I begin this week’s entry while sitting in my school office unwinding after a combination Christmas craft sale and PTA drug awareness event. How’s that for an unusual context in which to try to write creatively?
In fact it’s not a bad starting point. I was able to attend this event proudly representing a very creative group of parents and pupils, who put together an impressive collection of things ranging from felt Christmas tree decorations to fancy gingerbread houses to sell to raise money for class activities. All of the work was strictly amateur, but much of it was of an impressive standard, and the fact that we had been able to gather a group of parents and kids together after school for an evening to actually make all of this stuff made it all the sweeter.
It also brought to mind the videos featuring Sir Ken Robinson I’ve been showing to different groups lately, talking about creativity in education. His succinct definition for creativity: “the process of having original ideas which have value.” He in turn is rather pessimistic about the effect schools have on creativity: rather than encouraging it they seem to squash it as part of their demand for conformity and order. In some ways there is no denying his analysis of the problem. In another sense, however, the inevitability of the problem seems rather self-evident. In numerous books and videos Robinson has spoken out against squandering human resources, creativity in particular. We need creative people in order to maintain and promote a quality of life which motivates the rest of the population to attend to their basic, routine infrastructural tasks. Or what?
In fact there is a bit of an open question here as to what we are talking about when we refer to things like standards of living and quality of life. When we have the luxury of stopping to think about such things, the first questions that come to mind are usually, what are the things that we really most want out of our own lives, and what are we willing to do to get those things? If we find satisfying answers to those questions (which are themselves asked far too seldom) that could easily stop us from bothering with the deeper question: what sort of satisfaction do I most hope to provide for others, are those others likely to see any value in what I am trying to offer them, and what forms of support do I need in order to keep this service going?
It might be worth going back over the basics of Abraham Maslow’s theory here. Maslow believed that the first need for every human being is to be physically provided for: water, food, shelter, clothing… and probably a chance to reproduce. Mess with those things and the person can consider no other issue than getting those taken care of again. From there, Maslow says, people start to worry about their personal safety. Being warm enough today is great, but if there is a serious risk of freezing to death tomorrow there’s a pretty good chance of that dominating the rest of my thinking. Once those concerns have been addressed, Maslow believes we can start worrying about how what other people think of us. We start at that level by just seeking simple forms of social acceptance: people to sit at the same table with us and pick us to be on their ball teams. From there we look for areas where we can specialize enough to go beyond simple acceptance and actually gain people’s respect. But the ultimate in personal psychological development, as Maslow sees it, is to have the experience of seeing your own life as valuable regardless of what everyone else thinks. That doesn’t mean becoming a hermit or recluse; it simply means believing in the value of what you’re offering to the rest of the world, even if they don’t “get it”.
But then comes the question of how this value is to be defined. Thinking of the gingerbread houses that my pupils and their parents made a couple weeks ago, they are nostalgic, they demonstrate certain special skills, they are each quite unique, they each will taste pretty good to those lucky enough to get pieces when they come down from display, and for all those reasons they create a sense of good cheer for the holidays. But how valuable are they? Who is to say whether those who paid € 15 for them this week got a good deal? Who’s to say whether those who get the left over ones slightly cheaper next week will be getting a better deal? Is there anything more to the value of these little symbols of cheer than what people are willing to pay for them? Probably, though that is rather hard to define with any precision. If the marketing for these lovingly crafted decorations would have failed entirely, would they still have been worth making? In terms of the cheer generated during our arts and crafts night, I’d say so; but then again there would have been a major letdown if after all of that effort, as much fun as it was, it didn’t end up serving any other purpose.
Vincent Van Gough was famously convinced that his paintings of irises and work boots and other everyday things should have far more value than what his brother was able to get for them. In fact history has proven him right about that, but what if it didn’t? What if no one ever did come to understand the method of his madness and the beauty in simple things that he captured in his exaggerated use of color and his wild swirling sense of pattern? Would they still have been great, even without bankers and stock brokers and other collectors being willing to pay obscene amounts of money for them these days?
Or what if Vincent had been able to make a respectable living at his craft, and at the same time get the sort of medical attention and therapy that he would have needed to enable him to carry on with his painting until a ripe old age, eventually passing the torch to a new generation of wild romantic apprentices? Would the greater supply of what we now recognize as works of genius have reduced the value of the individual pieces more? How much richer or poorer would our world today be without Vincent’s story having ended so tragically?
These of course are traditional questions of supply and demand economics. To the economist that’s really the only proper meaning for the word “value”. In order to increase the value of a particular commodity, our first reflex would be to create a demand: to get more people to want it, by means of some sort of advertising. If you can convince people that they would be happier and more satisfied with their lives if they have your product, you can potentially get them to give you quite a bit of whatever they have to offer in return for it. The trick is figuring out how to convince them of the added happiness your product would give them, especially if it has little to do with their physical health and well-being, and if it doesn’t serve to help them develop some particular value of their own. The vast majority of advertising these days thus aims to produce a herd mentality, where people start demanding particular products just because other people have them.
But once you’ve reached whatever peak you can in terms of creating a market for what you’re selling, the next step in increasing value is to restrict the available supply of what you have to offer. If any idiot can get as many of what you’re selling as they want from elsewhere, more or less freely, there’s no reason for them to give you much in return for yours. If every kid in our city brought home gingerbread houses from their home economics classes at school anyway, no one would have been the slightest bit interested in buying the ones we made after school, and they probably wouldn’t have even appreciated the ones they got so much. Or in terms of a very basic concern for many people these days, if there is an endless supply of laborers willing and able to do the sort of work you do just for the fun of it, or for just enough food to keep themselves alive for another day, why should anyone pay you a decent wage for it? So at some point in every form of economic exchange there comes a point at which limiting the competition becomes a significant concern… as long as value is based strictly on supply and demand.
So it should come as no surprise to Sir Ken or anyone else that one of the significant roles that education systems play in our society is to keep everyone from being creative, and to tragically exclude certain creative people from the market. This enables creativity to be a marketable professional commodity. And even with this anti-creative bias in school systems being acknowledged, that doesn’t seem to be enough these days: the ease with which people can put their original ideas out to people who might see a value in them is greater than ever before, and getting greater by the minute. Books, blogs, songs, photo-shopped graphics and interactive entertainment applications are being produced at a rate that really no one can keep up with them all. The worldwide problem these days doesn’t seem so much to be a lack of creative talent being realized, but rather a gross excess of creative ambition being realized.
Is there any viable solution for this crisis? Is there some way in which the best of creativity can still be encouraged and rewarded without suffering from a loss of value for all the cheap reproductions and imitations that instantly follow these days? What is really the ethical thing to do here?
Once again I may be painting myself into a corner. I cannot claim to have any final answers on this dilemma. The best I can suggest is some hints as to where we might start looking.
To start with, we need to begin with a profound respect for the intrinsic value of human life as being greater than the economic value of commodities. In other words no one should be forced to starve to death or die of preventable diseases just so someone else can live in greater luxury. Certain forms of shortage or limitations on production for purposes of keeping prices up––when the products in question are not luxuries, but basic physical necessities––must be seen as grossly immoral by anyone who genuinely respects the value of human life. I’m not suggesting that producers of vital services be forced into slave labor; I’m saying that the fruit of their creative efforts and hard work should be paid for on some other basis than endangering the lives of those who can’t pay. Ideally they should be paid by those who have the resources to do so, who can in turn believe that they have played a valuable role in saving lives and preventing suffering. But in the event that such a system is not properly functioning––in other words in the vast majority of the world’s larger communities and societies––taxing the rich enough to provide adequate social services to sustainably protect the lives of the poor is far more morally acceptable than just letting the poor die off. That might mean lower market prices for foods, medicines and medical services, providing less rewards to those who produce such things; but if playing a role in keeping other people alive doesn’t provide them with the motivation to keep working on such projects anyway, they are in the wrong business to begin with.
But then on the other end of the spectrum we have work that is valuable because it enables people to discover purpose in their lives, which they would be willing to do for free if their basic needs were taken care of otherwise. Here we have the much more difficult question of how to set a value on such work so that we continue to benefit from it, and so that those doing such work do not have to hold back, or in the worst case die off, before the importance of their contributions can be recognized. How can we tell which budding talents and creative contributions are worthy of philanthropists’ support, and how do should that be balances with voluntary (and tax-based) contributions to the protection of human life and the reduction of human physical suffering? The only thing that we can say with certainty about such questions is that market forces cannot provide any suitable basis for the value determinations that need to be made here.
In between these extreme ends of Maslow’s scale of human needs we find things that are neither necessary for the preservation of life, nor key to giving meaning to anyone’s life: Christmas decorations, sports equipment, pop music, plastic toys, television sit-coms, electronic entertainment gadgets, recreational vehicles (in the more literal sense of the term), cosmetics, etc. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with any of those things, but very few, in stopping to think about such matters, can justify the amount of money we are manipulated into spending on such things. If we could find ways to spend a bit less on means of distracting ourselves from the stress we put ourselves under as we try to earn enough money to buy things to distract ourselves… if we could waste just a little less on “convenience” items and status symbol items… perhaps that would leave us in a better position for dealing with what we acknowledge to be the more important concerns both above and below these concerns on Maslow’s scale.
This is just random speculation here, but what if we really did focus less energy this Christmas on supporting crass commercialism, and instead we would try to focus on things that genuinely give life meaning on the one hand, and things that are genuinely needed to sustain life on the other? What if we were to make a conscious effort not to get stuck in the middle again? What effect might that have on our relationships with God (however you care to define such), each other and ourselves? It might be worth trying.