The Corner

Back to School and Embracing Recess on the Anniversary of a Death

August, despite its sameness of weather, heat, and misery, is actually a month that is the epitome of transition. After all, it is when school hearkens for children and teachers nationwide, and when bickering politicians finally get the heck out of Dodge and go home to their districts. It is also when my mother, artist Karen Laub-Novak, was born and died, and when I bought my cabin in the woods, a cabin that has taught me about the aesthetic view of life.

This cabin was an impulse buy, if one can have an impulse buy in real estate. It was everything my mother had once discussed as the perfect artist’s retreat: barely on the grid, virtually in the middle of nowhere, on a river and surrounded by national forest. The nearest neighbors are more than a mile away, which makes them both more remote and more neighborly — we are all in this together.

“We are all in this together” — that’s how one hopes congressmen would feel about the residents of their districts, however separated by geographic distance (and often cultural and political distance) they might be. But after spending more than a decade working in politics, I can attest that it is clearly an emotion most politicians still need to learn.

My mother would say the problem is a lack of proper creative training — meaning a lack of training in creativity, in a different way of thinking and approaching issues, life, problems. She wrote about it more than 30 years ago in her essay “Creativity and Children,” published in Momentum magazine in 1975.

There are marked similarities in the way creative people proceed, whether they are writers, scientists, theologians, or artists. To take an idea or an image and force all the detail into a preconceived order is to make the work rigid. One would fail then to respond to interior contradictions, suggestions, new lines of thought, images, color, and form. Each act, each decision on how to proceed must be perceived clearly — evaluated and reevaluated. Our perception needs to be open, flexible. Not set solely upon one solution, but able to perceive multiple solutions to the problem.

Think of this applied to the U.S. Congress today. Perhaps even more depressing, think of this applied to learning in school today. We no longer encourage creativity and the arts in school; in fact, these are usually the first programs cut when budget limitations loom.#more#

The effects can be felt in our public discourse on a daily basis. If we encouraged a creative and artistic way of thinking and approaching everything, wouldn’t we be better able to “perceive multiple solutions to the problem”? In a period fraught with upheaval and change and turmoil, wouldn’t this be a blessing and a positive?

Presently we have raised generations of people who know nothing beyond forcing all detail into a preconceived order; generations who are not capable of responding to interior contradictions, suggestions, new lines of thought. It is not just that we have lost touch with how to create art; we have lost touch with our souls — as individuals and a nation. As mom put it: “Artistic perception is the symbolic base of all practical thinking.”

Certainly practical thinking is sorely missed at this time, especially in politics. This is not to say that politics should exist as no more than finding some fantasy middle ground, or that strongly-held, unyielding principles are wrong. On the contrary, the “squishy middle” is the exact opposite of what my mother embraced. She embraced difference, and honoring and celebrating those differences: “No picture will be like another — in the same way we all look and are different.”

She was fierce in her beliefs, artistic or political. In fact, she believed that (in a creative mind at least) the more fiercely held the belief, the more capable you were of seeing and finding the possible solution to a problem. Judgment and action were critical behaviors, when couched in artistic perception.

Art teaches us to perceive accurately; to see the structure visually, emotionally; to select the important from the unimportant; to make quick, nonverbalized decisions; to judge; to order; to act. And finally, as with so many of our acts and decisions, we put it all together, transcend the hours of conscious learning, and act unconsciously — without the “rational concepts.”

So, despite what the media seems to think, what our politicians need right now is not a lesson in compromise, in civility, or in bipartisanship — what they need is a lesson in art. They must learn to perceive accurately and to select the important from the unimportant, to judge, to order, to act. 

Indeed, it is not just our politicians who need a lesson in art. As our children head back to school, our educational system should remember that the arts are not “leisure” activities, they are not extracurriculars, they are not “optional” — they are critical to how we think and act, as children and especially as adults.

So in this month of transition, of school and recess, of partisan bickering and constant crisis — and on this anniversary of my mother’s death — let us embrace this concept of “artistic perception,” of “an aesthetic view of life.” Perhaps, just perhaps, we will be able to perceive multiple solutions to the problems at hand, solutions based upon principles and unyielding beliefs — solutions that acknowledge these firmly held values and also acknowledge that we really are all in this together.

— Jana Novak, who spent more than a decade working in politics, is a freelance writer with two books — and several renovations, repairs, and natural calamities — under her belt.

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