The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. – Kurt Vonnegut
Over the last few days and weeks I’ve been reading a lot of research and am finding it tricky to work out what’s worth remembering and why. I’m messing around with different approaches and trying to see what works and what doesn’t.
Some of the papers I read have interesting, exciting ideas captured in terse but powerful writing. These are words and sentences that have been thought about for a while, carefully constructed to express precisely what the author wants to convey. So why is it that these ideas are locked away in prisons of Times New Roman and don’t find their way out into the real world, the practical one – where they can make a difference?
It probably has a lot to do with the language. What we’re all trying to do is get to grips with this complex world around us. What relationship do we have with it? What kind of knowledge is going to be useful? How are we going to go about getting it?
These four components have big names: ontology, epistemology, axiology and methodology. They are important but they also create a barrier to understanding. We have to climb this complex language barrier every time we want to understand something.
Like everything else history plays a part. I suspect that the reason we use words in the way we do is because of printing. For centuries the only way to create books was to write them by hand and we had a certain kind of product – books with images and structure, the kinds of things you could create without constraints, other than the physical ones imposed by the paper you were working on.
Then along came type and the ability to print books. But type coped well only with words and so for a few centuries we relied on words to express everything, and those words became increasingly more complicated to cope with the complicated ideas we were trying to express. The constraint of type created a particular kind of expression of knowledge and that particular kind of expression was used by powerful people until it became the accepted way to do things. To this day if you want to be taken seriously you write a book or publish a paper.
I can’t remember the sources but the old handmade arts survived in the traditions of scrapbooking and creative journalling. But, this source said, because these were activities traditionally done by women they were discounted as less important – only suitable for the home and not “serious” enough for any real problem – like the ones faced in business, where men dominated what went on and were comfortable with papers and memos and notes and would have looked askance at anything “creative”.
The emergence of the Internet and the ability of people to find other interested people around the world is leading to a resurgence of mixed-media approaches to generating knowledge. We’re going from a world of papers to one where you can do anything – from painting your ideas to making videos about them. This is going to change the way we think and make it easier to discover new and useful ideas. As long as they are discoverable.
I’ve talked before about the work of Lynda Barry, who teaches about the value of writing and drawing by hand. She asks students to start their notebooks by drawing an outline of their hand – the “original digital device”. This leads to an interesting question posed by Ingrid Lill in her newsletter: What is out there in the world that wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t made it? You probably need to exclude your children from this – but what else is there?
Have you created something that makes your soul happy. And if not, should you?