Artists Don’t Have Poor On The Brain

For some reason recently I seem to be writing a lot about how money and external rewards/punishments don’t seem to motivate creative professionals.

I saw the topic come up again just last week in an opinion piece on Artnet.com (scroll down to “MIND ON MY MONEY & MONEY ON MY MIND”). Tim Schneider examines a study conducted with a small sample size that was being used to support an idea that artists are poor because their brains are hardwired to desire that state.

The article he responds to says:

Adding a twist to their findings, the researchers also discovered in a second test that artists showed a greater response in another dopamine-related part of the brain (the anterior prefrontal cortex) when they were told to reject the green squares. In other words, artists get less worked up about receiving money and more worked up when they know they can’t have it.

“Collectively, our results indicate the existence of distinct neural traits in the dopaminergic reward system of artists, who are less inclined to react to the acceptance of monetary rewards,” the researchers write.

Schneider refutes the suggestion that the study supports the idea artists’ brain chemistry creates a preference toward poverty. Not only because the sample size for the study was only two dozen people, but because he felt the poverty interpretation read too much into the results.

…Instead, the researchers simply concluded that artists “are less inclined to react to the acceptance of monetary rewards” than non-artists—meaning, in effect, that the artists in the sample prioritized cash less than normies when making certain practical decisions.

Which… duh? In fact, short of proposing that it might not be advisable on a first date to go beast mode on a full slab of ribs, I’m having a hard time imagining a less controversial statement than that one—especially to artists themselves. After all, if they didn’t find a higher value in pursuing creative goals than making money, they would just be content to sink into stable, boring jobs like the rest of us rather than braving the many risks, uncertainties, and injustices of life as an artist.

So as I have been writing throughout these posts, don’t let people convince you that you are poor because you want to be or your brain chemistry is imbalanced. Next thing you know, someone will start prescribing drugs to cure your AADS – Artist Acquisitive Deficiency Syndrome.  (I am sure someone out there can come up with a more entertaining acronym).

Approaching Arts & Culture Experience With The Wonder Of A Child

The NEA’s Arts Works blog had a post, Five Questions We Have about Visiting Art Museums, which I thought had some pretty good tips for interacting with art. The post was specifically aimed at families attending museums together and offered this bit of insight.

Of course, kids might not see things exactly the same way adults do. What do you do if your little one looks at a portrait of George Washington, for example, and says our first president’s a ballerina? Evans says that’s just fine! “In terms of their experience with the portrait, that’s still very relevant and very accurate. You can ask them what they see that makes them think of a ballerina. Maybe it’s because he’s standing with his feet in a certain position or he has his hand out. That’s still their engagement with it to notice his pose,” she said.

In some cases, this is the type of question anyone might have upon first encountering an unfamiliar mode of expression. People tend to initially process a new experience in the context of something familiar.

But it also might be the case that the simpler interpretation might be more enjoyable. Hat tip to Ceci Dadisman who retweeted this:

I also enjoyed the following advice in answer to the question, “What’s the most important thing I should know about looking at art?

Borrowing an idea from social media, Moss suggested asking yourself (or your kids), “What is the picture, if you could post one thing, that you would want to show of your experience?” She added, “Maybe that will get you thinking, ‘Oh, I need to be thoughtful about what I’m seeing and really zoom in on the object that’s really speaking to me,’ and also really thinking about why.”

Moss also added that she wants museum visitors to, “own the experience. Don’t feel intimidated. Don’t feel like you’re not smart if you don’t like something. Bring your experiences to bear on what you see and have fun and walk away with something new in your mind.”

Again, the suggestion frames the way people can approach the museum experience in a familiar context.

Essentially, the suggestions are giving parents permission to view art through the eyes of their children but pretty much anyone should feel like they have permission to approach art in that manner regardless of whether they have children.

In some ways this reminds me of a piece I wrote a piece on being as patient with yourself as you are with a baby, inspired by Stephen McCraine’s webcomic Be Friend with Failure where he specifically draws a connection between appreciation of great art and the fact you wouldn’t criticize a baby learning to speak in the same way you criticize yourself for not quickly absorbing a new skill.  Everyone needs permission both from themselves and others to acquire skills, perception, etc required for a new experience.

Who Will Play You In The Opera?

I frequently write about how people often don’t feel arts and cultural events are for them is because they aren’t seeing themselves and their stories portrayed. So it was with some interest that I read about Opera Philadelphia’s effort to provide a free high definition broadcast of their 2017 opera, We Shall Not Be Moved,  which uses the 1985 bombing of the MOVE compound by the city of Philadelphia as a starting point.

Opera Philadelphia has a history of providing free opera broadcasts on Independence Mall. They are particularly interested in presenting this broadcast because so many people were unable to see the live performance. I was surprised to learn the public broadcast will cost as much as $160,000. Right now they are running a crowdfunding campaign for the last $25,000.

What I was most interested in learning was the details of the original production which involved music by Daniel Bernard Roumain, libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the direction and choreography of Bill T. Jones, all luminaries in their respective fields. It is no surprise to me that they would be involved with the project because they each have a history of working with communities to help them tell their stories.

The students from Art Sanctuary had the opportunity to work with these artists as the piece was developed. We Shall Not Be Moved had its world premiere during O17 at the Wilma Theater, then moved on to Harlem’s Apollo Theater and the Opera Forward Festival in Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, it was presented by Dutch National Opera; as noted on the crowdfunding page, the reception there “proved that this timely, Philadelphia-based work could also find relevance with the wider international community.”

Readers may be aware via the Adaptistration blog/Drew McManus that Rob Deemer has been leading an effort to create the Composer Diversity Database in order to make it easier to more broadly program concerts and create music for any sort of artistic projects, including films, video games and of course, operas.

The success We Shall Not Be Moved has had is just another small piece of evidence that there is an audience and interest in projects that don’t appear in or confirm closely to characteristics of the traditional canon.  It bears noting that often these projects aren’t developed and promoted in a traditional manner and that may factor largely into the breadth of their appeal.

There Is Creative Conflict And Then There Is Creating Conflict

Last Monday I wrote about how intrinsic motivation can often be more effective than external motivators like rewards and punishments, but suggested non-profit workers not allow people to use that finding to insist they will be more productive if they are poorly paid.

I fear I may need to reiterate that point having read the following in a recent Harvard Business Review piece, (my emphasis)

Consistent with these famous case studies, scientific research shows that creativity and innovation can be enhanced by reducing team harmony. For instance, a recent study of 100 product development teams found that two common disruptors of team harmony, namely diversity and task uncertainty, were positively associated with creative performance. Likewise, a review of theoretical and quantitative studies showed that teams are often more creative when they have fewer rather than more resources (for example, time, money, and people). Furthermore, teams that are able to engage in productive task conflict — expressing disagreements, negotiating between different views, and working under a certain amount of tension — tend to be more innovative.

Actually, I only call attention to that phrase as a segue to the major topic of the piece which is that too much harmony may inhibit creativity.  This doesn’t imply a laissez-faire approach to team management is the way to profitability.

Just as we don’t want people suggesting that under funding and under resourcing groups is for their own good, this passage shouldn’t be read to suggest that fomenting dissension or creating hostile work environments will increase innovation.

There are some suggestions for leaders in the piece about how to introduce a moderate amount of conflict and tension, but I want to focus on the section of the article that emphasizes the necessity to have a team composition which is able to process the tension to constructive ends.  Employing or introducing a degree of discord has to be deliberate and considered rather than randomly tossed out with the idea that uncertainty will get people’s blood pumping.

Make sure that the team has the right personality characteristics. While one size does not fit all, teams with higher aggregate levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness will be better equipped to manage diversity and conflict. Team members will be more likely to hold themselves accountable to agreements, will try to smooth over relationship conflicts, and will ensure that the task focus is not derailed by personal dramas.

Increase psychological safety. Psychological safety creates an atmosphere of participation and trust that allows members to actively engage in risky social behaviors such as disagreements and criticisms, as well as nondefensive and open responses to those risky behaviors. In a recent study, intragroup trust was found to be the best predictor of productive task conflict, without creating relationship or personal conflict.

Give the team a chance to settle. Sometimes there is no substitute for the passage of time. Teams that develop sufficient familiarity create both emotional connections and precedents that allow them to productively work through tensions. For example, a NASA study found that teams with a shared working history made half as many errors as newly formed teams. Loyalty is a powerful source of resilience, as religious groups, movements, and families have always known. And in the absence of a shared history, team members with similar values are more likely to put up with tension and turn task conflict into a positive outcome.

You are likely to recall situations in your own experience when you witnessed groups thriving under similar conditions where conflict and tension helped drive the effort rather than derailed it.  Artistic pursuits by their very nature revel in embracing challenges and solving problems.

But as the article suggests, while it might be self-perpetuating once established, this environment is one that needs to be monitored and maintained because it exists in a balance between unmotivated satisfaction and destructive conflict.   While you might be able to recall experiences where groups thrived in a tense environment, if you have worked in non-profit arts and culture long enough you are even more likely to recall toxic, resentment filled environments and/or organizational cultures which seemed paralyzed by avoiding any appearance of conflict.

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