I'd like to talk about art today.
. . .
A good friend of mine recently told me that he had a particular attraction to creative types.
This might seem unremarkable to you, and, for what it's worth, I don't think he's alone in feeling this attraction. Anecdotally, I've heard similar desires expressed by quite a few people, in a way that makes me believe that this sort of thing is common (on both sides of the gender aisle).
I've seen it take on slightly more aggressive forms as well; a tendency, say, towards lines like "only creative types need apply" that go beyond more abstract expressions of desire for a creative partner.
I can't claim that this is a recent trend, but it is something I've been more aware of lately. In either case, let's unpack it a bit.
On the one hand, this is the sort of thing that evokes a certain amount of civic pride. Living in San Francisco, it is a reminder that I'm fortunate enough to be immersed in a culture where the arts are held in high regard - one in which at least a few individuals have formed romantic (perhaps even erotic) associations with the notion of the creative person in abstraction.
On the other, it troubles me.
For starters, it's not clear to me that popular conventions around what it means to be a "creative type" are accurate. I'd wager that those of you reading this probably summoned some mental image of what you think constitutes such a person; a hippie with a guitar, perhaps, or someone working with watercolor in her studio. If I wanted to paint with broad strokes, I'd classify these people as working in the "fine arts."
I'd put money down, however, that your mental image wasn't of a cook, a gardener, or a woodworker. I'd wager that a graphic designer didn't make your list either - and a software engineer certainly wouldn't be in there. Indeed, you might find the notion of regarding more technical craftspeople as creative individuals to be offensive or even obnoxious.
In part, I suspect that - at least in the Bay Area - the desire to be with a creative type is part of a larger backlash against the perceived monoculture of the technology industry. Those seeking more artistic partners are, on some level, trying to ensure that their lives and relationships are diverse, colorful, and have at least some escape from the cultural imperialism of tech.
While this is - on some levels - fairly reasonable, I worry that this sort of approach is the result of unexamined notions around what art and artists even are.
So, let's get into it - let's talk about what it means to be an artist. In doing so, I'd like to sidestep the question of how to define art in favor of examining the human beings involved. Although people are usually more complicated than the things they create, in this case I believe the former is easier to talk about.
I assert that a reasonably broad definition of an artist is an individual who is driven by an expressive compulsion. While plenty of people produce art in order to make a living, artists share an internal desire or need to engage in the form[s] of expression that they've chosen.
Going one step further, such an individual is likely to not only be driven by a need for expression, but by a need to express themselves in a fashion that is unique or otherwise novel. I know of few artists who seek only to reproduce works that already exist (at least, not without intending some additional expression through such an activity). Such novelty can take many forms - engaging in a different style, using a different technique, with different partners...an exhaustive list would be impossible.
Obviously, not all cooks, gardeners, or woodworkers would necessarily qualify as artists under this definition. There are those who have no particular compulsion around their work, and are rather more focused on the steady paycheck. At the same time, it becomes more apparent that many people outside of the fine arts can and should be considered artists. For instance, I can think of several people for whom their technical work is an expressive compulsion - one without which they would be miserable.
. . .
To be clear, the point I'm driving at isn't some wishy-washy "everybody's an artist!" kumbaya moment. Rather, I want to draw attention to the fact that popular notions of what artists look like don't map neatly onto the reality of creativity and art itself. The heuristic of "fine arts" is convenient, but highly exclusive - and does a real disservice both to artists and to the rest of us.
For artists, only having the fine arts be clearly classified as art results in an unspoken hierarchy of social value around the arts. This isn't a problem that is unique to San Francisco by any means, but I suspect that SF is unique in the extent to which this hierarchy bleeds over into the dating scene and casual society at large.
Even more worrying is how perversely casual we can be in our designation of what is and isn't allowed to be art. If an unspoken gradient of value is problematic, surely a binary true/false is even more so. Especially disturbing is the way the people most inclined to such casual judgements seem, at the same time, to be the most uncomfortable engaging in substantive discussion as to what such tricky notions as art or creativity mean in the first place.
For those of us who don't identify as artists, the most sinister implication of all of this lies in the inferred valuation of actual human beings; the inverse of an "only creatives need apply" mentality is that those deemed less creative or non-creative are implicitly less valuable.
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Some readers may find it curious to hear such rabble-rousing coming from someone working in the technology industry, where such implied systems of merit hold powerful sway. Debbie Chachra penned an excellent article, Why I Am Not A Maker, on the subject earlier this year, making the argument that the technology industry's worship of creation and creators devalues everybody else.
Although Ms. Chachra and I come from very different places, we've arrived at a very similar conclusion. We're both disturbed by the devaluation of our peers in roles that are seen as being not creative enough - especially when such judgment comes from a society that seems incapable, unqualified and unwilling to value such skills in the first place. If anything, I would argue that her article doesn't go far enough, limiting itself as it does to the technology industry. I believe the fears she raises extend far beyond the borders of tech.
Something of a dark message, to be sure.
. . .
What to do about such a situation? I'm not so naive as to expect people to spontaneously begin to engage more seriously and individually with the question of art - and yet, I am optimistic.
Over the past decade, and especially in the last few years, I've noticed a general trend amongst my peers towards accepting people on the basis of self-identity, rather than on more traditional constructions of self. I'm especially cognizant of this trend as it relates to gender, sexual identity, and race, but I don't think it stops there, and nor should it.
I would argue that - considering the nature of the artist as an identity-driven creation - this course of events is likely to work against the system of unexamined value that I've been describing so far.
Personally, I'd love for people - including you, dear reader - to consider and reconsider the nature of art and artists on a regular basis. But if I can't have that, I'd like to encourage you instead to engage with the people you meet who consider themselves artists on their terms, rather than your own.
After all, people are messy. They're complicated creatures with layers of identity that are, at times, contradictory. Perhaps most importantly, their ideas of themselves may not map neatly to the convenient boxes that we've all become accustomed to using.
I believe that in engaging with people (including those in the fine arts), it is worth abandoning our ever-so-convenient heuristics around art. It can be exhausting - using them does make things easier - but it both frees and forces us to engage with people in true terra nova. My hope is that by doing so, it'll be harder to easily discard people - and that if you do still end up deciding someone isn't worth your time, it'll at least be because you met them on their own terms and found them wanting.
And, who knows? You might even find some gems.