Voice, Art, and Collaboration

Dorothy Miell and J. P. Singh


Dorothy is a Vice-Principal at the University of Edinburgh and is Head of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. The College is one of three in the University and includes all social sciences, arts and humanities research and teaching across 11 Schools with over 21,000 students and around 3,500 staff. Since taking up her post in March 2010, Dorothy has strengthened the University’s ties with many of Scotland’s national cultural organisations and festivals as a board member and through agreements which support collaborations linked to the University’s research, teaching and community engagement. Prior to coming to Edinburgh, Dorothy was Professor of Psychology and Dean and Director of Studies of the Social Sciences Faculty at the Open University. She continues to engage in research which focuses on understanding the social and communicative aspects of creativity – particularly in collaborative activities such as music making. Dorothy is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and is a past President of the British Psychological Society. She is on the board of Scottish Opera and is a Council Member of Edinburgh International Festival. Dorothy is also a member of the City of Edinburgh Council Culture Task Group and is a member of the UK Council of the Creative Industries Federation.


doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.16


Editor’s Note: In this narrative, social psychologist, Dorothy Miell, has a conversation with Editor J.P. Singh on voice and representation in artistic practices and the possibilities for collaboration. Miell starts with noting the dialogic practices that lead to creativity in art and ends with the processes and tensions of artistic collaboration. She draws upon her research that focuses on understanding the social and communicative aspects of creativity—particularly in collaborative activities such as music making. A short bibliography at the end lists works Miell references in the conversation and also lists a few of Miell’s own publications.

Dialogues and Art

Dorothy Miell:

It’s very hard for someone who’s not an artist to explain art. You’ll get some people who say that art’s value comes from the artist entirely, while others argue that its value is derived from community appreciation and participation. This debate about value is central to understanding what art is, but it still does not define art for someone in need of defining parameters. A work may be self-evidently creative, but it does not necessarily become ‘artistic’ until a community recognizes it as such.

J. P. Singh:

I’d call that cultural. I feel creativity could come from anyone, even an artistic child crying. The example Barnett Newman, the expressionist painter, gives us writing in the 1930s, is that the first human cries in prehistoric caves were anguished cries; they were about people trying to recognize themselves. Newman said that before human beings became instrumental—became farmers or made tools—they were crying; they were scratching the walls with artistic representations. And so, for Barnett Newman, the first human being was an artist.

Dorothy Miell:

Well, I suppose it depends whether we are looking back at that and saying they were artists, or whether the people around them at the time recognized that set of behaviours as art. It’s hard: How can you put yourself back in the mind of those early humans? Did they as a community see such scratches as something that we would call creative or artistic? I think Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a theorist about creativity, would say that it’s as much a social and cultural event as an individual or psychological one. Creativity is not simply in the individual person, it’s in the sharing and the community.

J. P. Singh:

Can it only be art only when other people recognize it? Or is it just art because they did something that in that moment of isolation? People in prison have written poetry; William Faulkner, in his very lonely condition, wrote a novel on his walls. It’s humbling to find out later that where we thought a person had nothing, art was created.

Dorothy Miell:

Well, they expressed themselves.

J. P. Singh:

Right.

Dorothy Miell:

I think people are motivated to express themselves in those sorts of conditions. But how do we know why they do it? I’d argue it’s about communication. As a social psychologist, I think the motivator is, I have to communicate this thing. I maybe don’t know who I’m communicating it with yet, but this thing that is inside me, I have to get out and share. You don’t necessarily have a specific individual audience in mind at the time, but it’s important that you’re trying to get the emotion or idea out to enable it to be shared.

Voice and Dialogues

J. P. Singh:

So, let’s turn it the other way around and get to the notion of voice, which is about the artist voicing a particular condition. When that happens, is then the artist listening back to the society in which she or he is producing?

Dorothy Miell:

I think even if you’re sitting creating something completely on your own, you are kind of in dialogue with the canon, or the community. As Mikhail Bakhtin proposed, the artist thinks about what has been done before and reflects on, or reacts, to that and so is in some sense in dialogue with that broader community. I don’t think artistic works are made in hermetically sealed units away from communities.

J. P. Singh:

This may be too simplistic: Shostakovich says I’ve got to represent this communist moment so I’m going to have this very military-like rhythm. But concurrently, he also  composed in a language that his friends understood as deeply subversive. He wrote in a very personal manner that did not prevent his symphonies from catering simultaneously to Stalinism.

Dorothy Miell:

Yes, you’ve got multi-layered communication.

J. P. Singh:

Are both of those dialogues or is there something that’s just Shostakovich?

Dorothy Miell:

Dialogues are both driven by and drive the development of your own identity. Your identity is made up of different associations and collaborations. I think the work that goes on between you and various different external groups—and how that changes your own sense of identity—affects the next piece that you develop. I don’t see a very hard and fast line between those “external dialogues” and internal dialogues that make up the thoughts and identity of an artist. Indeed you might see, as Ruthellen Josselson put it, that building an identity is “the ultimate act of creativity.”

J. P. Singh:

So, what you’re actually saying is that the lonely artist is actually a dialogic person.

Dorothy Miell:

I think everybody is a dialogic person. For example I think cultural references are very characteristic of the way you talk J.P.; you reference others’ art, thoughts, and writings. They infuse your own language, art, and thinking.

J. P. Singh:

Do we need a place for silent reflection away from external dialogues?

Dorothy Miell:

I would say definitely. You need to be able to assimilate, review, and rethink.

J. P. Singh:

Like me sitting at my desk.

Dorothy Miell:

Yes! You need to think: How do those six things I’ve read come together, what’s the thread through the things that I’ve been reading or hearing or seeing, that resonates with me?

Voice and Aspiration

J. P. Singh:

What do you think drives the artist to want to represent her world? What is it about an artist that they want to name oppressive conditions, for example. Is that just a sense of noble purpose?

Dorothy Miell:

But do they not just want to name their experiences, whatever they are—they don’t only want to name the oppression.

J. P. Singh:

Right, but what drives an artist to be an artist? Because, this person could’ve very well gotten an MBA, but she decides she’s going to go to a studio to paint.

Dorothy Miell:

There’s got to be something about the sense of resolution and satisfaction from that form of expression. For some, that feels like a more effective way to express the thing, the experience, but others find that they can’t express themselves in an artistic form.

J. P. Singh:

Well, that’s what we call artistic striving.   It also sounds very Goethe-like—very Faustian—in a way that human beings will always strive despite their innate imperfections. Is there a psychological aspect to that striving? Is it just labour?

Dorothy Miell:

The psychologist Abraham Maslow would say that you can only strive for self-expression if everything else is okay—if you’ve got enough food, if you’ve got shelter, etc. Others including Csikzsentmihaliya would say you’re motivated to do it not primarily because of something inside yourself that you need to get out, but because it’s a way of establishing a connection with other people, which is the endpoint of your efforts. Other people would say that it’s driven by some sense that you’ll get a reward for it.

J. P. Singh:

But that’s actually very useful, because it’s a romanticizing that, under various conditions you’ll get various forms of creativity and genius.

Voice and Collaboration

J. P. Singh:

Let’s go in the other direction. I think this has been very useful in terms of exploring why artists do what they do as dialogic agents. Another explicit form of dialogue, however, is collaboration. Voice is an example. Can you expand on the circumstances under which voice is most likely to happen during collaboration?

Dorothy Miell:

Motivation is key. There needs to be a connection between two motivated people collaborating with one another for voice to arise from their activities. There’s no point doing it if one person is trying to get out of it something completely different to the other. You’re not necessarily sharing a sense of where you’ll end up in your endeavour, but a shared ambition and understanding of the direction in which the collaboration will move both parties.

J. P. Singh:

So, a duet, then.

Dorothy Miell:

You need to both understand the parameters. But that doesn’t mean that you have to share a sense of exactly where to go because the outcome is a property resulting from the process of collaborating. Vera John-Steiner has illustrated the very different forms of collaborations that can be successful with accounts of particular partnerships and collaborations between well known people from many different disciplines and domains.

J. P. Singh:

There are two elements here: One is the artist in dialogue with the world. And then, there’s a collective striving.

Dorothy Miell:

It’s almost as if there’s not just two individuals in that case, there’s also the collaborative entity. It’s almost like there’s two people coming together, but they’re coming together to do this thing that is more than either of them put together. The artist Helen Storey talks about this really well in discussing the many multidisciplinary collaborative projects that she’s been involved with. And you recognize that they are in this place where there’s something more than those two individuals, it’s bigger than them.

J. P. Singh:

Do we understand that, is there a tipping point, something has to happen for it to become that transformative moment?

Dorothy Miell:

I think there’s an element of what Csikzsentmihaliya calls “flow,” where you become totally absorbed in the moment of performing/creating and transcend yourself, when there’s just the right balance of challenge and skill.

 

 

Conflict, Collaboration, and Caring

J. P. Singh:

What about the intensity of that collaboration? So we think of the string quartet being one of the most intense forms of creation because there are four people. In economics, we speak to how we could never have a market form with four players because we think that three would work but there’s a tension with four—that wouldn’t be there even with with two or three. In collaborative forms, how do artists deal with that inherent tension? How do they internalize it and keep it going and make it speak to an artistic expression as opposed to it falling apart?

Dorothy Miell:

I think there’s often tension and conflict; it can either be suppressed or out in the open. Sometimes people don’t recognize that enough; students training in creative fields do not always recognize just how exposed they will be working with others, especially from different disciplines, and the difficulties it can bring. We have a responsibility in education to help people recognize, deal with, and manage those tensions productively. Risk-taking and clashes are essential to creativity and authenticity, but the personal investments the artist makes in the process of creation can be difficult to manage. I’m not sure that our arts education does enough to help with those issues. We educators teach the particular discipline, such as music composition or performance, but won’t teach how to manage the psychological tensions that can arise in collaborative work—such as when playing in a quartet or when working with others, for example dancers or filmmakers.

J. P. Singh:

So, what could we do, as educators?

Dorothy Miell:

The first thing we should do is help them recognize that they personally are not the problem. That it’s not about them not being good enough, its about working out how to understand the perspectives, assumptions, and languages of others that they are working with and ensuring they establish a shared language.

J. P. Singh:

I think what you’re saying applies to Hollywood so well. It tends to be a creative town, but all the conflicts are about them not being able to communicate about the process.

Dorothy Miell:

Everybody feels marginalized when it goes wrong. And the first thing you have to do is just to recognize, where that’s starting to happen, naming it and saying, actually I think we’ve misunderstood each other here.

J. P. Singh:

Well, what’s brilliant about this is that we started a conversation with how artists name the outside world, but we’re now talking about naming of their own world.

Dorothy Miell:

I think we don’t talk about the process of creative working enough. We talk about the final product, but that emerges from the collaboration. I feel very strongly that our education system needs to focus more on helping students understand and work with that process.

J. P. Singh:

I once read somewhere that Gustav Mahler stopped composing after he went to therapy and reached a calmer place in his life. He was not as productive as when he was unhappy. Is this too much a romantic notion of the artist and his or her process?

Dorothy Miell:

There is a lot of evidence of connections between mental health challenges and artistic creativity. If you make somebody entirely happy, some would argue that you’re not likely to get a lot of great art out of that. It’s the idea that you need people to either be unhappy, very out of tune with their surroundings, or very splintered internally. Whether it’s internal fault lines or cognitive disassociation, perhaps that is what gives the creative spark.

J. P. Singh:

Would you then want to tell that viola player that he is okay where he is, even if he does not play as well as the others?

Dorothy Miell:

Well, it’s tricky. This is where my research interests becomes action research in my day job! Do you try to get people to all perform in a particular way, or do you try and find a way to allow that kind of very individual flowering of ideas to sit alongside and stimulate other things without trampling all over them? I mean, how much do you try to make creative individuals conform to administrative norms and how much do you let them do something amazing? That is a daily dilemma.

J. P. Singh:

How do you do it?

Dorothy Miell:

I don’t know. That what I struggle with every day!

J. P. Singh:

Really? Well you do it brilliantly.

Dorothy Miell:

If you want to be part of an institution there are certain things you have to do. And for me, a respect for other people is essential. As a student or member of staff you may be brilliant, but you cannot trample over other people or disparage their (different) contribution to the whole—if you’re part of an academic community you don’t do that.

References

Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1982) The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (2014) The Systems Model of Creativity: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Dordrecht: Springer.

Hargreaves, David, Dorothy Miell, and Raymond MacDonald, eds. (2011) Musical Imaginations: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Creativity, Performance and Perception. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

John-Steiner, Vera. (2006) Creative Collaboration New York: Oxford University Press.

Josselson, Ruthellen. (1996) Revising Herself: Women’s Identity from College to Midlife. ( New York: Oxford University Press.

MacDonald, Raymond A. R., David J. Hargreaves, and Dorothy Miell, eds. (2017). Handbook of Musical identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review 50 (4): 370–96.


Image: By Acme Telephoto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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