Mirror or Lamp: Is Exposing Creativity Helpful?

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6-1-2007 University of Minnesota Duluth Duluth, MN

If you could glimpse behind-the-scenes at the “work” of performing artists, would that inspire or intimidate you? Consider that question in light of the recent news that the Juilliard School – a renowned institution educating many of tomorrow’s performing artists – is launching a smart phone app promising exclusive access.

Abrams’ Metaphor. The mirror/lamp headline is inspired by the late M.H. Abrams, an English professor at Cornell whose literary anthologies educated generations of college humanities majors. His book “The Mirror and the Lamp” described a thematic shift from neoclassical to Romantic writers. Neoclassicists aspired to imitate nature, like a mirror. Romantics considered nature inspirational, illuminating creativity like a lamp.

Providing Access. Earlier this month, Juilliard previewed its new subscription series of podcasts that – for $7.99 per month – promises to give viewers “the inside story behind timeless works of art, as Juilliard students, faculty and alumni bring them to life.” (This price seems like a bargain, considering that Juilliard tuition is $56,000 annually.) Episodes include drama rehearsals, dance practices, music lessons and ensemble rehearsals, along with other unique features.

Inviting Witnesses. Unlike the free online courses being offered today by many colleges and universities, these Juilliard podcasts are not instructional. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Viewers are invited in not to acquire skills, but to become witnesses to the intricacies of the creative process.” That process is only reflected to viewers, with the app serving as the high-tech mirror.

Juilliard’s president says they want viewers to understand the hard work, discipline and demands that are the foundation of creativity. The spark of artistic inspiration cannot be sustained without diligent efforts fanning it into flame.

Lighting the Way? But does revealing the hard work of creation – particularly by tremendously gifted artists – light the way for the rest of us, or merely intimidate? This new Juilliard app certainly illustrates our modern times, as smartphones bring far-flung areas of our world into easy reach. But is this illumination a good thing? Will more tickets be sold for ballets, symphonies or operas? Will more parents insist their children stick with piano or dance lessons, hoping they’ll someday earn admittance to Juilliard’s hallowed halls?

Watching, Not Doing. By only reflecting the mystique of Juilliard, the end result could be simply more passive consumption of performing arts rather than active creation and participation. This may merely cultivate observers who see the artistic process as just another entertaining distraction – like the next cooking show, YouTube video or Netflix series – rather than something to be personally embraced and explored.

Your View? Is this new Juilliard app good or bad for the performing arts?

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