In a recent posting on artsjournal, Sarah Lutman asserts that the propensity for foundations to ask “What need or problem will be eliminated” leads to a “culture of pathology” that is “especially insidious for the arts.” Challenging, yes, but not necessarily insidious. Problem formulation can be seen as an essential element of creativity, especially creativity that leads to innovation. When viewed in this light, one can approach the “What need or problem will be eliminated” question not as a physician, but as an artist.
The question put me in mind of a session I had with my arts entrepreneurship class last week. I like to explain what it means to take an entrepreneurial approach to art-making and an artist’s life by means of analogy. I ask the students to envision themselves walking down a path through a wooded area. The can look at the path at their feet and stay safely on their present path (carpe diem) or they can look up, forward toward the many future possibilities that lie ahead, choosing the path or paths that they see on the horizon (carpe futurum). Now, let’s say there’s an obstacle on the pathway. They can look up, they can see the opportunities ahead of them, but there’s a roadblock. “What should you do?” I ask. Student one says, “Knock it down!” Student two shouts, “Go around it!” Student three says “Climb over it!”
Drawing on some cognitive research from Thomas Ward and others, I explained that problem formulation is itself a form of creativity. Student one conceived of the roadblock as something that needed to be knocked down – this student would invent or create something that knocks stuff down to get past roadblocks. Student two conceived of the roadblock as part of a larger landscape and would figure out a way to go safely off the path to get around it. Student three conceived of the roadblock as a vertical problem, something to be climbed over, and so would create a stile, or a ladder, or some other way to get over it to the opportunities on the other side. This analogy (analogy is another in Ward’s taxonomy of cognitive creative processes) helps students see that before there can be innovation, there is the creative process of identifying the problem.
So, while foundation requests for “a problem” make grant writing hard, they can also help grantwriters focus, and not necessarily on the problem itself, but on the many opportunities that lie on the other side of it.
["Wooded Path" from glig.com]