Is There a Problem Problem?

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]

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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2 Responses to Is There a Problem Problem?

  1. Betsy says:

    Thanks for inviting me to respond, Kira. I love this. I think often about language (esp. in philanthropy): words have distinctly different meanings and emotional resonance in different people. For some a “problem” is a road block and to others a problem presents itself as data or a challenge or an opportunity. Is an obstacle in the road the point where you turn back and give up or where things just starts to get interesting? Do you engage the “problem” or avoid it? When is it solved? Is it solved or is it just changed? When do you measure change? Who measures the change? I think regardless of whether a grant application asks you to talk about problems or opportunities – they are asking the same thing: what will change because of this work? What will the artist/organization/community learn? What will move? And the task of an individual writing a proposal is to describe the creative framework or “problem” framework that best shows their process and their unique way of measuring that particular transformation.

  2. Kira Campo says:

    I understand all creative outcomes to be the *result* of effective problem finding and problem solving. Two years ago I completed ‘The Psychology of Creativity’, a course which shaped my current perceptions of creativity in a big way. Viewing creativity through that lens (Weisberg’s cognitive theory of creativity, in particular) enables me to appreciate the helpfulness of framing something a number of ways, before deciding on the best course of action.

    I find your path analogy to be quite an effective visual, because it speaks to two critical elements of problem solving:
    1. the ongoing ability to Cultivate Alternative Perspectives (carpe futurum, as you say!)
    2. the ability to Explore Multiple Angles with respect to a defined problem space (the characteristics of various roadblocks)

    I would agree with your statement that acts of problem formation can themselves be very creative. I think the suggestion that creative outcomes are the result of sound problem finding and problem solving seems more beneficial than problematic.

    Regarding grant writing: suppose a dearth of artistic opportunities was regarded as the problem state, and every program described in grant proposals then become a possible “solution”. How might that change the way proposals were drafted? Or how each proposal was evaluated?

    Thanks for a great post!

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