Monday, November 12, 2018

Responsibility already killed creativity - on the Epica Awards debate

Christopher Wool - If you can't take a joke
The Epica Awards Creative Circle is offering a full day of workshops in Amsterdam. The theme is "will responsibility kill creativity". Not to be missed for sure. I have been working in Journalism since 1993, and in advertising proper since 2001. That I am a champion of marginalized, unappreciated minorities is a sort of a trademark for my writings and creative work. I have a close Swedish friend whom I care for dearly, once though, I was this close to getting physical with him however. Remember I am a war child and between 1975 and 1990 and I have lived the full extent of the Lebanese gruelling war.
Here's what he said: "I too have been through a war. I got a divorce."
Here's another story. In this year's Epica Awards, there was a campaign by a brand whereby they employed war photographers to shoot women who survived breast cancer. A noble initiative for sure. Yet an initiative which had me call it "rubbish" in the comments section and which made me score it 1 out of 10 (or "damaging").
So you see, I tend to be sensitive about many issues. Some "innocent" statements I read as being insults to my life experiences - experiences that forged me into who I am.
On the flip side, and no matter how much I tend to be cautious in my use of words, I can still take a joke.
Pardoxical? Maybe.
Yet, I think we live in a world that has lost all notion of - the humour at looking at one's self.
Here are some of the things I do in class as I teach in a creative department:
I beat my students..
I insult them.
I berate them.
I say obscenities in class.
Well, there are a million ways to look at things, and the above is one of them.
I am known, as a teacher to:
Give my students a small slap on the back when they do something idiotic (no malice, no force - several notches more playful than the one that you see on NCIS with Gibbs offering it).
It is not uncommon, when something is so obvious yet the student is incapable of seeing it, for me to say (in a super playful tone) "w bahle!" (oh you twit!).
I say, almost every session, "you go up with that non-creative idea of yours to the fourth floor and throw yourself from the edge!" - the fourth floor being the top floor in the building. Actually recently, a student - based on my laser-piercing unamused look at his pseudo-creative work - looked at me and said: "I am off to the fourth floor!".
I often say "f***, make it sexy" with "it" referring to the work they are trying to do.
Whenever I say or do these things listed above, the response is - almost uniformly - a funny smirk from students if not an outright full smile.
But if I started this post with such shocking statements it is because, today, I feel we have lost the nuance-element that transforms them from one meaning to another, which we normally call: Context.
Indeed, very simply, today we lack the context of things.
Mind you, in just a decade, the whole structure of things changed - I have been teaching since 2005 at university level and the change in the students' mentality is so discernible and palpable. They are now more pampered at home, catered for, no urgency for them to go out and find work and contribute - if not to the household income - at least to get some experience and feel what "real life" is all about.
I think parents are doing their children a bit of a disservice in that domain. By over-protecting them they are shielding them from the million ways things can be interpreted in - and not all of them bad.
In a a television episode from the 80s, an Ethiopian maid comes into the screen singing an Arabic tune, then in the following scene late actress Amalia Abi Saleh comes in and continues cleaning the house while singing an Ehtiopian song. I still smile at the memory of the scene.
By today's standards this would be cultural appropriation! Side note: the "maid" was the real-life adopted daughter of Abi Saleh. Which makes the scene a full tongue-in cheek about their day-to-day life at home.
Which brings us back to - context.
The same applies for creativity.
Can we include playful insults? No.
Can we show a certain race? No.
Can we stereotype? Heaven forbid, no.
Can we speak in a local/geographical accent? No.
If I was told there was a teacher who beats his students, says obscene words in front of them, insults them and encourages them to commit suicide, I would be the first to ask for him/her to be banned from the classroom. Which of course, makes me a hypocrite, as again I "technically" do these things.
But once more, that would be taking things out of their element and the narrative in which they happened. No, I am not saying let's apply relativity to everything and dip it in color so that it exonerates every bad deed we do and twist it to make it palatable.
I do hope this is not appearing too paradoxical. It isn't.
I am just saying, there is a whole world of difference between a teacher berating a student labeling him "idiot/imbecile" (and lowering his/her (the student's that is) self-esteem in the process) and between one playfully teasing him/her "oh you twit!"- normally my sentence continues "come on, the concept is looking and you in the face and slapping you, can't you see it?" - and then the light bulb comes on and there would be a high five. Funnily, the student would then ask when I go back to their table for a correction: "is it sexy now?".
When I was at school, my late aunt happened to be our Arabic teacher, and Richard was a kid in our class who had an acute stuttering issue. When we got to the reading session, and Richard had to read aloud like the rest of us, my aunt gave him ample time to speak, read the text despite the stuttering. That experience forged me, in the sense that, whatever sickness/disability the student had, treating them as normally as everyone else boosts their morale, instead of capitalizing on their shortfalls.
Actually - quite a long time ago in my social stratification class - I was doing a paper on the disabled and one of the quotes that a man on a wheelchair said to me was: "the most beautiful thing you can say to me is, "come, let's take a walk"".
Today, however, before starting the semester, I get clear directives "this girl/boy is sickly mind how you treat him/her", "that one's parents divorced be gentle on him/her", "this student is very introverted so no point pushing him/her for a discussion" and the list is endless. And what did I do? I asked my student who has health issues to be the one to speak on behalf of her group, just like everyone else. No special treatment, no nothing.
Of course, feeling she was being treated "just like everyone else" bolstered her confidence, she found her voice, delivered the work in question, stood there proud to be "just another member of the class". The story starts with all the don'ts, all the "be careful with him/her", all the red flags, but when the student is given a "context" - not that they are the sick-one-with-health-issues-to-be-treated-with-velvet-gloves but rather the-student-who-showed-up-to-class-and-must-perform-in-the-normalcy-of-the-situation, you have no idea how their whole outlook changes.
Sometimes, the students needing normalcy are those you expect the least: A married student of mine who had a daughter once told me "ever since I got married and had a child, I became invisible - wife of so and so, mother of so and so - in your class, it was the first time I regained my identity as myself, a a full individual who is not a wife or a mother."
Of course one of the dangers of what I am writing is that it makes it look as if every rule, every gesture is elastic, that one could cross to "the other side" (wherever that is, and whatever bridge one uses!) and come back. Not true, I'd never inappropriately touch any student, I'd never date them, I'd never berate them on a serious tone, or if I notice any sign of mental health issues I'd be the first to pull them aside for a frank talk (yes, it happened - and several times). So once we put everything into its context, many acts take a different significance, one that Google - with its ready-made answers that lack the story of how the answer came about - cannot give us.
I am a teacher with very unorthodox methods. I admit to that before anyone else.
Yet also as a creative, with unorthodox methods.
I am still capable of laughing about myself above all else. This is what humour is, to accept to be the butt of one's own jokes.
Because you see:
I love my students.
I praise them.
I entice them to go further and higher.
I say empowering words in class.
And sadly, by limiting the jokes factor, in a lovely playful context, responsibility already killed creativity.