If you work in the arts in higher education (or any education, for that matter), you are likely talking or hearing more about “complex problems,” or perhaps “wicked problems.” These are shorthand for a wide range of messy, persistent, usually negative aspects of civil or global society — hunger, inequity, racism, terrorism, climate change, sectarianism, and so on. And these phrases are the latest reason to value and integrate the arts.
The argument goes this way: The world has become more complex. Reason and rational knowledge aren’t sufficient anymore. Rather, robust understanding and engagement with these problems require creativity, innovation, divergent thinking, and other magic mojo we claim for the arts.
I’ll admit that I’m a proponent of such arguments. And I do believe that artistic process and practice have deep importance to civic life and effective citizens — certainly in higher education. But I worry that by leaning so heavily on a “problem” framework, we’re actually compounding the…er…problem.
Problems, in our traditional understanding, are puzzles to be solved, or negative issues to be resolved. We might follow many paths to consider and contextualize those problems (insert list of all academic disciplines here). And we might apply many methods and means to address them (same list here). If we get fancy, we might combine multiple paths, methods, and means. But still, resolving the problem is the “end” and our paths and methods are the “means”.
Artistic practice and process, on the other hand, proceed from a rather different understanding of a “problem.” Often, in an artistic work, the “problem” is the work, itself: how to make a dramatic play “hold together,” how to make a physical object “coherent,” how to make a poem “whole.” In artistic practice, the problem and solution evolve together, with a primary goal of finding the fulfillment of the creative work — not of resolving some external “problem.” As H.W. Janson describes it in his History of Art:
…the creative process consists of a long series of leaps of the imagination and the artist’s attempts to give them form by shaping the material accordingly. The hand tries to carry out the commands of the imagination and hopefully puts down a brush stroke, but the result may not be quite what had been expected, partly because all matter resists the human will, partly because the image in the artist’s mind is constantly shifting and changing, so that the commands of the imagination cannot be very precise…. In this way, by a constant flow of impulses back and forth between his mind and the partly shaped material before him, he gradually defines more and more of the image, until at last all of it has been given visible form.
The standard, dismissive response to this idea of an art work as its own problem would be “art for art’s sake.” To which I’m responding: Yes, please. Because so much of the power, insight, impact, and discovery derived through the arts come from this impulsion. As Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch phrase it in Meaning:
…all the arts work in this way. They search for means of solving a problem — a problem which was conceived for this very purpose, i.e., its solution; and they pursue this question while continuing to shape the problem so that it will better fit the means for solving it.
At the end of this exploration, if all goes well, is a coherent, compelling, even beautiful outcome – one that is problem, solution, and question all at once.
Certainly, artistic process and practice have immeasurable value and opportunity “as tools” to explore, define, understand, and address complex problems around us. But a large part of that value comes from the different way they define and approach a “problem.” While traditional problem formation is inevitably a reduction and partition, artistic problem formation is all about seeking and shaping a coherent whole. As E.M Forster argued back in 1949:
Works of art, in my opinion, are the only objects in the material universe to possess internal order, and that is why, though I don’t believe that only art matters, I do believe in Art for Art’s Sake.