making will, and should, remain private. But even if it remains private, it has served a benefit to you: it has made the things around you more meaningful, and has therefore made your life more meaningful. Art is not about greatness and fame, it is about being meaningful, and that is something that everyone should aspire to.

I have felt liberated by my recent reluctance to address the grand idea. I once thought that art was about great ideas and oddball vision; and it’s not that it’s not; it’s just that so much of art isn’t. I’ve tried to let the idea of the epic go, and I feel that my work has been more personal, more intimate, less of a statement about the world write large–something that I still don’t understand, which is why my art built on those ideas tended toward the vacant–than about how I encounter detail and context, and how I process and remember it.

Some people will find that they need to share the ideas and products they create, and some of those people will find that audiences are receptive to their art, and some of those will find that audiences find something new and impressive in their works. Others will write in their journals, fill their photo albums or photo streams, or fill their sketch books in obscurity and be pleased with how, as their personal art advances, they find more to work on because more appears to be meaningful. Others still will find that their creative works help them indulge their emotions, or alleviate them, or figure them out, or simply spend time with them. Others will create works that are intellectually shallow but very pretty. But in an authentic act of meaning-making, one that uses a creative act to build meaning around something personally important, any creator will benefit.

“Creativity” isn’t a matter of being brilliant; it’s a matter of creating, of making. Create a text. Create an image. Create a song. Create a quilt. Create dinner.

You can, and you should.

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