RECLAIMING OUR CREATIVITIES FROM A READY-MADE WORLD
“The artist is not a special kind of man but every man is a special kind of artist.” Ananda Coomaraswamy, 1956
As we clear away all the celebratory hype of the 21st century, and sit down to figure out what it all means to be Here, we find ourselves in a very peculiar and paralyzing world. The processes of mass industrialization, technologicalization, and consumerization, while making life more ‘efficient’ and ‘easier’ (at least for some), have colonized our spirits and made us psychologically impotent. Today, Big Brother, Big Market and Big Religion supply us with ready-made clothes, ready-made food, ready-made homes, ready-made jobs, ready-made entertainment, ready-made transportation, ready-made spirituality, ready-made medicines, ready-made education, etc. Soon, with the latest developments in genetic testing, we will have ready-made human-toys. There are ready-made solutions for practically all aspects of our lives. Even our ‘problems’ and ‘needs’ are pre-packaged, marketed and sold to us. We are so overwhelmed with these glamorous and superfluous needs that we have started to forget our real needs (and the needs of those around us). Our role is only to mindlessly consume these ready-made commodities and be consumed by them.
Some may ask what’s wrong with this kind of ‘Progress’. Two points for deeper reflection immediately come to mind. First, we must try to understand what is required to feed and sustain this ready-made world – who wins and who loses, and what is destroyed in the process? And second, we must peel away the skin of the proverbial Progress Onion to see what this ready-made lifestyle is doing to us as human beings. Seriously exploring both of these interconnected questions requires that we be willing to break away from the compartmentalized, linear and short-term ‘rational’ frameworks that dominate most of our modern decision-making processes and Development efforts.
For this ready-made world to flourish today, we have to rationalize away, in the name of Progress, all of the massive levels of violence against and exploitation of Nature, cultures/languages, and human relationships that have taken place throughout the world in the last 300 years. We have to turn off our consciences and pretend that selfishness, greed, domination, corruption and a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality are the predominant characteristics of human nature. We have to keep convincing ourselves that having increased purchasing power (albeit with cancerous self-discontent) is a higher form of human existence that someday will ‘trickle-down’ to everyone through the Global Marketplace, Western-style Democracy, and the Scientific Establishment. Lastly, we have to discourage everyone else around us (particularly our youth) from believing that there are other options available. This is the ‘only’ and ‘best’ way -- to resist it, to even question its totalitarian stranglehold over us, is to risk be labeled ‘anti-modern’, ‘impractical, ‘anti-national’, ‘irrational’, etc.
In India today, it is very difficult for us to comprehend the kinds of damage that these various forms of self-deceit have done to our whole beings; our intrinsic motivations to struggle and search for our own truths, justices and meanings; and our abilities to be part of and contribute to the beautiful unfolding of the universe. What is even more troublesome is that in the age of time-saving devices, we have no time to reflect deeply or dialogue on who we are and where we are going, individually and collectively. As Eduardo Galleano (1997) describes, "The car, the television set, the video, the personal computer, the portable telephone and other pass-cards to happiness, which were developed to 'save time' or to 'pass the time', have actually taken time over."
Is there a way out of this? John Guare (in Zohar, 2000) suggests one possible path, “To face ourselves. That’s the hard thing. The imagination [is] God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable. [It] teaches us our limits and how to grow beyond our limits...” Expanding our spaces and capacities for creativity is essential to liberating ourselves from this ready-made world. Creativity enhances our ability to find meaning and love in our everyday experiences (and prevents us from becoming bored of ourselves). It gives us the strength to challenge injustices and exploitative relationships. It helps us to build valuable linkages to our wisdom frameworks while keeping our parampara vibrant and flowing. Creativity generates new liberating avenues of power from which we can create new options, make ethical choices and take dynamic actions.
Unfortunately, by either killing-off or commercializing many of our natural spaces for genuine questioning, experimentation, and struggle, the ready-made world prevents us from engaging in activities which serve to replenish our creative energies. Furthermore, because of the total-izing influence of the ready-made world, we are taught to wait for some one to hand us some bite-size pakoras of creativity on a silver platter. Today, these usually take the form of formal creativity courses and creativity kits. However, reclaiming and regenerating our creativities is not just about playing various mind games marketed by creativity gurus like Edward DeBono. At a certain point, these all become meaningless gimmicks, which tend to serve only narrow selfish interests while expanding the control of the ready-made world. What is required instead is a critical look at certain myths that drain our creative energies and a deeper understanding of how these are manifested in our institutional and personal spaces.
Several myths exist today which prevent us from reclaiming our creativity:
MYTH #1: One must be super-gifted or a genius in order to be creative. Many people falsely believe that creativity is a gift from God. Repeated citations of individuals such as Michaelangelo, Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein have helped to fuel this. This myth has led to a tiny percentage of people being supported in their creative quests, while the vast majority are told that they are not and can not be creative. Underlying this myth are archaic notions of the human brain that view intelligence as genetically predetermined and stagnant and condemn it to narrow quantitative measurements such as I.Q. New research, however, indicates that we all possess a dynamic range of multiple intelligences by which we make sense of the world and that these intelligences can increase throughout our lives.
MYTH #2: Creativity only occurs in the fine arts such as music, painting, dance. The Industrial Age has artificially separated work and leisure. All work activities, whether in the job or the home or in school, are supposed to be tedious, routinized, painful activities. Activities that are creative, inspiring, and fun are relegated to the domain of leisure. This myth has meant that many people have stopped trying to be creative in their daily activities and interactions. However, Devi Prasad (1998) notes that “traditional India did not compartmentalize art and life.” Playful expressions of creative living were closely integrated into and emerged from the people’s daily work i.e., performing household chores, farming, hunting, cooking, weaving, taking care of the animals, housebuilding, celebrating festivals, praying, etc. For creativity to be meaningful, it must be re-integrated into all aspects of our life.
MYTH #3: Creative living is something that only the idle rich can afford to indulge in. Because of the previous myth, creativity has become associated with the elite category of ‘high culture’. This has created a misperception in the public eye that creativity is non-practical, frivolous and expensive pursuit. It has also led to the devaluation of very organic expressions of creativity by non-elite groups. We must understand certain elite groups have tried to manipulate the idea of creativity to legitimize their power and privilege, and also to deny the masses from articulating their creativity energies so that they could not resist or challenge the status quo. The ability to develop and articulate one’s creative energies is not dependent on one’s economic class or caste background. There is no hierarchy of creativity between ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture.’ Also, as discussed above, real creativity is not only ‘practical’, it is essential to our being human.
MYTH #4: One’s creativity is measured by the ‘products’ they produce and the more creative are those who are able to sell their products for greater profit. This myth places a mistaken emphasis on the output that emerges from the creative process rather than on the lifestyle process itself. Success, which is often based on luck and one’s position of privilege, is given more importance than effort. This myth discourages people from taking risks and from collaborating with others due to fear of failure. It also creates deforming and distorting dependencies between our creativity and the vagaries of the Market Economy. We must understand that creativity is not about our output but rather about our lifestyle – our ways of exploring new places, people and ideas; of understanding ourselves and developing our infinite talents; of nurturing our sensitivity to others and Nature.
These four myths are perpetuated in both our institutional spaces as well as our understandings of our Self. Challenging these myths requires that we dismantle dehumanizing institutions, regenerate nurturing institutions and personally engage in processes of unlearning and relearning.
The Industrial Age has witnessed the overwhelming growth of institutions which are based on the logic of objectivity, standardization, efficiency and profit. These ‘modern’ institutions range from factories to governments to armies to schools to large corporate media. In their worldview, technological ingenuity and innovation are projected as the highest form of human achievement – the ends by which to evaluate a civilization. Nature is seen as a resource to be violently manipulated and exploited. These institutions do not trust the judgement of human beings and seek to put in place ‘rational’ and ‘unemotional’ systems of management and planning that will do all of our thinking for us. They call for us to enter into a state of ‘technological somnabulism’ in which we must put our absolute faith in Science and Technology to govern and protect us. The inherent form of these institutions serves to undermine our creativities by: enforcing rigid routines and procedures; demanding quick production of results and providing little room to make mistakes; making people compete against each other by using extrinsic forms of motivation (rewards and punishments); and, labelling, sorting and ranking of human beings.
Factory-schooling is one of the clearest examples of these kinds of dehumanizing institutions. Most ‘schooled graduates’ have gone through schools learning only about competition, rules, and control. They have never been given the opportunity to think about their own potentials for self-learning, much less to think about new kinds of educational, political, economic, social structures and relationships. They are told over and over again that they must passively fit into the ready-made System. Though factory-schooling has played a major role in repressing our individual and collective creativities, it remains unquestioned in our society and is projected as a seemingly innocuous ‘fundamental human right’. The global media, such as the television and newspapers, has also emerged as a major force which stunts our creative growth. The media turns us into voyeurs who prefer to watch others live life. Neil Postman (1993) describes further that, “We are driven to fill our lives with the quest to ‘access’ information. For what purpose, or with what limitations, it is not for us to ask; and we are not accustomed to asking, since the problem is unprecedented.” Rote memorization for exams, the courses on G.K. in schools, and the emergence of TV shows such as Kaun Banega Crorepati? powerfully illustrate how info-glut monopolizes our attention while distracting us from constructive processes of meaningful self-reflection.
Beyond challenging these dehumanizing institutions, we must regenerate learning communities of reflective-action that have a different logic and form. Such learning communities must be seen as socio-spiritual spaces in the sense that they nurture and connect each human being’s innate yet diverse searches for truth and meaning. To do so, they must provide us with continuous opportunities for raising and exploring foundational questions around our notions of Progress, Knowledge, Freedom, Equality and Justice. They must be integrally connected with the Web of Life. These spaces must also:
- respect the diversity of each human beings, particularly their different ways of learning and growing;
- understand the ‘right scale’ of all activities, with an aesthetic preference simplicity;
- encourage people to take risks and experiment;
- nurture intrinsic forms of motivation;
- facilitate collaboration and sharing within a generative framework of (infinite) power;
- emphasize the principles of self-discipline, trust and love.
Such learning communities have traditionally grown around work that features the use of the hands and the heart, community media, local knowledge and wisdom frameworks, oral and visual traditions of literacy, and various familial bonds. However, without the time, processes of meaningful questioning, and resources to provide them nourishment, these reflective spaces are either stagnating or disappearing. The ready-made world has made very few attempts to generate new learning communities based on the above principles. Unfortunately, when individuals have tried in the past, most have not been able to shed their ready-made worldviews.
Reclaiming creativity and regenerating various learning communities is not the exclusive responsibility of professional artists, industrial psychologists, art teachers, ministers of culture, etc. Each of us must actively participate in creating – not just observing or passively fitting into – these learning communities. We risk falling into another trap of the ready-made world if we expect others to create these learning communities for us.
Taking control over our processes of unlearning and re-learning away from factory-schooling and the global media and re-establishing our faith in processes of self-learning is one essential step in this larger process. In terms of our unlearning, we will have to understand that many of the obstacles to creativity can be found within us. Such obstacles include: fear of criticism, lack of confidence, competitiveness, high stress, and big egos. Other obstacles stem from our ‘schooled’ inability to tolerate ambiguity and our ‘manufactured’ confusion between happiness and material acquisitions. Our creativities also are burdened by certain labels that we attach to ourselves and others. These identity labels – most often based on professions, caste, gender, class, schooling level, etc. – create artificial barriers which limit our exploration and growth. We become afraid to interact with certain people because of whom we think they are (or we think we are). Unlearning will involve confronting these obstacles and barriers, and trying to liberate ourselves from them. Unlearning is essential if we wish to regain our faith in the goodness of others and in the belief that many new options are available.
In terms of re-learning, we must try to understand our own individual learning styles, pace (learning things faster is not always better for our creativity), multiple intelligences, emotional states, experiences, etc. We must re-learn to see power outside the institutions of the State and the Market. This calls for us to be able recognize creative spaces and opportunities that are in front of our eyes but we have never appreciated before Simultaneously, we must understand how our creativity can be enhanced by engaging in collaboration and sharing with others. We also must re-learn how to see life holistically and relationally. Most importantly, we must re-learn how to connect knowledge and technology with wisdom and ethics. This will provide us with the humility to know our limits and with the common sense to understand that we should not do all things just because we can (i.e., not all ‘creative’ scientific and commercial initiatives should be pursued). Re-learning is essential to fuel us with the inspiration to start dreaming our own dreams again (and not someone else’s ready-made dreams) and with the self-confidence to put them into action.
Here, one may raise the ever-troubling ‘chicken and the egg’ dilemma. In other words, which must come first – the processes of regenerating learning communities or individual self-regeneration? Without regenerating learning communities how can we support individual self-regeneration? And without individual self-regeneration how can we support the process of regenerating learning communities? Addressing this dilemma requires that we reject the institutional schizophrenia, alienation and hypocrisy created by so-called modern institutions, and stop seeing the learning communities and individuals as separate domains. We must see ourselves as part of these learning communities and they part of us. Through such a relationship, there will be a dialectic process of mutual regeneration between the learning communities and us.
Facing this dilemma will also demand that we make conscious choices to try to dis-engage from the techno-economic System, or what I term as the ‘dictatorship of convenience’. This will give the time and space to ‘listen’ again. To do this, involves trying to do things without money/Market Economy and without the interference of the State. These activities should not be reduced to superficial rituals but rather be taken in the spirit of pursuing a path of meaningful struggle (and constructive confrontation). Implicitly, this means that we must learn how to use our hands (and feet) again. In this context, I am reminded of a recent episode with one of my colleagues in Shikshantar. He was to take a gift for a celebration and wanted to buy it from a gift shop. I suggested that rather than buying a gift, he should try to make something with his own hands. He was reluctant to do so because of the ‘imperfections of his own product’. Learning to appreciate the beauty of our own imperfections while avoiding ready-made checklists which tell us how to live our lives represent the basic challenge to reclaiming our creativity.
Galleano, E. “To Be Like Them” in M. Rahnema. 1997. The Post-Development Reader. London: Zed Books.
Postman, N. 1993. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Prasad, D. 1998. Art: The Basis of Education. Delhi: National Book Trust.
Zohar, D. and I. Marshall. 2000. Connecting with our Spiritual Intelligence. New York: Bloomsbury.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mr. Manish Jain <email@example.com> currently serves as Coordinator of Shikshantar: The Peoples' Institute for Rethinking Education and Development <www.swaraj.org/shikshantar> based in Udaipur, India and as Chief Editor of Vimukt Shiksha (Liberating Education). Prior to this, Manish spent two years in Paris working as one of the principal architects of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Learning Without Frontiers. While at UNESCO, he worked extensively on developing a conceptual framework for open learning communities: publishing several international papers, advising several projects, and conducting workshops for teachers, planners, policymakers, and researchers. Manish has also worked as an education consultant in the areas of planning, policy analysis and research, program design and media/technology with UNICEF, USAID, UNDP, World Bank, World Education, the Academy for Educational Development, and Education Development Center in several developing countries in South Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. He has served as Assistant Editor of The Forum for Advancing Basic Education and Literacy with the Harvard Institute for International Development. Manish also spent two years as an investment banker (mergers and acquisitions and corporate finance) with Morgan Stanley working in the telecom and high technology sectors. He has a Master's degree in Education from Harvard University and a B.A. (magna cum laude) in Economics, International Development and Political Philosophy from Brown University.
 I am reminded here of friends who tell me that they need a vacation after their ready-made vacations because they are so drained and exhausted from them.
 Interested readers can take a look at the work of researchers such as Howard Gardner, David Perkins, Robert Sternberg, and Geoffrey and Renata Caine.
 These days, for example, we are told to believe that the Internet and dot.coms will cure all of our problems, and that India is ‘strong’ because we have nuclear weapons.
 For more on this, readers may wish to take a look at the works of Alfie Kohn.
 Here, I am reminded of several conversations that I have had with our Indian bureaucrats and police-officers as well as stories that I have heard about the Nazis in Germany. Both morally disagreed with many of the decisions of their leaders but followed them nonetheless because they ‘had to do their jobs’.