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Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Mushroom Argument; or: Music is So Much More than Creativity

The football match of my oldest daughter (6) is canceled, so early in the morning I am sitting at the table, writing this blog, while my oldest daughter, her football friend, and my youngest daughter are busy making drawings, and my son is at the computer working at his Minecraft world. In the background Bach's Motets play, in the performance of Herreweghe's Collegium Vocale. My youngest daughter is enthusiastic because actually this is the music used in the Peter Pan Disney-movie she just saw, she tells me.

In the meantime I am thinking about the current debate in the art education world about creativity. It is a debate I am trying to unravel, basically because I feel uncomfortable about it in many ways. For example, I don't like thinking about the importance of music education in terms of the vague, abstract and misleading concept of  'art' (let alone 'culture' - in the Netherlands music education has become a part of 'art education' which has become a part of 'culture education', leading to a discourse on levels of abstraction which make it increasingly difficult to apply it to the realities of what happens in concrete classrooms with concrete music teachers and concrete pupils).

Another thing with the creativity debate is that it is so much connected to ideas about 'the creative sector', 'the creative industry', 'the creative class' (and the people forming this class, the so-called 'creatives' ('creatieven' in Dutch newspeak); I abhor it, especially the acts of self-declaration and self-congratulation behind it), 'the creative economy', '21st century skills' and what not. What I don't like about that debate is the economical turn it has given to the thinking about creativity. I love creativity - whatever it is - but I am not a fan of the rather flat thinking behind the argument that, in order to keep 'our' wealth 'we' have to become a 'creative economy' and therefore 'we' need creativity skills, which should be fostered in education, which is why 'art education' is so important - the 'we' being the Dutch or the Europeans striving to become even more rich than they already are. I would like to see some more reflection on the question whether education really is first and foremost a vehicle for sustaining economic power in this unequal world we live in.

But anyway. What I would like to comment on here is only a small thing. It is the mushroom argument of the advocates of creativity. The mushroom argument runs as follows: 'Primary school teachers should teach art. But they teach their class of 30 children in autumn to draw 30 near-identical mushrooms. Where's the creativity in that? Away with the primary school teacher! We need Real Artists in the classsroom!'

I am exaggerating, maybe, but not much. And again, I am not really a fan of the argument. One of the reasons is that I do not recognize that this is what actually is happening in primary schools - it seems a caricature to me. A second reason is that even if 30 identical mushrooms would be drawn, I can think of hundreds of reasons why that could be pedagogically useful, although maybe not really creative. And a third reason is that I don't feel we are getting anywhere by picturing primary school teachers as non-specialist nitwits - it is not true, it is fair nor polite, and I can predict anyway that 'art education' in primary schools will in the future stay completely dependent on the average primary school teacher, if only because there simply will be not enough money reserved for 'art education' by 'specialists' in our primary education, in spite of all recent efforts to bring 'the artist' in the classroom and to connect the school to the local 'cultural institutions'. I guess it would be wise to spend a bit more time in preparing the average classroom teacher for using music, visual arts, dance, drama, poetry in their teaching. And I do feel that that is where more of the money should go.

But what I am wondering about most is the relation of this arty mushroom argument to music education. The kids at the table I am sitting at right now are drawing, making their own books with their own stories, inventing a virtual Minecraft church at the computer - all very creative, and great to be a witness of. But in the background Bach is playing, and what the choir members in the recording are doing is maybe less connected to singing out their creative imagination and more to drawing 30 identical mushrooms.

If music education is 'art education', and 'art education' is meant to foster 'creativity', does that mean that singing Bach Motets or rehearsing an arrangement of a well-known song until it sounds reasonably coherent, or, in primary schools, singing existing songs in unisono is not interesting anymore? Does it mean that we have to focus on composition and improvisation in the music lesson? Or that we have to redefine creativity  in such a way that the expressivity needed to reproduce existing music is becoming the creative core of music education? (Both tendencies can be found back in the arguments of music teachers trying to connect to the creativity debate.)

My feeling is that all that would lead to an inexcusable reduction of the richness of what music is in the daily life of people, and therefore to yet more problems in convincing pupils that music education in schools may mean something for them. Yes, music sometimes is creative; but for many people in many situations that's not the main point about music.

'Music is so much more than Art', I like to point out to people from time to time. I guess I am going to point out in the future from time to time that music is so much more than creativity, too.

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