November 25

Art Matters: How to Nurture Creativity

George Bernard Shaw said, “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” Art matters. But it doesn’t take extraordinary genius to be an artist. Creativity can be nurtured with effort and practice. All it takes is for us to do the work.

In a video that went viral, two teens appear flummoxed as they try to figure out how to call someone using a rotary phone. Like cat videos, the interwebs is teeming with content on how objects that were commonplace not so long ago at homes and offices — typewriter, dial-up-internet access, Walkman, credit card imprinters—are now museum-worthy. Even admitting to know what they are can make you look like a dinosaur.

There are some long-gone objects, such as the hourglass or the fountain pen we look upon wistfully and may even miss. But we can agree that not needing to type in command prompts on MS-DOS to get your computer to work is a welcome change. Or that a two-year-old who intuitively navigates an iPad to stream Mickey mouse clubhouse on-demand would not have been able to do just a few years ago. Now, whether 2-year-olds self-streaming online content is progress or not depends on whether you are an overworked mother or someone done raising their kids.

Unsung artists

The point is, we owe a lot to not just to the inventors of technology but to the creative people behind such technologies like the graphical user interface designers. They are the unsung heroes who have made our lives immeasurably better. One such person is iconic designer Susan Kare, referred to in a New Yorker article as the “woman who gave the Macintosh a smile.”

Kare, who graduated from NYU with a PhD in fine arts, was working as a sculptor when her high school friend Andy Hertzfeld, then Macintosh’s leading software architect, asked if they could collaborate to make the Macintosh user-friendly. Completely unfamiliar with technology, Kare brought with her a creative and open mind to the new job, which involved developing digital fonts and icons for Mac. The result? Universally recognizable icons such as the floppy-disk save button and the trash can for deleted items.

More importantly, people like Kare made digital technology accessible to the non-techies of the world. Kare created “art” so iconic and meaningful that a Twitter user contemplated a proposal.

Art, redefined

Here’s the thing about art: It isn’t limited to what you see at the Louvre, or hear at the Carnegie Hall. Anything that moves, changes, or simplifies our life is art. Art matters.

Every time we laugh out aloud when we read something funny, shed a tear as we watch a touching scene in a movie, or marvel at the beauty of a painting, we label the experience as art. But art also happens every time we create something that changes someone, even if just a little.

The beauty of being human is that our experiences and reactions to art are completely unique. A movie scene that you find merely sad may cause me to go through a complete box of Kleenex. And so, though art changes people, it does not have to universally impact everyone the same way. In that sense, art isn’t a black and white concept with right and wrong answers. It just is.

Why bother with art?

The “earth” without “art” is just “eh”.

Art matters because it makes us human and complete. A life without books, music, painting, culinary delights, movies is not worth imagining.

What does it take to be an artist?

He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist. Saint Francis of Assisi.

There are too many of us who are afraid to consider ourselves creative, let alone anoint ourselves as artists. But artistry isn’t for the chosen few. Like any other skill, we can nurture creativity.

Here are three key principles to becoming a good artist.

Artists don’t wait for inspiration

We define creativity as the use of imagination or original ideas, especially to produce artistic work.

For most of us, the words imagination and original ideas in the above definition are automatic mental roadblocks. We immediately assume that it requires inspiration. Now, who has the time for that?

But waiting to be inspired is an exercise in futility. In the words of Chuck Close,

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get the work done. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you’re not going to make an awful lot of work.

In a profile of the graphical designer Susan Kare, journalist Steve Silberman says that Kare “mined ideas from everywhere: the history of Asian art and the geeky gadgets and toys that festooned her fellow designers’ cubicles.”

Kare helped to translate Steve Jobs’ vision of developing an intuitive user interface that conceals complex technology in the background. By making the product intuitive and accessible, computers (and other digital technology products) appealed not just to nerds but to the artists, writers and creatives in the world too. Kare’s inspiration came from the work she did.

Yes, good art matters, but waiting for a brilliant idea or a lightbulb to go off in your head before you begin can mean waiting forever.

Creativity is intelligence having fun. Albert Einstein.

Artists stick to routines

The pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them, you will never write again. John Updike.

We tend to think of artists as gifted people who wake up inspired and produce instant masterpieces. But, to borrow a phrase from Us Weekly magazine column, “Artists, they are just like us.” They have to slog it out every day and are driven by routines.

Even when he had achieved a level of fame, each morning, Beethoven brewed his own coffee, counting out sixty beans to ensure he had just the precise amount of caffeine that worked for him.

Chopin was obsessed with Bach’s preludes and fugues. He made his students practice Bach every day in order to exercise, warmup their fingers and perfect their technique.

One of the most prolific writers, Victor Hugo, wrote in the nude so he wouldn’t be tempted to get out of his writing room. He would give his clothes to his servants with instructions to not return them until he’d finished a chapter of his novel.

American painter and photographer Chuck Close credits his routine for keeping him sane. Close said, “There’s something Zen-like about the way I work. It’s like raking gravel in a Zen Buddhist garden.”

If routines work for such prominent artists, it goes without saying they are a must for aspiring creatives like you and me.

Artists focus on the process, not the result

Creativity is in the doing, not the result.

Seth Godin, in his book, The Practice, says: Art is the process of being generous with your time and doing something to better society without knowing whether or not it will work.

When asked if she knew her design would be so influential, Kare responded, in a quote that should be framed on every wall.

You can set out to make a painting, but you can’t set out to make a great painting,” she said. “If you look at that blank canvas and say, ‘Now I’m going to create a masterpiece’–that’s just foolhardy. You just have to make the best painting you can, and if you’re lucky, people will get the message.


If people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery. It wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all. Michelangelo.

It’s easy to convince ourselves that we lack the creativity gene or that artists are born and not made. But that’s just a cop out.

Creativity isn’t about sudden bouts of inspiration or enormous talent. Like fine wine, we can hone creativity over time and with effort. We just need to show up and do the work. Because art matters.

Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art. Andy Warhol.



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