2019-05-29

Authors

Christine O’Donnell
is currently based out of Boston, Massachusetts, USA. She has worked in arts management for over twenty years, to include: museums, galleries, cultural centers, and non-profits. Her work the past fifteen years has had a strong focus on Arab art and culture. Christine has worked both in the USA, and the Middle East. In addition to managing art venues, Christine occasionally writes articles on art and culture. 
Why Art Matters

Art and Critical Thinking

Pablo Picasso’s is an excellent example to show how art has the power to make us better people. The importance of combining art and critical thinking skills, in a myriad of formal and informal approaches, can prove very effective in improving the quality of life for individuals and societies. This article discusses how the creative/ artistic mind, in tandem with the problem-solving/ practical mind, can better serve pursuits of happiness, shape our values, and reach for higher goals, especially in times of crisis.
"Critical thinking is a desire to think, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order, and hatred for every king of impostor.” Francis Bacon, Philosopher
 
Several years ago, I took a class in leadership skills, and since then, I have often thought about the importance of critical thinking in all aspects of life. Critical thinking is bigger than solving a problem or strategizing for an end result. Critical thinking teaches us to think intellectually, ethically, and creatively. I have always been involved in the arts; either in the making of art, or working for galleries, museums, and cultural centers, both in the USA and internationally. I have come to understand just how important art is to the human condition. Having art in our lives not only brings us pleasure; art offers us a chance to think, to be curious, to be amazed, or even confused. What am I looking at? What I am I listening to? What am I reading? What is this artist trying say? How am I feeling? What is this author trying to convey? Reactions can vary greatly. People become more relaxed in a creative environment. When our mind and body are relaxed, ideas and inspirations come to us without effort. Some refer to this experience as divine intervention or being in-the-flow.
 
"If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.” Edward Hopper, Artist
 
While writing this article, I happened to have watch a business-news channel on the television, which was unintentional and being ignored. However, my ears perked up quite quickly when I heard a male voice say: "I found my creative expression in building and rebuilding computers when I was a teenager. I would be so happy to dash off and tell my friends and family when I figured out something exciting.” The man stating this went on to build a very successful global computer company. He found his creative passion young - and made it his life’s work. 
 
I believe that people should be encouraged to participate in the making of art - whatever that art may be. Art can be found in anything and everything. It is just a matter of personal taste and preference. Art can be found in the athlete, the scientist, the mechanic, the baker, the student, as art is a process where the individual finds him-/ herself in a joyous process of a passionate endeavor. The individual can also be passively engaged; listening to a beautiful piece of music is transcending and mood changing. Reading an interesting book or meaningful poetry is a creative outlet for the reader. Most people will find joy in artistic appreciation.
 
"A true artist is not one who is inspired, but one who inspires others.” Salvador Dali, Artist
 
What is critical thinking? How does it come into play in our daily lives? I like to define critical thinking with a visual reference: a helicopter. When applying critical thinking skills, one should hover over an idea, or an issue from all sides, and from all points of view. Hovering over all the angles and gaining perspective and information from each position helps in decision making. Once all perspectives have been considered, then, a stronger decision can be made.
 
Critical thinking is crucial for self-reflection. In order to live a meaningful life and to structure our lives accordingly, we need to justify and reflect on our values and decisions. Critical thinking provides the tools for this process of self-evaluation. Critical thinking and creative expression conjure up our better human attributes of compassion and tolerance. Critical thinking guides us to an end result. It can also guide us in a moral, ethical direction. Because we are viewing situations, strategies, and problems from a variety of input and points of view, this process allows us to interact with other people and different situations. Learning to negotiate and navigate opinions and suggestions elevates the conversation and, as the end result, to a higher standard.
 
"Education is not the learning of facts, it’s rather the training of the mind to think.” Albert Einstein, Scientist
 
I am very interested in advancing the principals of critical thinking into the arena of geopolitics. Countries where citizens feel oppressed, threatened, and are unable to speak their minds, to paint, play music, or write freely is often considered dissident. People are persecuted for their artistic expression, especially if the art conveys an anti-establishment message. Authoritarian leaders do not want their people being influenced by artists’ "propaganda”. Absolute leaders are leery of up-rise, as it often leads to rebellion as the world saw with the Arab Spring in 2010 - 2011 in Tunisia and throughout the Middle East. 
 
In a post 9/11 world, with frequent acts of violence from terrorist organizations, I wonder surely that within these groups there must be artists, researchers, scholars, business people, teachers, chefs, mechanics, scientists, accountants et al. How different could each of their lives be given the opportunity to choose freely? What if these violent minded, radicalized individuals had the chance to choose a different life path that was suitable to their individual talents and interests could have made them happier members of society?
 
A powerful example of artistic expression being used to heal war ravaged cities is the the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad, Iraq lead by conductor Karim Wasfi. A 2018 Washington Post article describes how Mr. Wasfi organized a concert to help local residents heal from the trauma of war, saying: "this city deserves culturally to be identified as somewhere where there should be the sound of music instead of the sound of bombs”. The concert drew hundreds of people to recognize that through artistic expression rebirth could begin.
 
Mr. Wasfi is known for bringing the joy of music to local Iraqis, in attempts to soothe the horrors of war they endure. He was praised internationally in 2015, when he played cello at the site where three car bombs had gone off the day before. Passerbys sang along as he played Iraq’s national anthem. How did critical thinking play into Mr. Wasfi’s use of music? To fulfill his goal to help local residents emotionally heal from the hardships of war, he strategized that music was his elixir. He calculated to play on the grounds where ISIS had trained. He calculated that he would draw a rallying crowd. These thoughts process all parts of critical thinking. 
 
"Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Pablo Picasso, Artist
 
The highly iconic painting by Pablo Picasso, Guernica, painted in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War is a fascinating and successful example of where art and activism meet. The painting was created in response to Nazi Germany bombing the town of Guernica in northern Spain. It was exhibited at the Spanish display at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris and continued on to locations throughout the world. The exhibition raised relief money for the people of Guernica. Picasso’s painting helped bring worldwide attention to the controversies of the Spanish Civil War. 
 
 "Being Creative Takes Courage.” Pablo Picasso, Artist
 
Another sector where art and critical thinking can be of service is education, especially of children and teenagers. Students who are creating art not only become in touch with their feelings, they can express them with a finished product. When children are amongst their peers in a safe and empathetic environment, their imaginations and personalities can shine through. This is a very liberating experience. The doing of art is beneficial in furthering children’s maturity, which can help shape them into more empathetic, and caring adults. Within the formal structure of a group/ class, the children are exposed to each other’s progress. Additionally, students can observe teacher student involvement and encourage and support each other, allowing them the opportunity to nurture comradery and experience group dynamics.
 
But the encouragement of critical thinking and artistic expression should not only be made available to young minds. Art is for everyone. No matter the age, or the circumstance, an individual should engage his or her creative mind as he or she chooses. Just being in the state of joyful curiosity and creativity broadens the mind. There is a profound relationship between exercising the mind and creativity, that conjures up our better human attributes, most importantly, tolerance and compassion. 
 
"I shut my eyes in order to see.” Paul Gauguin, Artist
 
A few years back, I was living and working in Muscat, Oman. I was managing an art gallery and part of my work was to organize international Artists-in-Residence programs. There were a few other galleries and museums in Muscat who also offered such programs. These programs functioned as an important substitute for the lack of art education in the country. The visiting artist was obligated to host a teaching workshops for local artists to learn from. This educational opportunity for Omani artists to learn about the making and the business of art from people from all over the world was very welcome because Oman, though a truly beautiful country with wonderful people, has no art education in its school system. Culturally, the making of art, music, dance in Muslim countries is largely discouraged due to religious beliefs. 
 
Those individuals in Oman who considered themselves artists were often self-taught. Some managed to go abroad for art degrees. It was interesting for me to listen to the discussions between the visiting and the Omani artists. I learned what the priorities of the Omani artists were. Many questions were asked about his or her actual art work. What inspires you? How do you develop your composition? What are your individual techniques? Interestingly though, the most compelling questions were about the business of art. How do you sell your paintings? How do you get galleries to represent you? How do you get a solo show? How do you determine your prices? The desire for the Omani artists to learn art and its business was very commendable. 
 
"All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual.” Albert Einstein, Scientist
 
I believe that layering the principles of art, critical thinking, and creative expression into key aspects of human life can substantially better us as people,and how we co-exist in this world. I believe that with time and the implementation of these principals, we can see a reduction in violence, depression, radicalism, terrorism, hate, intolerance and crime. These dark emotions, and aggressive and violent actions can shift into productivity, education, talents, careers, contribution, ingenuity, entrepreneurism, and greater happiness. I believe a strategic approach to this goal should be top/down, bottom/up and everything in between. Any group, or organization, that has the intention of human betterment should begin to encourage art and vocational programs.
 
Hope is always with the future generations. It is imperative that young children are exposed to all the arts and to many different cultural activities. It is imperative that they are taught how to solve problems from reasoning, deduction and positions of justice. To think with an encompassing mindset that will develop them into well-rounded, caring, and contributing members of society should be earnestly developed. There can be no greater tool for a life well-lived than creative expression, with all its meanings, especially with the arts.
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