In the spectral silence of a deserted Siena, Tuscany, a man leans out of his window and begins to intone a well-worn tune. “In Piazza del Campo, the vervain grows,” he sings.
A dog barks, reminding viewers of the mundanity of the performer’s environs. Then something happens that viewers might not expect: A chorus of invisible singers — residents quarantined in their homes in this medieval town, as per the Italian government’s national lockdown order — take up the song. The lyrics shift. “We don’t fear you, Corona; you are garbage, you disgust the city,” they sing. It’s powerful, inspiring, and spine-tingling as only great art can be.
Except it’s not art. Or, at least it’s not art how we would usually define it, something on display in a museum or performed by professionals in theaters or concert halls. “High art” is the quintessential expression of genius, or so modern theories of art would have us believe. This narrative generally regards artists as special individuals with extraordinary talents beyond what ordinary people can imagine. Only a select few can be Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci; the rest of us should be satisfied with the chance to enjoy their masterworks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a clarifying effect in a number of respects. For me, one of them is how limiting and frankly wrongheaded the modern take on the arts is at a moment when people all around the world have found authentic meaning expressing themselves creatively, whether through painting or baking.
I’m not trying to say that museums and concert halls can’t play a positive role in promoting creativity. As a professor of aesthetics, I’ve made a career out of my love and passion for the high arts. However, I’m also not blind to the limitations of formal art world institutions, which are often oppressive, exclusionary, and colonialist to their very core. Take the negligible number of exhibitions given to female artists at major museums, for instance. Likewise, the above choice to highlight two white European men as examples of the ideal artist wasn’t an accident.
What I want to lament here, however, is the disproportionate attention that professionalized art enjoys. I often compare it to eating at a Michelin three-star restaurant. Such an establishment can certainly provide a rewarding dining experience. But ultimately it is — and should be — a special treat. And not just because of the cost: There is widely recognized value in the simplicity of a home-cooked dish, in the very act of making, eating, and sharing it, that fine dining cannot replicate. Nights out are the exception, not the norm.
Yet in the arts, it’s quite the opposite. We have normalized the consumption of three-star creative expressions: museums, art galleries, concert halls. This system not only limits our daily exposure to creativity — not even Parisians can visit the Louvre every day — but also teaches us to treat ourselves as passive spectators.
The devaluation of everyday creations is part of a precise hierarchy of different forms of creativity. In it, works that cognitive scientist Margaret Boden would term “historical creativity” — the creation of something valuable and surprising that did not exist before — are treated as the only genuine type of creativity.
That covers much of high art. But there is another type of creativity: psychological creativity, or the capacity to come up with something valuable and surprising to the creator themselves. This can be anything from a child’s drawing to the songs of Siena residents.
The coronavirus-induced isolation that we have all experienced to some degree reveals the importance of this type of psychological creativity. It fills us with joy, while opening space for expressing and reflecting upon our present emotions and feelings. Coming up with something that feels valuable to us, no matter the quality of the product, can be an effective way of healing the soul. Experts have long recognized the value of psychological creativity in dealing with grief, for instance, and that’s an emotion all too many of us have felt recently.
For evidence, look no farther than violinist Aldo Cicchini’s “Cloud Concert.” An Italian-Uruguayan resident of Milan’s Chinatown, Cicchini plays the violin in the official orchestra of Italy’s national television station, RAI. After Italy went into lockdown, he began giving performances from his balcony.
One of these impromptu shows went viral in China after his neighbor shared the video on microblogging platform Weibo. It was an unpolished, DIY recording, far from the rarified atmospheres of the concert hall. After the clip received a lot of buzz, Cicchini opened up a Weibo account of his own to publish his videos.
Weibo users didn’t just appreciate the videos he posted, however. Instead, amateur music bloggers built on them, one after another, each adding their own touch to Cicchini’s performance of composer Carlos Gardel’s “Por una Cabeza” in what some netizens referred to as a “nesting doll,” or taowa, performance. One nesting doll started with a user playing along on the accordion, then another musician, introducted to the trend by his daughters, added a cello, and so on.
Interestingly, the Chinese participants didn’t show their faces while performing. This decision to stay away from the spotlight suggests their participation was motivated by more than just a desire to be seen or gain publicity. Of course those reasons are factors, but their choice to remain faceless also highlighted a desire to create together, rather than be popular.
Pablo Picasso is believed to have said: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” The painter’s intended meaning was unclear, but one interpretation would be that there is something truly special in the value that children find in being creative.
Those words suddenly popped into to my mind the other day, while looking at pictures that my brother had sent me of my 3-year old niece, Matilde. Locked down with her family in Leeds, she was amusing herself by throwing confetti in the air. The joy she got from this seemingly mundane activity was infectious. We can’t all aspire to be Leonardos, but we can certainly learn how to be Matildes.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Aldo Cicchini, a violinist with the RAI orchestra, plays on a balcony in Milan, Italy, 2020. From @联合国新闻 on Weibo)