Joan Acocella and Timothy Schaffert on stage during the event.
photo by Jordan Green

Creativity. The word conjures a number of definitions and thoughts. One definition I like is “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patters, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.” Transcend traditional. The term “creative” is thrown around loosely now, but how often is it ascribed to someone who does transcend the traditional? Joan Acocella, author, journalist and dance critic for The New Yorker, expounded upon creativity in a free-flowing and far-ranging discussion that was part of KANEKO’s latest installment of its Great Minds Series. UNL professor Timothy Schaffert moderated the discussion.

Right away, Joan delved into an interesting topic when it comes to artists, most good artists have very few good years at the craft. Many good writers have one big book. Why is that? Well, it’s that artists have two or three things they want to make. She referred to James Joyce who made the remark, “You write the same book different ways”.*

*I immediately thought of musicians whose first album is their best, and then don’t recover after the “sophomore slump”.

A lucky artist will have more good years, but what helps is the artist entering into a new period, new interests or a new stage.* She referred to them as “statistical freaks”, and then used Michelangelo and Beethoven as examples. They went through phases in which they recreated themselves. These “lucky artists” are the artists that transcend time.

*I’m guessing she wasn’t thinking of U2 as being a statistical freak, but if she saw and heard them before Achtung Baby and after, she’d understand. Granted, there will be plenty of people frustrated at the thought of U2 transcending time.**

**They’ve only been performing as the same foursome since 1976!

It begs the question, then, if there is a certain age where an artist is more productive. Joan said it depends on the field. Since she is a dance critic, she alluded to dance being an art for youth. This led into how young artists are of a certain type. “Youth is very much overrated”. She thought young artists, particularly writers, were remarkably fettered by a desire to do something original and acceptable. She sees young writers as “very jealous” and this correlates to why they want acceptance. They want their work to be recognized.

photo by Jordan Green

What can happen is your favorite artists will try to get on a “new train” with their work, but they will receive criticism for their change in artistic creativity. She called it “the late period”. It’s where artists do what they use to do, but on a new plane. It’s more difficult and spiritual, and less realistic and easy. She cited Beethoven, Ibsen and Shakespeare whom had a great late period in their creativity.*

*In writing this I came across an article from the Wall Street Journal discussing how the art market is looking for some under-appreciated art by artists late in their careers.

Is a critic taken to task, though, for their criticisms of someone’s creativity? It depends. Joan stated, “The young are mean”. She considers herself milder than before. Partly, due to age, but also a desire to write about things that will absorb her has made her writing more mild. Joan doesn’t want to waste time writing about stuff she doesn’t like. It’s much easier to write a negative review than a positive one. Plus, a negative review is usually the same review done over and over. A positive review is a selfless act.*

*It was around this point where Joan referred to Stefan Zweig as the most popular writer in the 1920’s. She then said “kind of like Stephenie Meyer“. You know, as in the Twilight novels? Most of the audience did not like the comparison. I found it hilarious.

The conversation went into an interesting direction when Joan discussed whether or not creativity can be taught. She believed it can be taught. The problem is an evolving groupthink about creativity not being able to be taught, which has almost turned it into a mystique of sorts. Joan talked about dance, and how Suzanne Farrell (one of the eminent ballerinas of the 20th Century) teaches her dancers to dance at uncommon time signatures like 3/7 or 4/9, which help the dancers’ ability to “play with the music”.

Creativity, though, is a matter of perspective. Joan talked how she would tell young artists and critics to balance tradition and creativity. Creativity is understood in our time as making a certain kind of work that is original, from within, emotional and free, yet this was not the case for most artists we laud today. Before the 19th Century, art was a job. It didn’t matter the respect the artist had for themselves, it came from “without themselves”. Now, artists feel it has to be this magical process, and that has crippled a number of artists. They are too worried about being original. Some of the best artists, like Stravinsky and Picasso, went through an early, conservative period with their art. As she also put it, young artists are worried about not having money and how their girlfriend left them.*

*Recently, I interviewed Roddy Chong, one of the leaders of Trans-Siberian Orchestra when they are on the road. He talked about his talent and said growing up he was not one of the best violin players at the academy where he was a student. However, he is the one that has had success. Why? He kept playing. He kept investing the time into it. Roddy didn’t rest on his talent but kept developing it and going after opportunities.

What’s important in understanding the artist? Context. Understanding how they live, because this is important in seeing how the life influences the art. (And how the art can influence the art.) Most people don’t like abstract art because they can’t find an “entry” into it, “entry” into the artist’s lives through the art. It’s easy to fall into stereotypes when defining artists. Most artists are too busy working, they don’t have interesting lives. Those that achieved the most neglected their families and much more. Willa Cather had a more accomplished period, but she isn’t lauded like Ernest Hemmingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald since she didn’t.* Hemmingway and Fitzgerald are just as known for their vices as they are their work. The artists that achieve things are working many hours a day and are boring folks.

*She considered Willa Cather the best American fiction author. My mom would concur.

Joan talked about women and creativity and how they have to overcome stereotypes that men don’t have to. She said women were more “discourageable” because when they encountered failure they were more likely to give up. It’s the way they were trained, they should be doing a women’s stereotypical role. Look at the major symphony orchestra’s in America, only one of them is conducted by a woman. Joan could only think of one artistic field where they consistently have equaled or surpassed men and that is with the novel.

Joan answers a question from an audience member.
photo by Jordan Green

During the Q&A, one of the questions was about the effects of alcohol and drugs with artists. Joan thought their effects were overrated. For the most part, artists used alcohol and drugs to take advantage of the disinhibiting effects. In the beginning it helps, but it wrecks everything in the end. When the artist dries out, their life is better but the gift is gone. In her estimation, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and Dorothy Parker are just a few artists that were ruined by alcohol.

Joan considers Mark Morris the most fascinating person she has met. This was due to a biography she wrote about Morris in which she covered him for two years. It’s impossible to do an interview where you think you can get into the mind of an artist within three hours when they have been creating since their teen years. This leads into why she spends the first two paragraphs of her criticisms giving context of the artist to her readers. She wants there to be an understanding, an entry, for the readers to connect with the artist. When she wrote about Morris, he was young enough where he didn’t have “the interview down”. He just happened to be fun and interesting. A lot of artists are dull, they aren’t interesting. They are too tired, and don’t want to share their best thoughts with you.

A number of questions followed-up on the idea of whether or not creativity can be taught. Most believed it could be, but brought up how there are people who are naturally talented in a field.*

*In other news, 2+2=4.

The discussion had a bit of everything with the arts and creativity. Since the conversation touched on a bit of everything, and Joan would sometimes change topics in the midst of her discourse,* I thought Timothy did an admirable job moderating. Another successful night in KANEKO’s Great Minds Series. As always, great job by Hal France and the rest of the KANEKO staff.

*FYI. While Joan had some sharp comments about youth, she wasn’t down on the young. Now, avant garde artists from the 60’s? That’s a different story.

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