Reflecting on: The Creative Brain

In 2011, PBS aired a Charlie Rose episode called the Creative Brain.  In this show, Rose led a panel discussion with Eric Kandel of Columbia University on the topic of creativity and the brain.  On the panel were artists Richard Serra and Chuck Close, neurologist Oliver Sachs and Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.

Click here to watch The Creative Brain (note the panel interview begins at 10:00.)

Click here to watch The Creative Brain (note the panel interview begins at 10:00.)

A central moment for me in this panel discussion was when Chuck Close and Richard Serra stated that they don't use the words creative or inspiration.  Close said firmly, "Inspiration is for amateurs.  The rest of us just show up for work."  Serra and Close explained further that as artists, they involve themselves in a process of problem creation, of getting involved in the work.  Serra: "It's always in the process of working itself that ideas lead to other ideas for me . . . to constantly stay aware and ask questions . . . and often times when pieces are coming together you see things that you could not have imagined and they push you in a different direction."

At one point in the discussion, Close talked about limitations: when he was free to do anything, he found that he was stuck in doing the same things over and over again.  But once he made the decision to create a series of severe, self-imposed limitations, he found that "those limitations rather than constricting me and rather than limiting what I could do, on the contrary, opened things up and I was far more intuitive than I had been without those limitations.

From the panel discussion, I had three primary take-aways that relate to my work as an artist and an art teacher:

  1. In art, there is a process and the process is based on making and doing--being in the studio and "showing up for work."
  2. Artists stay aware, ask questions and are open to seeing and following where the work tells them to go.
  3. Artists find interesting problems, problems that have a future and furthermore, that setting limitations in methods, techniques and/or media can be an important part of this "problem creation."

After some discussion, Eric Kandel wondered, "there must be a common set of stages whereby people solve problems."  Ann Temkin continued, "a lot we can know.  Way, way more we can't understand."  This last statement by Temkin is true--there is so much we can't understand about creativity.  Fortunately, there is a framework that can help me as an art teacher understand the creative process--it is called Bloom's Taxonomy.  For the past five years, I have been involved in Teacher Action Research (more on teacher action research in a later post) exploring the specific kinds of thinking that are developed in the elementary art studio classroom and how I as an art teacher create an environment where students feel safe to use complex thinking skills to help them grow in their skill and expression in the visual arts.  Bloom's Taxonomy has provided a structure or set of 'stages' that helps me look at student work to locate, identify, describe and analyze the kinds of thinking manifested in their works of art.  It also has helped me examine and evaluate how I design art activities, lessons and projects.

Stay tuned for more information about art, Bloom's Taxonomy and teacher action research work in future posts!