How Art Works

The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has just released a report titled “How Art Works.” It announces a new five-year research agenda, to analyze the benefits of the arts to society–individual benefits, community benefits, and economic benefits. The core of the report is a new “system map” (see graphic below), and each research project will focus on one or more of the components in the system.

The system map reflects several key assumptions guiding the research project:

  • Arts engagement is at the heart of how art works.
  • The raw fuel needed to keep the system going is the human impulse to create and express.
  • Benefits can accrue separately to individuals and communities.
  • Arts engagement makes important contributions to the capacity for a society to invent and express itself.
How Art Works System Map
How Art Works System Map

Arts engagement is at the center of the system. Everything revolves around people and communities engaging with the arts. If there’s no engagement, the NEA argues, the arts can’t have any benefits. If there’s great art sitting in a museum in the middle of nowhere and no one ever looks at it, there are no benefits. If only a small subset of the population engages with the arts, then the benefits would only accrue to that subset, thus disadvantaging the others who don’t engage with the arts.

The map is designed to be pretty easy to understand, because it’s an overall vision guiding a range of research projects over the next five years. The inputs are at the top and the outputs–the benefits–are at the bottom.

The inputs are (1) the human impulse to create and express; (2) the arts infrastructure (the institutions and places that facilitate the creation and consumption of art); (3) education and training (the skills and knowledge that inform artistic expression, and the consumption of art).

The outputs are (1) benefits of the arts to individuals (including transformations in thinking, social skills, and character development over time); (2) benefits of the arts to societies and communities (including sustaining communities, transferring values, economic benefits; and (3) the broader societal impact of the overall society’s capacity to innovate and express ideas.

At the left side of the graphic are what they call the “multipliers”: forces that broadly influence the entire art system.

Here’s the NEA summary of the system map:

The system map is a conceptual diagram of how variables relevant to the topic How Art Works “talk” to one another. It is a picture of the complexity inherent in discussions of art’s impact and it suggests a set of hypotheses about the relationship between arts engagement and the arts’ impacts on individuals and their communities. The map offers a platform for mounting a research agenda to test the strength of these relationships and their underlying hypotheses.

In the full report, each of the components in the map are expanded significantly, identifying specific elements and activities, that then lead to specific research questions. The NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis (ORA) has identified three overarching research goals:

  • Identify and cultivate new and existing data sources in the arts.
  • Investigate the value of the U.S. arts ecosystem and the impact of the arts on other domains of American life.
  • Elevate the public profile of arts-related research.

My sense of what’s going on: What they’re really looking for are quantitative measures of the benefits of the arts, that would justify national, state, and community investments in the arts. Then, arts organizations and advocates could use these data in making the case for money with politicians and nonprofit funding agencies. They’re looking for evidence of benefits in any of the following areas:

  • Health and well-being: Does arts participation increase individual health and/or community health?
  • Cognitive capacity, learning, and creativity: Does arts participation make you smarter and/or more creative?
  • Community livability: If there are more local opportunities for arts participation, does that make a community more desirable, pleasant, healthy?
  • Economic prosperity: Does arts participation increase the economic success of a city or region–whether real estate values, average salaries, growth in new businesses, or whatever?

Of course, the NEA has been exploring these questions for years already. The report ends with a summary of 31 projects, both completed and planned, that align with the system map and these research questions. What’s really new here is the “system map” concept itself; the idea is that it will help the NEA better understand how all of its different research projects fit together–and in particular, help them to understand which areas may have been relatively neglected in the past.

Anyone involved in the arts has a stake in this research. Most people who work in the arts feel as if arts funding is under siege–in the U.S., the various government entities have often found it easy to cut arts funding, either because they thought the arts was a private sector responsibility, or because they thought the arts were only consumed by a small elite. In U.S. schools, arts education has losing support for decades–with many schools now having almost no arts education.

Should society support the arts from revenue that is provided by taxes on everyone? Is there a national interest at stake? What do you think?

The Secret History of Improvisation in World War II

I just came across a fascinating article*, published in 1948, describing the use of improvisation in personality assessment. Even more fascinating is that the lead author is the famous developmental psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, who’s not really known for this type of research.  (He’s probably most famous for co-founding the U.S. Head Start program in the 1960s and 1970s.)

Bronfenbrenner starts the article by giving us the amazing history: During World War II, many American psychologists were drafted into the war effort. Working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), they were asked to screen all of the “special ops” forces before they were chosen to go overseas. Bronfenbrenner describes some of the positions:

member of a research team working on the economic geography of the Orient, radio operator for a unit of the French Underground, propaganda writer for a radio station in the Pacific beaming programs to Japan, leader of a team of saboteurs to be dropped behind German lines, …physician for a detachment behind enemy lines in Burma…these assignments called for active operations under considerable stress.

How to identify the men who would perform most effectively? Raw IQ wasn’t enough; many of their assessments attempted to measure creativity and adaptability, as well. By the way, many of the leading creativity researchers in the 1950s got their start working for the OSS during WWII, as I describe in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity:

  • J. P. Guilford, who gave the legendary 1950 APA lecture on “Creativity” and founded the Aptitudes Research Project at the University of Southern California in the early 1950s
  • Donald MacKinnon, who founded the Institute for Personality Assessment Research (IPAR) at UC Berkeley in the early 1949
  • Morris Stein, who founded the Center for the Study of Creativity and Mental Health at the University of Chicago in 1952

Until reading this 1948 article, I never knew that Bronfenbrenner was a part of this WWII effort. In fact, in a footnote he thanks MacKinnon and the staff of “Station S” for their “active participation in the construction and administration of improvisations.” Bronfenbrenner’s contribution was to develop a personality assessment technique that asked candidates to perform improvised scenarios, on stage, in front of an audience of research psychologists and other candidates.

How did these guys learn about improvisation? In 1948, there was no Second City theater, no Chicago school of improvisation. Viola Spolin had not yet published her influential book of improv games for children. Bronfenbrenner attributes the inspiration to Jacob Moreno’s psychodrama…and from my studies of improv history, I know that Moreno formed the first staged improv theater ensemble, which performed all over New York City in the 1920s, even at Carnegie Hall, doing improv games that he later adapted for the therapeutic technique that he called “psychodrama.” (The history is in my 2003 book Improvised Dialogues, if you’d like to learn more…A lot of things we associate with Chicago improv were actually started by Moreno in the 1920s.)

Based on a lot of trial and error, the psychologists learned that the best improv scenarios had the following characteristics:

  1. Relatively free structuring. If you give too many details of plot or role, it inhibits spontaneity and results in “conventionalized responses.”
  2. Departure from real-life role. The subject should be asked to perform a role far removed from his everyday life situation.
  3. Focus on classic conflict situations. These are more likely to evoke “clinically significant behavior.”

This is so true! Any contemporary improviser knows that these three features really do result in good improvisations.

They ended up using six scenarios, each with two actors, that satisfied these criteria. Prior to each scenario, they assigned each actor a role and gave him a situation description (hidden from the other actor). Here’s an example:

Scenario 1A. The first actor is Mr. Thomas, the superintendend of schools, and the second is Mr. Green, a high school teacher. Mr. Thomas is told that Mr. Green is 35 years old and is a bachelor, and you have heard persistent rumors “regarding Mr. Green’s sexual conduct.” Mr. Green’s directions simply say “the Superintendent would like to see you in his office.”

Here’s another one, in the “heterosexual relationship” category:

Scenario 3B. Both actors receive the same instructions: Mary and Dick have been “going around” together for over a year. Whenever you’re alone, you find yourselves becoming more and more intimate. Things have reached a point where there are “no holds barred.” You have been thinking about this and you decide to talk about it in private.

By the way, keep in mind that there are no women candidates for these underground military tasks during World War II. Each man being considered for the assignment takes the male role in one situation, and the female role in the next. (!)

So how did they use these improvisations to evaluate a personality? The authors admit that they haven’t figured out how to quantify it. But they describe several overall features of the performance that they believe are important indicators:

  • The way that he “fills in the gaps in the partially structured improvisation.” How he structures his own role and that of his partner.
  • “The subject’s sensitivity and adaptation to the behavior of his partner.” And listen to this improv truth, which has been rediscovered many times since: “Even though the subject may have planned his course of action in advance, he is usually forced into spontaneity by unforseen and uncontrollable elements in the behavior of his fellow-participant.”
  • Consistency and variability in behavior from one scenario to another. “These differences often fall into a consistent pattern.”
  • The degree to which the subject is able to stay in a particular role.  “This variation povides a cue to the subjects’ particular sources of satisfaction or anxiety.”
  • The manner in which the subject handles the emotional aspects inherent in the plots. What is the balance between intellect and emotions? Do emotions override “inhibiting barriers”? Is there a tendency to avoid emotion through “intellectualization or socially stereotyped response”?
  • Finally, how does the subject permit the situation to end? Do they seek a compromise? Do they insist on carrying their own point? Do they leave it hanging? If there is unresolved tension, what is the emotional tone?

The other dozen or so candidates sat in the audience, and they were asked to discuss each performance after it was completed.

Obviously, the language and the concerns are specific to the time period. Still, I am extremely impressed with the creativity and the perceptiveness of the researchers who developed these exercises. Who knew that improvisation was used to help the United States win in World War II?

*Urie Bronfenbrenner and Theodore M. Newcomb, 1948. “Improvisations–an application of psychodrama in personality diagnosis.” Sociatry, Volume 4, pages 367-382.

A Great Review of Explaining Creativity

Today I was thrilled to read an enthusiastic review* of my book Explaining Creativity, by Professor James Kaufman and Alexander McKay. Explaining Creativity is the second edition of a book I published in 2006, as a textbook overview of the field of creativity research. Since 2006, there’s been a lot of new research, so this new book is totally different; for example, it has seven new chapters and eight new appendices.

Excerpts from the review:

Required reading for anyone interested in the topic. In a just world, Sawyer’s thorough and nuanced volume would be the best seller, not Jonah Lehrer’s pedestrian Imagine.

Sawyer’s book is easily the most thorough creativity text on the market.

We highly recommend this book.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my book and for writing such a strong review!

*Kaufman, J. and McKay, A. (2012). Incisive and balanced: R. Keith Sawyer explains creativity. PsycCRITIQUES: APA Review of Books. August 22, 2012, Vol. 57, Release 33, Article 5

Best Creativity Advice Books

I’ve just finished writing my latest book, which is filled with advice for how to be more creative. The title is Zig Zag: The surprising path to greater creativity. To prepare to write Zig Zag, I read every existing creativity advice book…and there are a LOT of them!

Here are my favorite creativity advice books, the ones with the best practical advice and the most useful hands-on techniques. They’re exciting to read and consistent with scientific research. Of course, when Zig Zag is published in Spring 2013, that will be at the top of my list! But until then,

Drum roll please…

Creativity Today by Igor Byttebier and Ramon Vullings. 2007. This insightful and fun book is by two Dutch consultants who are part of the “new shoes today” collaborative. I came across it while in The Netherlands. It really deserves to be much better known in the U.S. Really, this is surprisingly good, and very easy to use in workshops or in creative firms.

Disciplined Dreaming by Josh Linkner. 2011. After founding eTrade, Linkner interviewed over 200 CEOs, entrepreneurs, and others about creativity. His advice is really on target. It has very little to do with “dreaming” but it has a lot to do with jazz improvisation (like me, Linkner is a jazz musician).

Ideaspotting by Sam Harrison. 2006. Great two-color graphic design, good anecdotes, and good advice. A lot of anecdotes and quotations I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Innovation by Tom Gorman. 2007. This book is a bit more simple and introductory than the others. (It has sidebars defining “OEM” and “strategic alliance” and “value proposition,” for example.) It’s very much directed toward someone working in a large organization, with lots of advice about product development, product launch, marketing, hiring, etc. But it’s all good advice, and I really love the two-color graphic design of the interior…one of the best-looking books on of this list.

Stimulated! by Andrew Pek and Jeannine McGlade. 2008. A wonderful looking, colorful book, it almost certainly cost the most to print of any on this list. I particularly like this book for its organization around five “habits that spark your creative genius”: scouting, cultivating, playing, venturing, and harvesting.

Two books are particularly strong for their collections of classic creativity techniques:

Five Star Mind by Tom Wujec. 1995. Classic exercises and insight problems, organized into 8 cooking-related categories like appetite (hunger for ideas), mix (combine ideas), and spice (season ideas).

101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques by James M. Higgins. 2006. These techniques are probably the most widely known, such as the Fishbone Diagram and Mind Mapping and SCAMPER, but there are a lot of techniques I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

So, what if you had to buy just one book? Which one would I recommend? That’s a difficult choice, because they’re all great in different ways.

  • If you’re leading a creativity workshop, I would get Creativity Today.
  • If you’re working in a creative setting and you need to enhance your personal creativity, I really like Stimulated!
  • If you work in a traditional corporation and you’re primarily interested in business innovation, I would get Innovation. (Although it may be too introductory for you if you’re already involved in innovation activities.)
  • If you’re an experienced creativity expert, you’ll probably find the most things you don’t know already in Ideaspotting.
  • If you want a more traditional book with a readable narrative, something for a long airplane ride, try Disciplined Dreaming.

Or, you could wait until Spring 2013 and buy Zig Zag!