Preface: This guest post is half of a duo (part one by AJ Motia; part two by Kit Kieser). You can read the first part here. Additionally, neither post is an attack on TED, TEDx, or any other idea symposium. Rather, they are personal reflections on the idea industry society has constructed in response to these forums. Kit Kieser’s assertions here do not necessarily represent my beliefs and vice versa.
If you ask a group of young, college art students to make work about death, love, time, or change–broad, familiar, and potentially weighty concepts, more than half of the class will, without fail, produce imagery with “blood,” roses, clocks, or butterflies. Most will not have the inclination to make work about the room where Grandma died, the place he stood when he first fell in love, the three generations of her family that live under the same roof, or a handful of coins. (A sense of humor is welcome.)
In the world of fine art, no one really gives a shit about roses or butterflies. There are several reasons why, but primarily we’ve seen that imagery in just about every variation under the sun, over and over again. It has come to have little impact on the viewer. A third generation Ansel Adams-style photograph may be beautifully executed, for example, but it will never and can never have the same cultural impact that Adams’ work did. The man was remarkably influential as a pioneer in landscape photography and environmental activism, after all.
One doesn’t expect every student to come up with brilliantly innovative concepts or new and interesting ways to look at the world. Some students won’t get past roses and butterflies for a few assignments; for some, it may be a couple years. Perhaps the more sophisticated work just hasn’t happened for him or her yet. Perhaps that work is still in the works, because it takes a great deal of rummaging through the small–often terribly bad–ideas to find the big, prodigious ideas floating around in your brain. Sure, there may be a perfectly-formed masterpiece in there, but mostly there are lots of small ideas that need to be strategically piled on top of one another to construct what sort of looks like a big idea. Even then, there’s more grunt work to be done to push the big ideas out into the world. That part takes help.
I show Idea Conference, Inc. style talks–mostly TED or high profile TEDx talks–in my classroom all the time. It’s one of my go-to teaching tools. Specifically, I show talks centering around creativity and the creative process. I can’t say for certain if sharing the talks with my students gets them to make better work. What I do know is that they enjoy the videos a great deal, they gain some new perspectives, and it gets them thinking. Students often leave class feeling uplifted, inspired, and occasionally empowered. It can be very difficult to make art when you’re feeling depressed or even subdued. So, uplifting or inspiring words from me and others is frequently part of what the students need.
Sir Ken Robinson’s talks have changed my life, or at least changed the way I think about creativity, teaching, and my identity. Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown have helped me to evolve the way I think about creativity and how I talk to my students about the creative process and what makes compelling art. I go back to these talks time and time again, and I show the videos in my classes. I’m not alone in my reverence for these speakers, their ideas, and the way they deliver their messages, but talks like these have become the gold standard that many seem to want to recreate–so much so that we’ve watched Idea Conference, Inc. balloon into an idea industry as TED has become a giant corporate brand and more localized groups have hastily formed a line to ride its coattails.
Everyone seems to want to have and share their big idea, even if only for the sake of a line on their resumé. But what constitutes an “idea worth spreading?” Furthermore, what happens when we never actually implement our ideas or fail to move outside of our own community of like-minds and mutual admiration that we begin repeating ourselves, run out of ideas, or all begin to deliver the same ideas in slightly different packages? Has the proliferated idea industry reached its post-modern era?
Bear with me here. In visual art, one major idea of Postmodernism can be grossly simplified by the notion that there are no new ideas–that we have exhausted our creative possibilities. The use of collage and appropriated materials–and ideas–is often a hallmark of postmodern art. That is, an artist may borrow existing ideas or materials and piece them with other existing ideas or materials to create new ideas by recontextualizing the old ones. I assure you the full complexity of this topic is far beyond what would be useful here, but the general concept is illustrative.
We’re starting to see similar postmodern-like activity in the idea industry, especially in the smaller, localized conferences. There seem to be few new ideas being presented there. Instead, the same ideas and concepts are being embedded in topics that are seemingly different but ultimately contain the same appropriated messages. That’s not to say that this can’t be useful, but is the appropriation and/or retelling of the same ideas and the way these ideas are presented actually productive? I’m afraid the law of diminishing returns applies.
If a single person stands on stage to give a somewhat sage-like sermon to the group of like-minds, the ideas start to look like the same old roses and butterflies that we’ve seen countless times over. Would it not make more sense to have a panel discussion where a problem is solved or a game plan is made to implement these ideas?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m as guilty as any other “slacktivist” that likes to contemplate and deliberate over lofty ideas without ever taking consequential action. But how many times do we have to repeat the same idea, concept, or philosophy to give it legitimacy before implementation becomes the main priority? Perhaps we get a little too wrapped up with congratulating ourselves for having smart ideas with which our equally intelligent peers agree?
It’s okay that we started out with roses and butterflies. They’re integral to the process. Making bad art is a necessary step on the path to making good art, but the good art never comes if it remains an idea without execution. Our ideas can’t evolve without putting them into practice. Visual art has, in part, moved past Postmodernism, but it got there by executing the ideas such to facilitate its progression to new ideas.
On the other hand, if your ideas only ever look like roses and butterflies, that’s okay. Most students that go to art school don’t live out their lives as artists. In fact, very few of them practice art after they graduate, but there was still a great deal of value in their experience. Just because a student doesn’t have the most artistically innovative mind in the room doesn’t mean they’re not creative or don’t have something incredibly valuable to offer. And just because we don’t all have an idea we feel worthy of presenting at Idea Conference, Inc. doesn’t mean that we never will, and it doesn’t mean that we aren’t equally–if not more–valuable now for what really needs to happen: the grunt work. In order for there to be new ideas, we need to implement the ones we have, find out what works and what doesn’t, and watch new ideas grow from that process.