David and Art - "A Spur to Creativity"

Dec 2, 2019

Creativity in one artistic medium can often enhance creativity in others. 

I haven’t thought too deeply about why I’m doing it, but a few semesters ago I started playing jazz in the classroom before each of my classes begins. I doubt that many of my students are keeping a running list, but so far this semester they’ve heard people like Miles Davis, Kenny Burrell, McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane. 


As they come into the room, unpack their notebooks, look over previous notes and start to focus on what’s next, they’re hearing some of the most distinctive music ever recorded and one of the few truly American art forms. As of yet, I don’t know what effect if any that it’s having. Maybe I’m playing it too softly.


It’s primarily for the students of course, in large part to broaden their cultural horizons, but I also realize I’m doing it for me, too, and for reasons that are harder to pinpoint.  But it’s to inspire me — to get my mind thinking creatively before I come on and start talking.


Creativity stimulates more creativity. This is hardly a revolutionary observation, as any art student who goes to a museum or musician who hears live music will tell you. But at the same time it’s an interaction that’s easy to miss if the creativity happens to cross fields of artistic endeavor.


But in the same way that for me listening to jazz can fire up my brain to tell the story of the Progressive Movement for instance, so too can music lend its energy to painters. Without implying any sort of causation in terms of what the painter is producing, music will, if not exactly guide a brush, put an artist into a particular mood from which she or he wants to work.


A few years ago a museum in London hosted a major retrospective of the American painter Jean Michel Basquiat, and along with over 100 pieces of art, curators also assembled a playlist visitors could download, enabling them to listen to the tunes Basquiat himself listened to as he painted. There are jazz greats like Miles and Dizzy and Charlie Parker, composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin, plus musicians from Basquiat’s New York scene like Blondie and Talking Heads.


American painter Stuart Davis (born 1892) was similarly inspired by jazz. “I never realized that it was influencing my work,” he once admitted, “until one day I put on a favorite record and listened to it while I was looking at a painting I had just finished.” After the realization he played music almost every time he painted. Looking at his 1938 “Swing Landscape,” one can almost hear the music.


I don’t know if it’s something we learn or if it’s by nature that we respond to things that are truly creative. But as we do, it can deepen our appreciation both for the art we know, as well as for that which is unfamiliar.