Exceptional is the New Normal — 25.10.17

We live in a time of extremes. The challenges communities and the globe face are complex and disruptive. The growth curves, change curves and risk curves are all exponential.
We also live in a time of extraordinary opportunity. Global communications scale the discussion about global issues. We can find people who listen, care and work together to face the great challenges of our time. Exponential growth in technology and socially conscious entrepreneurs offer new hope for impactful change towards a cleaner, safer, more just and economically vibrant world.
The grip of social, economic and environmental upheaval rarely coincide and so present the arts with both a threat and an opportunity. In what ways are the arts relevant and what can the arts offer? Where and how do the arts belong in this era of rapid change?

The Arts Foundation has been inspired to consider the impact of the evolving priorities of our time following a series of experiences and through the practice of one of its employees. In this article we explore the role of the arts today. We don’t have all the answers, but we have some great starting points for conversation.

In 2017 the Arts Foundation curated the artistic programme at the New Frontiers conference for entrepreneurs in Whiteman’s Valley, Wellington. This conference is an annual event in the Edmund Hillary Fellowship programme that aims to incubate New Zealand and international entrepreneurs driven to create global impact from New Zealand. The Arts Foundation also facilitated a session at a one-day workshop at the Otago University Public Health Summer School focused on the arts in relation to public health. The role of the arts in society is also a passion of the Arts Foundation’s Profile and Engagement Manager, Anna Edgington, who has worked on collaborative projects with scientists and data specialists as part of her music practice.

We have gathered a series of thoughts for you to consider below. We will be exploring these areas through social media, on our website and in our email news, and we welcome your input – be it comments, responses or advice.

Are We Aware?

The arts are working hard in our lives, are vital to humanity, and are engaged at all levels of society. But are people aware of, and is society placing the right value on, the role of the arts? 

Perceptions of the role of the arts vary in New Zealand. We frequently hear complaints about where the arts sit in our culture. You’ve heard the comments about the value we seem to place on other disciplines and how the arts sections are disappearing from mainstream media. But are arts communities part of the problem? Is it time to take a deeper look at how we talk about the arts, the language we use, and the leadership role we play?

We have the great privilege of being close to artists who are happy to share their creative processes and achievements with Arts Foundation patrons. Through these encounters, we have come to understand that the arts are working on many levels in society and are often actively engaged in the big issues of our time. We have attempted to outline some of the roles the arts play in relation to their impact. By no means are we able to cover the depth and breadth of possibility in this article. However, we endeavour to contribute to a larger conversation and we welcome further discussion with open arms.

What is Happening?

We consider the fundamental role of the arts to enrich people’s lives and to bring communities together as the simplest example of the importance of the arts. For example, whole communities are defined by cultural celebrations, and an individual can have a transformational moment at a gallery. We also know the arts are essential in education, with possibly the most important outcome being to connect the learner with their own ability to be creative. 

In his 1975 collection of essays, The Courage to Create, Rollo May (1909-1994), an American existential psychologist often associated with humanistic psychology, said:

What genuine painters [artists] do is to reveal the underlying psychological and spiritual conditions of their relationship to their world; thus in the works of a great [artist] we have a reflection of the emotional and spiritual condition of human beings in that period of history. If you wish to understand the psychological and spiritual temper of any historical period, you can do no better than to look long and searchingly at its art. For in the art the underlying spiritual meaning of the period is expressed directly in symbols. This is not because artists are didactic or set out to teach or to make propaganda; to the extent that they do, their power of expression is broken; their direct relations to the inarticulate, or, if you will, 'unconscious' levels of the culture is destroyed. They have the power to reveal the underlying meaning of any period precisely because the essence of art is the powerful and alive encounter between the artist and his or her world.

Rollo frequently refers to “the depth of the encounter”. He says any individual’s active and absorbed engagement in an activity, or the world, is a creative act and something we can all experience. Rollo believes artists have been honing the depth of encounter for a lifetime.

What is less talked about is the role the arts play in collaboration with science, technology and entrepreneurial venture. There are many creative people working to a brief to promote a scientific finding or societal issue with the purpose of changing behaviour. We have all seen the ads that try to stop people smoking and drink driving. The birth of new technologies like augmented and virtual reality offer a new world of possibilities for storytellers. There is also an increasing amount of artists who are basing works on scientific findings. These artists are providing meaning to inspire behavioural change and to spur movements. 

There are some artists, with increasing frequency in New Zealand and certainly around the globe, who are in direct collaboration with scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs, where the artist’s role in discovery is as valued as their collaborator. At this level, the creative process enables the potential for new and important findings that may not have been possible if the interdisciplinary collaboration hadn’t occurred.

With such great work happening and the arts playing such a vital role, how do we talk about it so that people will understand and value the arts like we do?

The Normal Language of Exceptionalism

We find it hard to imagine a community in Greece asking questions about the role of the arts in society given that the nation was built on artistic values. Whereas in New Zealand, we seem to be constantly asking if the arts are important to our culture. This cultural cringe finds its way into many speeches that seem to think it necessary to justify the arts.

For example, you might hear a speech that tells you the arts contribute to economic development or tourism. You might hear a radio broadcast with a commentator saying the arts are important for our cultural heritage. These kind of propositions are incomplete and inadequate in seeking to justify the arts.

Can we develop a new language for the arts that is not apologetic, but inspiring? A way of speaking about the arts that assumes everyone is on board?  We need statements that elevate the arts as an exceptional, yet normal experience. We need to talk about the arts in the context of the leading edge of humanity alongside, or woven into, any discipline that is innovative.

At the Arts Foundation, we find the best way to explore the arts is through the work and the ideas of artists. We would encourage anyone preparing a speech for the launch of an exhibition, festival etc. to leave their notes at home and turn up early. They should ask the curator to take them to their favourite exhibit and challenge the curator to inspire them with a story related to the work. By simply relaying the experience of the work, its story and its impact, we will be miles ahead of where we are now. People do not turn up at a gallery for a dose of cultural heritage – they go to engage with the work. They want stories, to be inspired, educated, to be close to creativity, and to ignite their creative selves.

In Mandy Hagar’s essay, “For the Love of Arts: The Politics of Art and Arts Education”, published in North and South, she quotes Jyotsna Kapur’s article “Capital Limits on Creativity”. Mandy says Kapur explores how an ideological shift, that “the arts is okay as it has economic benefits”, has undermined the true function of the arts. Kapur suggests that by turning the arts into a purely commercial enterprise, neoliberalism has attacked the very core of artistic expression.

The role of artists within these deepening capitalist relations is to serve as humble servants – set up studios, cafes and late-night bars, create art to enliven the walls of corporate offices and banks – for a class that treats its hometown as a tourist destination and life as a series of adventures in shopping…At the same time, work in the creative industries has become increasingly precarious – that is, temporary, project-based, and competitive, putting artists and media people in a constant search for work… From being considered an imaginative and critical outsider or a participant in social transformation, the artist is now presented as the model worker of the new economy.

Questioning if the arts are okay is rife in the media. If they’re not covering the latest Kardashian saga, journalists still consider the cost of an artwork more than the importance of the work. While the cost might be important to some, it is not as important as the value of what the work is trying to say, or the impact it can have.

Fortunately, there are wonderful New Zealand journalists who continue to champion coverage of the arts, like Lynn Freeman, who has kindly contributed a few words to the 2017/2018 issue of Applause. There’s also a new generation of content creators emerging who are ensuring that the arts get the right kind of coverage. Paperboy, an Auckland based magazine, with which the Arts Foundation has been working closely, are ensuring artists play a central role in their content. The way in which they write about art is accessible, authentic, engaging and respectful of artists and their practices. The writers manage to cut through the “art is elite” perspective and the, “you have to know the jargon to talk about it” myth, by exploring the truth and authenticity inherent in the artist’s work. There is hope in this kind of writing as it will demonstrate to the mainstream media what we already know: people want to engage with the arts in an intelligent way.


Some exceptional people are working at the forefront to ensure the value of the arts to all of us is clearly expressed and placed at the centre of modern thinking.

For example, 2011 recipients of the Arts Foundation Award for Patronage, the Chartwell Trust, believe the arts and creativity are fundamental to human capacity, existence and potential. The Chartwell Trust are Founding Patrons of the Creative Thinking Project at the University of Auckland, which aims to deepen understanding of the creative process in many fields, so that everyone can engage in it. Chartwell say:

Creativity is a proven force for cognitive development, academic achievement and social and economic innovation. If we are to address the array of challenges humanity faces, we need to increase and extend spaces for the kind of education that will promote creative thinking. We need to build a nation where the creative talents of all people are used to foster personal, social and economic wellbeing.

Chartwell consider creative thinking to be the most essential ingredient in innovation and note how important it is to support the arts and creativity at all levels of education. They say without creativity, there is no innovation in business, science and technology, and believe active engagement in the arts will be a powerful contributor to our future and societal wellbeing. 

But how can we be clear about how the arts fit into the creativity equation to those who believe innovation in business and science is possible without the creative thinking that is central to the arts? In the United States, New Hampshire Department of Education has created a test that moves away from standardised testing as the sole measure of a student’s ability, and reimagined assessments that test what kids can do, not just what they know:

“Creative thinking crops up in science labs, in the unravelling of calculus equations, and in the nimble hands of computer coders. And thus, it’s more important than ever for young brains to have the freedom to expand, and to embrace artistic impulses. Creative problem-solving is really a part of all the work that we do in the 21st century,” says Marcia McCaffrey. “The arts place higher value on it than other content areas, and hey, if our day is due, I’m happy for that.” – An excerpt from Artsy Editorial, 22nd August 2016 – Molly Gottschalk.

The European Union’s Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020). One of its initiatives is START, which supports 'Innovation at the nexus of Science, Technology, and the Arts’. They say:

Today, it is recognised that the critical skills needed for innovation to happen and to be of value for society are – in addition to scientific and technological skills – skills such as creativity and capacity to involve all of society in the process of (open) innovation.

In 2004 to 2011, the Smash Palace Fund was set up by Creative New Zealand, which saw many New Zealand artists and scientists work together, such as Alistair Galbraith, Bill Manhire, Jo Randerson and Dylan Horrocks, to name but a few. Artists have also been working independently in this space. Arts Foundation Laureate Anne Noble has been working in the intersection of science and art for almost twenty years. In 2015, Nature Study was the first of a series of exhibitions and installations about the honeybee. Anne has explored the decline in honeybee population and challenges our perception of nature. In a press release from Bartley Company + Art, they describe how Anne drew on morphology – the study of form and structure of organisms – and “used found specimen slides, her own homemade microscope and electronic scanning microscopes to bring us intensely close-up photographs of bee anatomy…. These images operate within the exhibition to steer us beyond a rationalist, scientific approach to knowledge of something broader.”

None of this is new. Artists have been pushing beyond the frontiers of human understanding and deep engagement for hundreds of years. Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist as well as artist whose drawings of the womb are still used in medical text books today. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the founder of modern neuroanatomy, was a Spanish artist, whose deep engagement in drawing individual neurons allowed him to formulate a (correct) theory about how they work. These are just two examples of many.

It’s our time

It’s not just our responsibility to shape the world we live in for now, we also need to ensure that the world is a place where future generations want to live. The arts have a powerful role to play in the development of multiple endeavours and we must make sure it is not siloed by language or expectations. We all have a responsibility to invest in the arts as a major contributor to innovation, education, communities, individual wellbeing and tackling the great problems of our time. Let’s ensure the exceptional is the new normal.

If you would like to do some further reading & discovery, we have made some suggestions:


New Zealand

The Creative Thinking Project - www.creativethinkingproject.org

°TEMP - www.tempauckland.org.nz

Gabby O’Connor and Craig Stevens Collaboration - theconversation.com/when-artists-get-involved-in-research-science-benefits-82147

Common Ground Hutt Public Art Festival - commongroundfestival.org.nz

The Immortalisation of Billy Apple® - www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/LEON_a_00709

Sleep Wake - theplaygroundnz.com/sleepwake

We Create - wecreate.org.nz


Art + Science = Magic (or not) - www.artpractical.com/feature/art-science-magic-or-not

CLIMARTE - www.artclimatechange.org

Ars Electronica - www.aec.at

Planet Labs Inc - www.planet.com/pulse/an-artful-planet/

STARTS Prize - starts-prize.aec.at

Waag Society - waag.org/nl

Arts At Cern - arts.cern

Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing - www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk

The Wellcome Trust - wellcome.ac.uk/what-we-do/our-work/arts

European Space Agency - blogs.esa.int/artscience

How to improve the school results: not extra maths but music, loads of it - www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/03/school-results-music-bradford


The Courage to Create – Rollo May

The Fuzzy and the Techie – Scott Hartley

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The Secret Lives of Colour – Kassia St Clair

Are Angels OK? The Parallel universes of New Zealand Writers and Scientists - Paul Callaghan and Bill Manhire (eds)