August 2023
Leaves from My Notebook
Elaine Greensmith Jordan

Cool and Creative

Since elementary school I’ve disliked having to do logical problems. Math? I’d rather sing. Let me dress up and playact. Tell me stories. I still prefer the artistic way of thinking over the scientific and technological. Contributions of artists to the welfare of society are enormous, and studies support the value of art to our identity and well-being.

Without creative energy to bless us we are left with the dull flatness of rational thinking. Indeed, our computers and all those research papers can be dangerous without the ethical guidance of philosophy and the truth of art. The killing fields of Ukraine are the result of brilliant scientific research. That’s evidence enough.

The cool actor Jeff Bridges agrees. In a recent interview, after he recovered from Covid (thank you, science!), he said he thinks all of Hollywood should unite in bringing joy to America through art. “We should all work together to make something beautiful.”

Artists are rare, inspired creatures who seem tuned in to some special wisdom. Could they even describe it? What must Jorn Utzon think when he looks at that magnificent Sydney Opera House he designed? It sits on the water’s edge like a giant sailing ship. And what must it be like to sing a solo in the Brahms Requiem? Where the artists’ inspiration comes from I don’t know, but the result is transforming.

I’ve learned that artistic creations can move an individual into what poets call recognition. Creations in words, color, movement, and sound can change us, bring us to see, to a new awareness. If we are content only with rational facts, we lose the truth revealed beyond flat explanations.

For me recognition comes at the end of Death of a Salesman, when Linda, weeping over Willy’s death, says “Attention must be paid.” How powerful for us to witness! I’m stunned by these moments in the theatre, an art form that I value above all others.

I don't say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.
Danny Gavigan as Happy, Kimberly Schraf as Linda, and Thomas Keegan as Biff in the 2017 Ford's Theatre production of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

When I first saw the drama The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie I recognized that dark power a teacher can exert, and it left a mark on my soul. Even scientists have written that the original work of an artist brings forth valuable insight, bitter and sweet, good and bad, maybe God and eternity too. Those insights, I think, enrich us as much as the revelations from a laboratory or knowledge from facts revealed in serious study.

It’s well understood that art therapy is a healing tool, as explained in the article “Singing in a Choir Helps your Heart,” a study reported in Frontiers of Psychology. I’d add that the arts help us raise civilized children. In my teaching I’ve seen beautiful poetry bring teen students to recognize their feelings and realize they are not alone.

Don’t get me started on the trend to take the arts out of our schools to save money. That decision is the height of bad judgment. Studies at the University of Arkansas show that the arts in schools improve critical thinking, tolerance, and historical empathy. Most alarming, I’ve read that there’s a move on in colleges to include a warning before exposing students to the masterpieces of literature for fear the power of inspired writing will trigger psychological problems. Some say that the horrors of war, the deceptions of lovers, the stupidities of youth, the cruelties of racism are too much for young minds. I say bring it on, challenge students with the truth.

Artists seem to be wanderers. I’m drawing on studies at UC Santa Barbara and a paper presented to the Society for Neuroscience when I say that the wandering mind can find ways to play and design and hear and see what escapes logical thinkers. I’ve a cool friend who loses her keys and glasses regularly, but as she wanders the light comes and a poem emerges. We need more wanderers.

Creative artists capture our spirit here in northern Arizona. They reveal our world: a landscape of spectacular deserts, skies of mammoth clouds, a world of pines and little lakes, expanses of Native sites, canyons and volcanos. Western artists tell our stories, in native pottery, memoirs like Half Broke Horses, the humor of cowboys like Baxter Black, and the work of muralists. Our dark side is apparent too, in film and story: accounts of crude westerners who exploited the land and indigenous people.

In Gretchen Reynolds’ studies for The New York Times she writes that participation in creative art alters our genes and makes us truly happy. So it’s time to pick up the clay, turn on the music, grab the paintbrush, and get busy!

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.