JOQ with Madhu
We all need a creative outlet.
It brings balance to a life that would otherwise be go, go, go. It allows us a moment to stop, to reach within ourselves and to tap into something personal and true.
For several of us at Mez Mag, the form is dance. Our friend and editorial panelist Madhu, who has a PhD in urban planning and architecture from MIT, and who now teaches at MIT, says:
“Dance provides a sense of peace and a creative and experimental outlet.”
Lorena contributes her sentiments as well:
“Dancing and feeling the energy of the music seems to takes you out of your reality, away from your problems and routine. Like when you are watching a movie or reading a book, it seems that you transport yourself to that space. So it is with dancing – you are part of a play at that moment, where the act and result of an action depends on you.”
For me, dance is therapy, meditation. It allows me to explore a place that is beyond verbal or written expression. It’s cathartic. It’s an exhale, when the world has me gulping too much air.
All of us need that time to connect to something that gives us peace. For some it is kite-flying or woodworking, cooking or hiking. The trouble is, some people never get the opportunity to find their therapeutic activity.
Creativity is undervalued; it is seen as impractical in a world emphasizing wealth and success.
As a former middle school teacher, I was often frustrated by the fact that our schools seem designed to churn out students who can perform well on tests, get into a good college, and earn a degree that secures them a high-paying job. There is little room for success outside this framework, and there is certainly little room for creativity within it. Students get in trouble for doodling, or fidgeting, or making jokes. The ideal student is one who sits quietly, absorbs what we give them, and churns out accurate responses. The ideal student is a robot.
In his TED talk on the importance of imagination, Sir Ken Robinson gives an account of Gillian Lynne–a famous choreographer who was fortunate to have a teacher who recognized her fidgeting in class as a sign of talent, rather than an affliction in need of medication. Instead of sending her to the principal’s office, her teacher called her parents to suggest she take dance classes. Sir Ken agrees that creativity is undervalued in our school system–that we focus too often on the right or wrong answer, without giving a nod to the process itself. This is not to say that there aren’t amazing teachers who go beyond curriculum to endorse creativity in the classroom, and I can personally attest to working among an amazing group of them.
Our school was fortunate to have an arts program that included music and dance, and every year a very dedicated group of teachers and parents had to fight to keep it going. It pains me to think of all the programs that must be getting cut in the current economic climate. There weren’t even many to begin with. These programs often provide a ‘win’ for students who might not find success in the other arenas of academic life. These programs might be the sole motivation for a student to stay in school, and these programs are constantly being threatened. Fewer and fewer kids have the chance to find their creative outlet, let alone the chance to make it a career and become what Malcolm Gladwell calls an ‘outlier’.
Think of all the future YoYo Ma’s and Zoe Keatings sitting in our classrooms today who might not know what a cello is, much less how to play it. They won’t even have the opportunity to put in their 10,000 hours.
The late Steve Jobs understood that when he decided to sit in on calligraphy classes at Reed College because he loved calligraphy. And as is now immortalized in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address:
I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this.
I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac.
It was the first computer with beautiful typography.
There are some unique individuals throughout history – such as Steve Jobs – who can navigate skillfully and creatively between the technical and the aesthetic. Right brain and left brain. Steve Jobs could appreciate the beauty of the calligraphic fonts on the Mac screen, as well as the detailed engineering that goes behind the screen.
What Allan took from his own studies at MIT and elsewhere, is the ability to teach his artisans how to navigate effectively between their mechanical skills and their artistic potential. Mezimbite Magazine asked our editorial panel member Madhu Chhanda Dutta-Koehler about her thoughts on navigating between the technical and the aesthetic.
Just One Question
You are a technically skilled urban planner and architect, and yet you have also studied Indian classical dance for 18 years. Could you tell us more about how you have managed to navigate between the technical and the aesthetic?
Response from Madhu
This “just one question” strikes me as a “meta-cognitive” task, one that causes us to simultaneously step outside our creative and intellectual processes while delving deeply into them.
Ask an architect, artist, or anyone who pursues a creative endeavor about the creative process, and more often than not it would be the hardest question for him or her to answer.
Such reflection is particularly difficult because part, perhaps most, of any creative accomplishment takes place in an intuitive realm; the work is fabricated only semi-consciously and thus cannot be easily codified, let alone coherently explained.
However, in my experience as an architect and a performing artist, I can say without hesitation that perhaps the most satisfying projects, whether professional or personal, come together when the right brain and left brain work in concert.
Mediating between the aesthetic and the technical has been a constant personal challenge in my work, especially since I was educated in a rigorously scientific tradition while my inclinations are rooted in a more creative, design-oriented realm.
I think that the reason why artisans at Mezimbite Forest Centre are able to produce something so appealing and “beautiful” is because they successfully navigate such a balance in the technical and aesthetic spaces of their work.
One would think that these distinct sensitivities might contradict each other, in the eternal, axiomatic battle between form and function. However, I have come to realize that to be truly satisfied with the process as well as the product, one cannot privilege either one; the technical aspects must be managed in conjunction with an aesthetically centered framework.
When aesthetics is understood as a branch of philosophy (derived from the Greek word “aisthetikos“, meaning “sense of perception”), rather than merely an appreciation of beauty or appearance, the concept can immediately embrace a broader notion of beauty.
For example, when a “technical solution” is fitting, elegant, and simple yet powerful, it can also satisfy our aesthetic desires. Conversely, for something to be truly “aesthetic”, one cannot ignore the “technical”.
A dance performance, for example, involves the mechanics of the body, the ability of the dancer to navigate spatially, and the power to communicate emotion silently, and while doing all these things to be able to do so beautifully!!!
I guess what I am trying to say is that for anything, be it a policy instrument, a creative performance, a mathematical equation, hand-crafted furniture, or a piece of exquisite jewelry, the aesthetic and the technical need to work in unison. Yes, at different moments in the process each aspect necessarily has to take precedence, but in the end the work will lack universal appeal or effectiveness if the product is not a “mediated one”.
I think that the reason why artists at Mezimbite are able to produce something so appealing and “beautiful” is because they successfully navigate such a balance in the technical and aesthetic spaces of their work.
Steve Jobs expressed this sentiment best:
“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
To me good design is really the successful union of the technical and the aesthetic.
Madhu is a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT