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How Much Creativity Do We Lose in Systems of Control?

From the time we’re born, we are interacting with systems of control. 


It may not seem that way, since typically our families love and care for us for the most part, but depending on the kind of family we’re born into, some kind of control is used in our upbringing, to a larger or lesser extent.


And in many instances, that control is a good thing. Parents usually don’t allow their small children to just run around a neighborhood, risking being hit by a car, kidnapped, bitten by a dog, etc. before they’re able to make measured decisions on their own. Control is the way they think they’re keeping their children safe. Some parents are more restrictive than others, but most times they are that way because they believe that some restriction defines good parenthood. 


It’s also simply easier to be rigid about controlling your child than it is to spend time and energy teaching them to be a critical thinker, someone who eventually can make their own healthy decisions about how to live everyday life optimally. Letting go of control is scary for parents, and it takes a great deal of time, thoughtful planning and guidance to feel that your child can make informed choices.


But some parents (who may have been overcontrolled themselves) just need to feel as if they’re always the ones calling the shots, and then the power dominance can become unhealthy. The parent may use punishment to try and maintain a sense of control over the child, causing the child to either feel impotent or combative.


Then we start school as little kids, and the control continues. Depending on your school system, there might be an overreaching amount of control (as in some religious or military institutions) or a less rigid kind of arrangement (like Montessori schools, where the curriculum is fashioned after an individual child’s interests and needs rather than a group of children), or anything in between.


But when it comes to creativity, how much control is healthy for humans, and how much just shuts us down? To put it bluntly, creativity requires freedom; the more the control over personal freedom, the less the opportunity for creativity. So when we look at systems on the authoritarian side of the spectrum, we can assume that creativity is being hampered. And this is troublesome, because creativity is what moves us ahead as a species, solving problems and coming up with ways to have a more productive and enjoyable life.


A controlling system also weakens innovation, so eventually those systems are destined to fail, because they are simply outpaced creatively by less controlling systems. Groups of people who don’t innovate fall behind everyone else, prompting them to resort to more extreme forms of control, and ultimately decline and/or disappear. Unfortunately, that’s only after a lot of suffering has been inflicted. 


Such was the case with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and Josef Stalin’s USSR, to name two infamous controllers, where in both instances artistic creators could be considered a threat if they didn’t toe the creative directives line put in place by the ruling class, and were sometimes summarily shut down by confinement or death. 


As an example, Dmitri Shostakovich was one such creator under Stalin’s rule. A prolific and brilliant composer, his output included fifteen symphonies, fifteen string quartets, six concertos, a piano quintet, two piano trios and two string octets. His solo piano works include two solo sonatas, and two sets of preludes. He also wrote operas, song cycles, ballets and film music. And he created much of this music under the threat of imprisonment and death, a threat that was also issued to, and sometimes carried out against, many of his colleagues, relatives and friends. It became so intolerable for him, that he began to sleep in his stairwell so that his family wouldn’t have to witness his arrest.


Stalin had decreed that “Socialist Realism” could be the only kind of art created, so it took a lot of cunning deception on the part of creators like Shostakovich to be true to their creative selves and still convince the rulers that they were following the directive. Socialist Realism was just another way of saying “Make Me Look Like the Great Leader I Think I Am”, so of course it translated into dreadful visual art. But music is a time based artform where interpretation is not as clear as visual art, so Shostakovich was able to get away with a lot, even as he waited for the hammer to fall on his career and life.



An example of Social Realism

My husband Larry and I have spent many years in Vietnam, first as artists in residence in 2006, then visiting on our own so Larry could pursue some photographic projects in a fascinating country. Facebook was just becoming popular in Vietnam in 2006, and the young Vietnamese were all over it. However, the government saw it as a threat, and continued to try and shut it down. It never took long for someone to come up with a work around, and eventually the shut downs stopped. The University of Würzburg, Germany, which ranks countries' level of democracy in a matrix, lists Vietnam as a “moderate autocracy”. (As of 2023, the US is listed as a “deficient democracy”.)


But great art, art that has life with no expiration date, is always a reflection of the individual, of what’s inside you, of how you tick. It’s your response to the wonder of this planet and universe, to the miracle of life, with all its crazy twists and turns and pain and miracles. To subvert that, to make it into something it isn’t, to force a change in the natural evolution of the art inside of us, is against nature, and therefore, destined to fail.


How much creativity do we lose in systems of control? Clearly, an unacceptably high amount. How humanity evolves to the point where this is no longer an issue is a question of paramount importance.


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