Oh Sure, I Love Doing That…But That’s Not Art

Tyler Cowen featured a study on the Marginal Revolution blog noting that children in India couldn’t do formal math problems, but had no difficulty finding the solution when it was framed as a market transaction.

It has been widely documented that many children in India lack basic arithmetic skills, as measured by their capacity to solve subtraction and division problems. We surveyed children working in informal markets in Kolkata, West Bengal, and confirmed that most were unable to solve arithmetic problems as typically presented in school. However, we also found that they were able to perform similar operations when framed as market transactions. This discrepancy was not explained by children’s ability to memorize prices and quantities in market transactions, assistance from others at their shops, reliance on calculation aids, or reading and writing skills. In fact, many children could solve hypothetical transactions of goods that they did not sell. Our results suggest that these children have arithmetic skills that are untapped by the school system.

This somewhat paralleled the concept I have raised many times here. If you ask people if they are a visual artist, dancer, singer, actor, etc, they will say no. But if you ask about their hobbies you might find they are a woodworker, sing in the church choir, design and execute elaborate parade floats, etc.  All of which yield some artistic and creative product.

There has been an effort, in varying degrees, from the National Endowment for the Arts to Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative, to reframe what people do to help them recognize their capacity for creative expression.

The last line in the passage I cited above was what made the connection for me. Just as the children have arithmetic skills untapped by the school system, people in general can have creative ability untapped by the way creative/artistic expression is currently framed.

Solving problems on a piece of paper is difficult math. Handling a complex financial transaction which ensures a livelihood is something simple you learned when you were five.

Creating a delicate sculpture is something only real artists can do. Recreating a spindly Eiffel Tower out of lumber, chicken wire and flowers so that it is structurally sound enough to travel a windy route as a parade float is the type of exciting challenge you dive into every year.

Discussing creative expression in different frames of context can help people recognize they already participate in some manner or can help remove the intimidation factor by modifying the concept of what being creative entails.

The process of that discussion takes time which is why Creating Connection is envisioned as a long term effort. It will also take creativity to help people make those connections to their personal creativity.

Fortunately, that is one resource we don’t have a shortage of.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University. Among the things I am proud to claim are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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