Thursday, January 30, 2014

Existential Creation Problems

My problem has always been wanting to immediately jump to the end result without mucking about with the messy hard tasks needed to get there.

Apparently this is quite normal. I'm finally getting around to listening to Daniel Kahneman's 2011 bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. I'm not very far into yet (only listening in the car and driving has been on hold with the snow recently), but early on Kahneman points out that our brains are wired for the path of least resistance. Thinking requires effort and those tasks which require more thinking are less desirable because of the effort required. 

That hit me rather hard. I had typed that first sentence two or three days before listening to the piece in the book, as a place holder on a blog idea. When I listened to Kahneman's research and theories, I realized that what I had been doing all along was human nature and not a specific Devra defect. (I have lots of those, but another time.)

I decided to write about this now because I'm having that itchy feeling of "this is hard and I don't want to do it any more" constantly these days. Having just stepped out of a position I'd held for 6.5 years into a job that I'm having to pick up new procedures and make long-range strategies myself is definitely requiring slow thinking. Researching and writing my thesis (new content) and creating a monetized platform for an individual artist's techniques (entrepreneurial endeavor) is pushing my brain to the max. Talk about new pathways: it's like trying to run a marathon through molasses. 

I know all  some of the tricks for moving forward on projects: breaking the project down into smaller steps, having accountability partners, setting non-negotiable deadlines, etc. Occasionally I get those moments of flow that make the task seem almost manageable. Mostly right now, though, I'm having to will myself every day to take one more step up the mountain of creation so that I don't lose precious time. 

Here's the arts admin tie-in: changing the way our arts institutions are being run requires slow thinking. It requires purposeful, effort-full, hard, lengthy slow thinking. Added to the inherent abhorrence of change, this is a losing proposition for all but a handful of administrators or organizations. Why do we laud Michael Kaiser's work? Because he makes these two things look easy. Why is Nina Simon such a rockstar in the museum world? Because she does these two things every day. The way forward for the arts is not black and white. It's not a fast-thinking fix. Making our field relevant and sustainable (chicken-and-egg) requires the slow thinking of our researchers and academics and the change tolerance of our leaders and creators to build something new. 

In the theater world (which is the world I inhabit, so there are points about visual art or other performing arts that I can't speak to), the act of theater is as old as humanity, but our current system of theater is only 60 years old or so. Same age as television, when you think of it, and look at all the changes that medium is undergoing now. Commercial theater didn't die when nonprofit theater started. The consumption of theater in exchange for a monetary medium had been happening for thousands of years by that point. The hue-and-cry that is now being sounded for the nonprofit theater model was the same one sounded for commercial theater when that model started. Examined from afar, in fact, the two models are not that indistinct: the same basic stocks (plays, playwrights, actors, directors, techs, venues), the same feedback loops (money in some form or fashion), and similar rules to the game (largely thanks to Equity and the NEA). I'm going to go way out on the limb and say their purpose is actually the same: to use the theatrical art to extract a change of demeanor in another person.

The theater system, as a subsystem of the arts, is not broken. It can't be, otherwise there would be no theater. The arts are not broken, otherwise there would be no dance, no song, no comedy, no sculpture... Relevance is a, well, relevant term: there are millions of people for whom making and consuming art in some form is a daily necessity, a Maslow bottom-level (and I know folks who would argue that that is actually true of everyone, some just don't want to admit it or call it art). So what needs to be relevant to whom? And sustainable by who's definition? Arena Stage looks an awful lot from the outside like any performing arts center in any major city. Zelda would argue with me, as would Molly, but for the casual live-entertainment ticket-purchaser, there isn't a difference. So is a large building, multi-million dollar endowment, 10% return on capital investment, recoupment in a short time span, critics loving every line and direction, audiences signing up for season subscriptions, people beating a path to your door, 24-7 lines sustainable?

"To get to tomorrow, Theodore, you have to dial one number higher." We're not looking high enough, broad enough, long-term enough. Most of us can't: we're too mired in the daily activities of doing the business of art to really see the system for what it is. Our national organizations try to do what they can, which is commendable. Fear of change, lack of time and energy, though, still keep the varying subsystems plodding along as they have been. Changing goals, or paradigms, or the very system itself, will require someone who is comfortable trudging through the messiness.

The molasses is thick. But the finish line is sweet. 

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