Shop Class as Soulcraft: be creative, just be present

This is my last post on Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. This book has been a theme for this blog for a while now, a useful lens for me to talk about a number of different things, but lenses need to be exchanged to avoid a permanently tinted viewing of the world. Back one more time to his conjecture: mastery is a prerequisite to true creativity. For this post, I’ll need to take you back to my very special night with Iron Cobra

Iron Cobra is actually Becky Johnson, a great Canadian improviser who did a solo show at the 50:50 comedy night last October. Half-way through she made an appeal to the audience: she flew over without a musician, and for the next scene it would be great to have someone playing the piano which was conveniently up on stage… As the tumbleweed spun through the small audience, she lowered the bar so low – from competent piano player, to a person that had taken lessons, to someone who liked the look of the piano – that I couldn’t keep sitting on my hands.

So, up I came, and ended up accompanying Becky for the rest of her set. My piano skills are remedial, but I seemed to fulfil what was unarguably a creative role: to inspire performance and contribute tone. So what was it that allowed this to happen? The important thing was that I was actively engaged and responsive. I gave my all – a couple of chords, arpeggios, scales and high-note twinkles –  in the right spirit, with abandon and a spirit of play. It sometimes had a bathetic quality which itself enhanced the creative contribution, but at other times I did a reasonable job of fuelling the tone.

What is true of this is  true of improvisation also. Skills and experience do count for something. But for my taste, good improvisation is first and foremost about arriving to the stage in the right state: relaxed, alert, out of your head, open to possibility and interested in your partner. I am very happy to watch inexperienced performers when they play in this state. In fact, there’s a case that much of the training actually boils down to accessing this state more consistently, by working on personal change rather than solely the accretion of skills. Much of the rest is simply window dressing. 

Let’s come back to Matthew Crawford for a last time. I’m with him that depicting a fake space for creativity is bullshit, and that we should call it when we see it. But finding new ways of approaching or thinking about a problem needn’t be restricted to technical experts. In fact, they may have over-determined responses to problems that prevent them from seeing different approaches. Fostering space for the proving, development and testing of ideas – before failure has high consequences – allows us to reap the benefits of an inclusive attitude to problem solving.

What’s more, some responses are necessarily improvisational, working with whatever you’ve got. Because of the hard limits around these responses, they tend to be simple; that simplicity is condusive to reuse, adaptation and repurposing, meaning improvisation breeds improvisation in a way that closed, complex systems are poor at. And for the ends that Shop Class as Soulcraft professes – human dignity and autonomy based on substantive contributions to navigating the world – we would do better to recognise the variety of ways in which we can contribute, from the expert to the intuitive, the precision to the experimental. 

And for me? Browsing  through my old blog recently, I’m reminded that its very purpose was “to proclaim my abiding dedication to the ideal of the polymath, or the diverse amateur”. A good purpose. I stand by it.

How about you?

Iron Cobra site
Some posts from my old blog on specialism: one and two

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