my son joel studied at chelsea art college. i was really inspired by what i observed of the course he did - it was creative, assignments were stretching and nearly all done as teams, people from various sectors in the creative industries and arts would come and speak, students were encouraged to do real work alongside their training, and the graduate show was mind-blowingly good. i was also regretting having studied maths rather than art myself i think! he was there at the same time that i was designing training for pioneers and i remember thinking that i thought an art school or innovation school was more like what i hoped we could create than a theological seminary. of course we would teach theology, mission, ministry but the environment or air that students breathe needed to be risk taking, creative, free. so when i was last in the institute for contemporary arts bookshop in london i couldn’t resist buying the creative stance. this is a collaboration between art college teachers in london on what makes for a flourishing creative student who trains with them. through their reflection they have come up with seven behaviours and the book is laid out in a series of chapters on each behaviour with a short essay by an artist followed by a discussion on that behaviour with three lecturers often in relation to a particular course. i really loved the book. the seven behaviours are essentially a kind of formation for art students. they are:
rigour, risk, imagination, provocation, agency, resilience, and ambiguity.
i discuss these behaviours with rick lawrence on the podcast i blogged about a few posts back. but i’d like to reflect on them here thinking particularly about theological education because that was the discussion i was in this week - what’s the relationship between theological education and innovation (and by extension ministry and mission practice and innovation).
to take one behaviour, rigour has an essay by grayson perry in which he reflects on two internal characters - hobbit and punk. to be a good artist the hobbit is the character who puts in hours to develop brilliance in skill in a craft - in his case pottery. hobbit alone can make nice pots but in terms of art can be a bit boring. so he also needs punk who is the character who messes with things to make them interesting. this interplay between hobbit and punk makes for a creative approach to art that combines depth of skill with risk taking imagination and innovative practice. the essay is actually available in the latest edition of creative review and is free if you sign up. it’s totally brilliant! when asked what advice he would give to an artist student perry says - ‘turn up on time, be nice, and put in the hours’. you can see where i am going with this - this is so resonant with pioneers. i suspect they are more attracted to punk than hobbit. but in theological education (and in the church generally) i bump into a lot more hobbits than punks. but it’s a great idea to nurture both aspects.
i won’t elaborate on all the behaviours - you can get the book but here are a few quotes and ideas i jotted down that caught my attention.
curiosity is foundational. if you are not curious you’ll stay on a safe path.
Curiosity is the substrate of creativity, overlaid by an appetite for risk, necessarily followed by determination
i fear that safety is a problem in theological education and the church - we are generally risk averse which is ironic because probably the theologians and saints we admire are/were curious and risk taking. but various traditions of theology have systematised it and made it about information and right doctrine rather than a quest that is creative in response to the tradition and context and the spirit. and i think there can easily be an atmosphere of anxiety and fear about getting things right rather than one of exploration and play. art school gives people the confidence to make a dangerous decision - does theology school i wonder?
the enemy of your own and other peoples certainty. A state of optimistic dissatisfaction, of relentless questioning. A preoccupation with quality without regard for the established order.
how do you involve students in risk?
You show them things that they probably haven’t thought about before and that aren’t necessarily part of that central canon.
the authors suggest that art schools should be creating the kind of graduates that can rock boats rather than row boats, that question and push. and they lament that the curriculum is currently too related to industry because of pressures. has play been ruined because it has to be turned to money? we might say the same of ministry students who are under pressure from industry a.k.a. church growth. the authors suggest that playfulness should be applied to everything and every moment you’re alive… a way of being.
ambiguity is fascinating i think. it requires doubt and where there is doubt there is great space for imagination. art students need to learn to transgress rules and fixed boundaries and conventions forging new paths where no one has trodden before. this sounds like a mantra for pioneers and cross cultural mission. but i have not seen this in much theological education i have visited so far.
for a world that is changing and in need of change creatives need flexibility, adaptability, openness, vulnerability, resourcefulness, avoidance of monocultures (which are fragile rather than resilient). the church needs the same - it really does.
and i found it interesting that the exact same challenge i described in the last post of people who remake the world in order to create solutions is nurtured in arts students. they
reshape the world to contain the artwork you make, to create a new reality - because it’s never been enough just to make the art
(substitute the word theology for art)
there is a lovely section where a lecturer from chelsea art college ponders the percentage of students who go on to be artists and make a life in it which is quite small. but he then lists what they do go on to do in a wonderful list of enterprises, community development, change agents, educators and so on. in other words a creative education enables them to have agency out of who they are to participate in making the world a better place.
anyway you get the point. when you look at a formation that nurtures a creative stance there is so much for theological and mission education to learn. but the contrast with what is valued and in the air in theological colleges is stark. if we want innovation maybe we need students to breathe different air, art school air?!
this reminded me too of will gompertz's book think like an artist which i have blogged about before. in that he has a whole section on education generally and why it should be like art school which i loved. he says
Art school or not students need to leave education as independently minded, intellectually curious, self confident and resourceful - prepared for and excited by the future and what they might be able to contribute to it. The future depends on us taking a different approach.
i couldn’t agree more.
(thanks to the baptist theological educators forum who invited me to reflect on formation and theological education with them earlier this year that enabled me to develop this particular sideways strain of thought)