The art of creativity

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2007, 12:00am

Philip Dodd casts his eyes around the handful of international arts educators gathered at his table and shows them the special item he has brought from his home in Britain to tell something about his own personal story.

It is a CD, the soundtrack to an old French film played by legendary jazz musician Miles Davis.

'Miles Davis was so important to me when I was 14 that I actually changed my name from Phillip to Miles,' he explained. 'Now, that is a crazy thing to do but I was 14 at the time.'

Mr Dodd, chairman of Creative Cities Network, a British-based initiative to forge international links between creative industries, and his companions formed one of about a dozen small groups filling a meeting room in Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts' new Bethanie campus in Pok Fu Lam for a storytelling workshop.

The ice-breaking activity marked the start of the first World Creativity Summit, which drew about 200 art, music and drama instructors and related professionals from around the world.

But Mr Dodd intended to convey more than the fickle whims of an adolescent music fan. He wanted to address the evolving role and nature of art itself.

'When I was a teenager, neither jazz nor film were considered art. They were too popular,' he said. 'The funny thing about art is that we can do something that is thought to be art and 50 years later nobody thinks that it is art. But you can also do something that nobody considers to be art and 50 years later, it is.'

The creativity summit was organised by the World Alliance for Arts Education, a loose coalition of three international arts education associations: International Drama/Theatre and Education Association (Idea), the International Society for Music Education and the International Society for Education through Art.

Dan Baron Cohen, president of Idea, said the summit was necessary to remind teachers of the importance of creativity, as school systems around the world were being stretched to the limits by reforms.

'All too often, the classroom is seen as a theatre of conflict, and not as a theatre of co-operation,' Mr Baron Cohen said. 'This is a moment when all countries in the world are aware that there needs to be a change and are making proposals for a different kind of education.

'Everybody has come here with great expectations that this can be a summit whose outcomes can be sustained.'

Addressing one of the summit's key forums, Keith Swanwick, emeritus professor of music from the Institute of Education, University of London, warned delegates against assuming the arts had a monopoly on creativity.

'There are pursuits in the arts that are not creative at all,' he said. 'Take the bass drum in a symphony orchestra, for example. If you get creative then everybody is in trouble.'

He contrasted this with non-arts professions, such as innovation in science and technology, which demanded a high degree of creative thinking.

Professor Swanwick also drew laughter from the audience when he spoke of 'negative creativity'. 'One could be a creative torturer, for example, or a creative person who dreams up all sorts of fairy stories in order to justify the invasion of a Middle Eastern country,' he said.

John Steers, general-secretary of the British National Society for Education in Art and Design, agreed that creativity was 'not the sole prerogative of the arts', but argued that they had a larger role to play in schools. 'I do think that the arts can do many of the things we want to do much more effectively than any other method.'

Arts education allowed students the opportunity to develop transferable qualities such as a tolerance for ambiguity, 'playfulness with ideas' and most importantly perseverance that would enable them to be creative in other areas.

'It takes time to cultivate an idea,' he said. 'To be creative you must have the ability to persist, to keep niggling away at an idea until you make a breakthrough.'

But the summit was also marred by concerns for the future of the arts and cultural diversity.

Merkuria Abate, general manager of Eastern Africa Theatre Institute's Ethiopian National Chapter, complained that although the emergence of 'street culture' genres such as jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll into the mainstream in the 1950s and '60s had opened new avenues for individual creativity, modern culture had failed to capitalise on that. 'We are stuck at this point with rap and hip-hop,' he said. 'We have become stagnant. The West has become decadent and there is no vibrant new art form that has emerged.'

Mr Abate also warned about globalisation: 'It is a force which will make our young forget their own roots. How can we persuade them to be creative in their own language for their own community?'

Tuula Tamminen, professor of child psychology from the University of Tampere in Finland, railed at what she saw as a mood of pessimism held by many delegates. 'Where is the joyful, powerful feeling that we are in the focus of revolution? Where is the joyful energy of creativity? If we leave the problems behind and look to the future, yes, there are issues but there is also enormous potential.'

She believed the world was on the cusp of a cultural breakthrough. Through the course of human development, she said, major shifts had often been preceded by an apparent lull where 'we all have to stop so that something can happen'.

'I don't see globalisation as a threat,' she said. 'I see it as a huge possibility. Many of the issues discussed here today with worried faces, I see as opportunities.'

Canadian author and former president of the Canadian Commission for Unesco, Max Wyman said arts educators needed to 'come out of the stratosphere' and get the general public behind their cause.

He advocated a grass-roots movement using internet portals such as to promote creativity and to spread the message that art was 'not Rapunzel stuck in a castle; it belongs to everyone'.

'I could tell you a dozen stories right now about ways arts education has been used to transform schools,' he said. 'But a word of warning: 'pedagogy' isn't a word to use on the internet. You have to break it down and give it back to the people.'

If the campaign was effective, it would create a 'surge of public goodwill'.

'From that we will have political will and I think we will have an arts teaching revolution within 10 years,' he said.

Not all delegates were convinced.

Mary Ann King Pui-wai, a Wan Chai district councillor and chairwoman of the Cultural and Leisure Services Committee - better known by her pen name, Gum-gum, under which she writes songs for social activists - said: 'I do not believe the Hong Kong education system will ever appreciate the value of creativity. It is too exam-oriented.'

But for many others the event had been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

'I have met a lot of people who shared similar ideas to me,' said V.R. Devika, managing trustee of the Aseema Trust, a Chennai-based charity. 'It has been a very, very positive confirmation that I am doing the right thing.'

Ms Devika, who uses traditional Indian dance to help young women who have been the victims of poverty and abuse gain self-confidence, said: 'I believe in the power of the individual, that the individual can really make a change. For an educator, policy tells you what to teach and when to teach it. How you do it is up to yourself.'

Catherine Kariuki, Idea secretary from the Institute of Performing Arts in Nairobi, said the conference had inspired her to fight for change. 'It was empowering,' Ms Kariuki said. 'We are so many people coming from around the world, and yet we are speaking with one voice: unity.'