Creativity at a crossroads

Our visual culture is in a grievous state. Nadeem Bashir explains why

Creativity at a crossroads
The emotional and sensory approach towards thinking in art and design is considered the exact opposite of intellectual and pragmatic reasoning, which is valued much higher. An emphasis on complex and deeper thinking and metaphorical perception is probably much more difficult to integrate into the predicted model of our educational system. It is, therefore, not surprising that art and design is not a priority in our education system at present. From elementary to intermediate, all the way through to the higher levels of education, art courses rank very low in priority on the curriculum. And even in this position, art education is further devalued by the minor role that art plays in the grades that appear on students’ transcripts.

In urban areas, private sector schools have to teach art since it is obligatory if one follows the international education system, but they rarely aim to improve the traditional mindset of the educational system. These institutions are perceived to be more intensive by offering a route to comprehensive learning, but instead follow the vertical method of teaching where there is only one answer to each question. Whoever adapts quickly and efficiently to this formula is considered the most intelligent.
The most critical point in teaching methodology is how to deal with the endless invasion of technology

Bridging the need for both pragmatic thinking and creativity, it is impossible to genuinely grasp any information and knowledge. Only a comprehensive pedagogy based on lateral thinking can provide the kind of experience that transcends accumulated technical knowledge. No matter how one defines art and creative learning, no other field applies a humanistic upbringing and comprehensive learning as effectively as the creative arts. Only when intellect and creative experience, certainty, intuition, subjectivity and objectivity, limitation and freedom can interact and compliment each other, will there be a platform where creative behaviour can develop.

The result of all this is that art and design schools, with their mission to harness the imagination and provide the tools for creative thinking, are finding it extremely difficult to familiarise students with unconventional forms of thinking. Art and design platforms in Pakistan exist in an environment that is not very encouraging or favourable towards the arts, especially as a career-oriented field and they feel more alienated in a market-driven society that is more tuned to measure and perceive everything in a more concrete and tangible form.

Education is a process of identity formation, whereby learning changes our subjective selves. In this process, every art school has the responsibility to look into this interplay between man and technology because the temptation and positive energies generated by the new tools and equipment come with serious negative aspects as well. This has a particularly strong impact on the field of art and design, and on visual culture around us. Grappling with this mind-set, art and design schools have begun to feel the pressured not only to offer so-called ‘measurable’ skills in the face of slow economic growth, but also rapid technological growth. High-tech equipment, new media, digital production and reproduction methods have given the old art-and-craft methods a new look, but have aroused new challenges as well. Everyday, teachers and students are confronted with new forms of content generated by new means of communication. The ever changing and evolving nature of technology calls into question the value of traditional basics: drawing, colour, calligraphy, etc. Are these subjects still an adequate means of inculcating artistic intelligence with new perspectives that go beyond pure aesthetics?

A student's take on Mona Lisa
A student's take on Mona Lisa

The answer to this question may provide food for thought for defining a pedagogical approach to the development of the curriculum of art and design schools. But, will that be the route to a shift in perception of the creative arts so that they contribute in a ‘concrete’ manner to the cultural growth of our society? It is imperative to give this serious thought before art and design schools become limited to just providing state-of-the-art computer labs, 3D digital printers, scanners, cameras, film and video equipment devoid of the concepts for using them in a meaningful manner. Each technological tool has the ability to influence and manipulate its end-user. This will affect the identity and the notion of both art-making and -viewing.

Within art and designs schools, disciplines dealing with visual communication are adversely affected by the current technological advancement. They are obliged to befriend the technology-driven world of gadgets as much as the realm of imagination and creativity. The most critical point in teaching methodology is to determine the ways to deal with this endless invasion of technology in our lives. Perhaps one of the most important tasks will be to fuse human methods with conditions dictated by new technological media. A complete revision of curriculum and teaching methodology is required for artistic training by emphasising critical thinking and by refuting the growing tendency towards objectification. As is often the case, the visual construction process has to address basic issues such as meaning, production and transmission and the substance of artistic imagination may get weighed down by the professional, market-driven superstructure that increasingly prefers only smart technological solutions.

Yet there is continuous debate between those who teach art and design for the purpose of socio-cultural ‘sensitivity’ and those who patronise state-of-the-art technological advancements, follow industry dictates and encourage routine problem-solving formulae. Not every artist and designer can be on the cultural cutting edge, of course, but a few deliberately relegate themselves to be tech-savvy production slaves.

Several factors contribute to the grievous state of our visual culture. But in a society that heavily relies on visual information, educational platforms from schools to universities, have to accept the responsibility to impart artistic and imaginative thinking with a deeper understanding of image-reading and image-making. There is a dire need for a proactive hybrid methodology to help define the orientation of art education as equal parts craft, art/design and business. More importantly, this will develop a higher level of perception and create critical thinking skills that can assist students to understand the visual cluster around them and equip them with the ability to decode underlying meanings of deliberate and unpremeditated actions and visual formations.

Nadeem Bashir is an associate professor and the head of Visual Communication Design at the National College of Arts. He can be reached at