Innovating Through Artistry

Are You Relevant?

In Art, Author: Lisa Canning, Cooking & Food, Creative Support, Creativity and Innovation, Emotional Intelligence, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS, Entrepreneurial Evolution, Entrepreneurial Tool Box, Fashion, Health & Wellness, Leadership, Money, Music, Outside Your Comfort Zone, Risk, The Idea, Theater/Film, WEBSITES & BLOGS, Writing on August 17, 2009 at 4:48 am

Are you relevant? Do you define your artistic work based on its practical, economic and social applicability to satisfy the needs of those who experience what you do? And if not, then I cannot help but ask the question, why not?

I realize that we all have a need to create and experiment in life. By doing so we are offered extraordinary opportunities to not only affirm who we are but get to know ourselves better. We learn from what works and, more often, learn the most from what does not work for us– which often allows us to find new more meaningful paths to explore.

But at what point in life do we need to become more practical, more disciplined? Is it ever to early (or late) in life to do this? And when you do, or find the help to, what are the benefits you receive for doing so?

The other day I had a young talented clarinetist– a sophomore in college- in the shop. We were discussing his future career aspirations and performing was right at the top of his list- like most of my clients. When I asked him what about performing was so motivating for him, his answer was ” Well, for a long time I was not sure I could rise to the occasion and play well enough to become an orchestral musician. It is only recently that I am starting to feel I can. Now the question I am asking myself is, do I want to do this?”

I realize that as a young adult- and even as an aging adult- coming to know who we are is a very important part of our educational journey. And alongside this process of growth and development routinely we must be challenged to answer questions like: “And if you do want to perform who specifically will want what you have to offer?”

I cannot help but wonder what we are really learning about the meaning of art, not to mention effectively reaching an audience who cares about what we have to offer from our chosen artistic field of study, if we are not challenged to explore questions like these. If you excel at Music Theory from the Middle Ages, even if you get a PHD in it and can teach it at the college level– who is it relevant to– besides you?

Take a look at my dear friend Gary Beckman- Arts Entrepreneurship Educator’s Network founder. His received his PHD in musicology in 2007 from The University of Texas at Austin. During his doctoral course work, Gary realized that his course of study was not really all that relevant and went on to pursue something that he felt was not only more relevant, but also deeply motivating for him– developing arts entrepreneurship curriculum. Now don’t get me wrong. I learned a lot from my musicology courses and loved my professors who taught them. I also think it is GREAT that Gary has vision for the growth and evolution of arts entrepreneurship curriculum, but think of what he could have accomplished, and how much happier and entrepreneurial he might have become sooner, if he had been challenged to think about how relevant his field of study was, to him and for others, at an earlier point in life?

Questioning and experimenting with our relevancy through action is at the heart of WHY the arts must become a field of entrepreneurial study in addition to traditional skill building. THE ONLY WAY artists can create sustainable happy career paths for themselves is to learn how to produce a product– relevancy.

As a young clarinetist I too asked myself the same questions my young client shared with me. I remember wondering if I could become good enough, play perfectly enough, musically enough and in tune enough to win an orchestral audition and be at the top of the heap. I challenged myself to get there with no other focus than to succeed. ( And of course, without a course or educational guidance to help me think about my goals differently.)

I started out almost last chair my freshman year at Northwestern. By my sophomore year I was at the top of my class– beating out all the masters and doctorate students, some of whom were finalists at regional orchestra auditions around the country. And when I reached that goal, all of a sudden I realize I had no idea what was next. It was not the feeling of eternal bliss I thought I would have, nor was anyone beating down my doors asking me to audition for any major orchestra. Instead it was in the middle of my senior year that I realized that I did not feel relevant. I did not feel that what skills I had developed really mattered to anyone significantly, except for me.

So it was then that I asked myself “how can I use the skills I do have to be relevant?” and from that thought I tested my ideas by putting my solution into action- by opening up a clarinet shop and helping others develop their career paths by helping them find the perfect instrument for their “relevant” music making. It was only then that I actually understood what truly it felt like to become relevant. It’s kind of funny to me, right now, that I am back where I started- after a 20 year adventure building a large business- but life is funny like that. I am being given a second chance to look at how I am relevant and I, again, am figuring it out.

But you see what I realized the first time, at 17, was that what I did have that was relevant was a gift to help and connect to others. I also had a gift to play the clarinet well. I also knew that artists needed to feel better about who they are and find their own confidence, through finding their own relevance, to become kinder to themselves and to others and strong enough to trust themselves that they could actually change the world.

Don’t ask me how exactly I knew this then– call it my God given vision- other than I did not then, and often still do not now, see the kind of inspirational collaboration or connectivity amongst others I crave in the world to see. Of all places- the arts should be outstanding examples for others of both.

Finding my relevancy at 17 gave me my first glimpse into what it meant to make a difference in life. Is it ever too early or too late to find your own? (It’s ok too, btw, if you need a school and a mentor to help you. You don’t have to find your relevancy, like I did, alone.)

Finding your relevancy will give you vision to lead. It will temper your being into a refined piece of artwork that the world wants and that you will be happy to share.

Finding your relevancy means you will feel at peace- because you are valued. You are payed- because you are needed. And that you will feel confident- because when we feel connected to ourselves and to others simultaneously, life does not get any better.

“Are you relevant,” I ask? If not– it is time to learn how you can be….

  1. I loved this post. I like to think of relevancy as function. What is your function? Every character in a story plays a function in it, a role, which serves the telling of the tale. What is your function? Of what service are you to your community? That is the fastest way (and I would argue only) towards relevance.

    I would like to further pose a question: “Whom do you serve”?

  2. This is a great piece to think on. Lisa’s journey is truly remarkable. Her spirit of the quest and her persistence in seeking, searching and meaning-making is something a good many of us can identify with. We wonder about making a living and we wonder about doing the work we love. They aren’t always the same thing, of course, and as we try to merge the two, we run into that question she raises of relevance or market worthiness which can really stretch our creative reach. Asking the big questions is part of how we stay alive, both physically and spiritually. So, I’m with Lisa on the importance of asking these questions.

    I also like Jim Hart’s approach in asking how we can be of service to our community. That can be a powerful motivator, even serve to give new definition to who we think we are, let alone the work we do. The bigger picture seems to release us from a certain degree of self-absorption, helping us to feel our personhood and connection to the rest of the human race. That can be a life-changer and also a creator of opportunities.

    But let me pose a contrary perspective, contrary at least on one level. As much as I continue to work and rework the relevance of what I do as an arts professional, there are times when the driver of my work is something which defies the usual meanings of relevance and functionality and relies upon something rarely tallied into our bottom lines, and that is the truth and beauty of a thing. I am certain I am not alone in this experience. Unless we are convinced of the inherent value of what we do, its criticality to our psyches, and its essential merit in the lives we share with others, we will find ourselves backed into some existential corner, alienated from the very communities we desire so much to be a part of. Artists have often been called “edge walkers” and agents of change. Their usefulness, by this reckoning, lies precisely in their locus of operations (and their perspectives) being well removed from the rest of us. They see things differently and that can be useful. But that pre-supposes that other people are interested in seeing things differently too. Artists have often felt the push to the periphery by a society preoccupied by its status quo indulgences and well worn habits of perception. So, who’s definition of relevance and functionality are we talking about here? Society’s? That of the marketplace? We know all too well how myopic, disinterested and risk averse they can be.

    We need, instead, I suggest to view these big questions of relevance and functionality from perspectives both hugely broad and marvelously narrow: the archetypal and personal side by side –the long view of the species and its evolving culture, and the intimate view that is our personal glimpse of truth and beauty. Sometimes, the relevance and functionality of our art really does lie in its adaptive and evolutionary value. Sometimes, only in its transformative value for the artist herself.

    If, by whatever lights are granted us, we are blessed enough to sense either of these values in what we do, we are again faced with a choice. The poet Yeats declared –

    The intellect of man is forced to CHOOSE
    PERFECTION of the LIFE, or of the WORK,
    And if it take the second must refuse
    A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark…

    Now does it have to be as bleak as all that? Was Yeats simply not acquainted with the spirit of entrepreneurship? I think there may be a deeper question here. What do you think?

    Ah, those questions! Thanks again to Lisa for bringing them into focus.


  3. Wow! I happen to feel my creative expression is completely relevant because that is the entire reason it descended upon me when I least expected it. My mission, in an instant, became to empower people to create change in their lives via the visual arts. I attract mostly beginners who are usually petrified at the thought of painting a canvas around others. Decades of discouraging self-talk dissolve into a new awareness of themselves as a creative being. I feel that is very relevant work and I certainly know who I am serving. On the other hand,…

    My desire, at times, is to NOT BE relevant so I could just retreat to my studio to paint and paint and paint. I mention that extreme emotion that washes over me every once in a while to illustrate that really this question is subjective. Some artists are such inspiration to others because of their singular focus and pure expression–they are not concerned with being relevant, only with getting their art out, out of themselves.

    Personally, I want to make art relevant to EVERYONE because I have found it to be so tightly intertwined with our lives, how we live it, the choices we make, etc. Business people need to see the art that is their business, parents the art that is raising children, and ALL of us because of what we create EVERY time we walk into a room. Do you create optimism and support wherever you go or discouragement and criticism. I recently blogged a “right brain review” of The Reader with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, simply because I was so overwhelmed with the tragedy “Michael” created by choosing to not share his experience, his love, his loss and grief with anyone else, choosing instead to bury it and let it infect every other relationship in his entire life. So sad. I loved the movie and it would not have been as good without the tragedy, but how many of us are doing that every day. Making choices that create disfunction rather than love, forgiveness, etc. Whew! I could go on and on and on. And I do! Thank you Lisa and John! Creatively yours, Whitney

  4. Whitney, I’m with you. I love your zest. I happened to be researching “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery this morning for a concert I’m performing next week, a tribute to Richard Kiley, known of course for his Man of La Mancha, but who also sang in the film version of “The Little Prince”. I came across a quote from the book that I had long ago forgotten, but which echoes your own thought remarkably well: “It is truly useful since it is beautiful.” There’s the bottom line I like.

    My great mentor, Buckminster Fuller, was fond of saying, “When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” Now this resonates with my DNA.

    Another of my heroes, mythologist Joseph Campbell, explained once that, “Far too many of our youth, our leaders and our communities suffer from ‘apericolia’. When asked what that meant, he said, “Apericolea is a Greek word meaning ‘a lack of experience of things beautiful’. Beauty isn’t cool, commercial or controversial anymore, or so some would have us believe.”

    My own convictions are pretty strong on this. I believe that our lives and work need to be a stand against that darkness, a prayer and a song that would remedy apericolia wherever it might be found. We favor beauty! Whether captured in an equation, the sweep of a symphony or the leaping of a gazelle, we favor what happens in the presence of beauty. We are challenged, shaken, transformed. We experience joy, rapture, hope. We are never passive in the presence of beauty. We may weep, but we are called forcibly into our lives, into a deeper knowing of ourselves and our connection with the world. I think that’s what we mean by the work of art, the inner work compelled by the experience of beauty.

    Useful? “It is truly useful since it is beautiful!” Cheers to one and all —


  5. This is a fascinating discussion! I would like to weigh in with some of the perspectives I’m being exposed to right now, in my studies at the International Center on Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State. Much of what I’m learning is incredible, but I don’t resonate with all of it. And in that, I must deal with my own perceptions and discomfort, and notice when something really gets my dander up.

    Part of our study is to explore definitions of creativity. This sometimes makes my eyes want to roll up in my head; the task of wrestling a definition to the ground of a phenomenon so multifaceted and enlivening and elusive.

    So: one of the most well-established definitions of creativity, at least in scholarship, is “that which produces something novel and useful.”

    This, too, makes my eyes roll up into my head. It seems by far too spare, and I bristle at the word “useful.” To me, it sounds like “utilitarian.” And that flies in the face of the powers of beauty and psyche and mythos of which John so eloquently spoke. Of course, those things are useful too, in amazingly powerful ways. But “useful” wouldn’t be the first word I would choose for them, sounding too much like the description of a new can opener…

    When Lisa asked the question “are you relevant?” I didn’t immediately hear yet another iteration of the “useful” trope. I heard: “relevant.”

    But I thought about it later, and yes, it did come to me that while it is crucial for artists to connect with their audiences and their colleagues, and to have a conviction that what they do has meaning through being relevant, there is also, I believe, a solo battle/journey where the only arbiter of the question is one’s own creative spirit. And too much of a focus on how it will be perceived by the world outside oneself can hinder that particular quest. Rilke’s “ancient tower” that you circle around, not ever quite knowing what you are, but knowing this is what it’s about.

    I’m not advocating self-indulgence or neglect of the needs of the audience, or the world, or one’s creative community. But perhaps the question of “relevance” — or, sustainable relevance perhaps, is best addressed by acknowledging both demands: of the inner quest, and the ability to give a gift that is novel, useful, relevant, and well-wrought.

    Thanks, all, for a very stimulating discussion!

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