On Shaking Things Up: Art and the Role of Surprise

“Imagination, more than any other capacity, breaks through ‘the inertia of habit.'” (Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination, p.2 quoting John Dewey)

“The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense.” Pablo Picasso

“I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” Flannery O’Connor

liz in holzer

A few years after college–after following the temple route through India and a stint running a gallery in pre-cool Seattle–I turned from the visual arts back to writing. As a viewer outside the creative process, I had grown uneasy, even in galleries, even in the gallery I ran. Few people outside the art and collecting world ever stepped off of First Avenue and into our small space, and those who did enter, often seemed not deeply interested in the art at all but in being near it or being near people who liked being near it. I saw little conscious, active participation, just a drifting through.

I began to dislike museums intensely–the formality, the lack of questioning, the spectacle–in spite of my hunger for a creative world. I preferred religious art and public art because at least in Europe and Asia, you could find it on the street and in places people actually went. Art could become something new, different every time you encountered it. Of course that’s not to say that we’re awake to art as we pass it by or that there is no place for the museum and concert hall (as Joshua-Bell-busking-in-the-subway showed), –that’s ridiculous–but are we increasingly immune to the disruptiveness of art because we are not encouraged to develop our creative selves? Indeed, I would argue that we have the creative schooled right out of us. If we, as Maxine Greene argues, release our imagination, we might be ready to have our doors blown open when we encounter art. And perhaps we’ll work towards a better world.

I suppose that’s what I’m doing now as I prepare to leave formal education. I’m heading out of the museum and onto the street. I’m releasing my imagination.

Of course my discomfort hasn’t kept me from going to museums–you’ll find me seeking them out wherever I go. But I still don’t much like them. I just keep hoping I will–I like a lot of the people who work in them– and I need art to startle me and make me question what I know. So it is with interest that I watch Leslie Madsen Brooks and her cohorts trying to transform museums into relevant, inspiring places for people–all people.

jenny holzer installation

But mostly, over the years, I turned to literature, to theater, to film, to music. And I wrote. To make sense of the world, to participate fully in the world, I felt compelled to create stories, and words seemed easier to access than other materials (ha!). I turned to teaching as art–the classroom the canvas, the subject the paint, the students the collaborators, channeling experience and intelligence and imagination towards one another into creating. Classroom narratives. It was deeply satisfying.

But for the past couple of years, as classroom stories have grown pinched by curricular demands and limited by a lack of institutional imagination and the thin expectations of formal learning, I despair of this museum context. I am moving back to creative learning spaces of everyday life. I am as eager to take out my camera as I am my pen. To press the results up against one another. And okay about failing as I learn. To open a center where anyone can come to explore digital expression and connection practices–a place where creativity, imagination and connection are the focus, the raison d’etre, as people struggle to make sense of the world and “to bring better worlds into being.” (Richard Miller, Writing at the End of the World, p.x)

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with my daughter and husband at what I’d almost call an unmuseum, MASS MoCA, with its mix of conventional-looking galleries and raw former-mill spaces, meandering around the exhibitions-finding ourselves offended, amused, moved in turns, arguing, discussing, animated. Then we arrived at the huge former mill building turned gallery occupied by Jenny Holzer’s “Projections,” a work that silences you as you enter, that you become a part of: enormous lines of poetry immersing you, a work that flows words over the floor, the walls the ceiling, bending and distorting as they encounter disruptions–including the viewer–to flat surfaces. We stayed a long time, experiencing it, thinking, talking, being quiet, taking photos–she actually welcomes people playing around with her art this way.

museum

All day yesterday and today I can’t shake the feeling of being inside the artwork, part of the experience for anyone else who was there, and they part of the experience for me. Words, light, space, shapes, people, stories. Fascinating. Jarring. I kept thinking about Nabokov’s words, “Curiosity is the first step to insubordination.”

I came home inspired, surprised, eager, yes, to step out of the traditional walled-off museum once and for all, where as Garrison and Anderson (p.5) contend,”There is far more rhetoric than reality in the assertion that communities of inquiry in higher education today encourage students to approach learning in a critical manner and process information in a deep and meaningful way.” I’m ready to move into the un-museum creative spaces in the world where active participation is a given, imagination is encouraged and creativity at the center of the learning experience.

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