Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Abstract of Paul Willis’s “Symbolic Creativity” 1990

Description of Article:
Willis begins his article by questioning the institutions of art and what it stands for. Willis proposes that art is not merely a collection of artifacts that we peruse on occasion but something that we engage in everyday by using symbolic creativity. Willis points to how young people engage in symbolic creativity in a multitude of ways because they are shut out of the world of “high culture” art. Willis points out that “symbolic creativity is not only part of everyday activity, but also a necessary part” (207).
Willis defines the many manifestations of “symbolic creativity” can take and how it can be an individual act or a collective effort. Willis then explains what is produced and gained by symbolic creativity. He also explains why “symbolic creativity” should be considered a grounded aesthetic because it raises and creates the culture around it. Willis concludes by saying that a culture should not be defined by art in the form of artifacts but by pure activity and imagination.
Key Terms:
Symbolic Creativity
Grounded Aesthetics
Universalism
Commercial Cultural Commodities
Comments and Questions:
Willis starts his article by calling for a reform in what we should consider art. He states that art and creativity should be examined for what cultural significance it carries for the whole of humanity. Willis states his goal “is to uncover, explore, and present symbolic creativity in everyday life” (207). Willis believes that not only is symbolic creativity present in our everyday lives but that it is a necessary part. It is after this part that my support wavers especially when he says symbolic creativity is “essential to ensure the daily production and reproduction of human existence” (207). While I do believe that symbolic creativity is present in our everyday lives I don’t think human existence would end without it although it would be very dull. Willis discusses that it is through “symbolic work” we produce meanings and learn to communicate to our eternal essence and to the collective group as well.
The following section is where Willis really excels at defining what “necessary symbolic work” entails and what is produced from these endeavors. Willis explains that it is through the practice of language and our capacity to control it that we find “interaction and solidarity with others” (208). We realize our impact on ourselves and others by engaging in symbolic creativity. The second point he makes is that through our active bodies we produce symbolic resources such as singing and feeling. Willis points out that when we engage in “drama as practice” we are able to communicate to others through performing roles and rituals. Such examples of this principle are dancing, story-telling, and making jokes. His forth point is on symbolic creativity itself. By engaging in symbolic creativity we produce new meanings that are “attracted to feeling, to energy, to excitement, and psychic movement” (208). Willis encourages us to see these actions as “realities rather than as potentials” (208). This is an interesting idea and contributes to the idea that while these activities don’t create artifacts they create the reality of our everyday lives. Being human “the human-be-ing-ness means to be creative in the sense of remaking the world for ourselves as we make and find our own place and identity “(208). This statement summarizes why he thinks symbolic creativity is so important and why it should be recognized by the whole institution of art.
Willis then goes into explaining what is produced by symbolic work and creativity. He reintegrates that symbolic creativity forms individual identity and helps the individual make meaning. He then points out that, “Identities do not stand alone above history, beyond history. They are related in time, place and things” (209). While these creative efforts may different dependent on physical environment, time, and a particular culture they produce similar “products.” These products are dance, singing, cooking, jokes, and other similar everyday activities. Lastly Willis says “symbolic work and especially creativity develop and affirm our active senses of our own vital capacities, the powers of the self and how they might be applied to the cultural world” (209). He explains that by participating in these activities it helps the individual make cultural sense of how to manipulate and use symbolic forms in their everyday lives.
Willis asserts that it is this process that helps young people culturally survive and have power to change the world in some small way. It is in the everyday symbolic work that young people contribute to society as a whole. Willis seems to drift out of focus when talking about young working-class women and their lack of power and how they reclaim power by symbolic works. This example while making sense seems to be lackluster in the demonstration of how symbolic works actually function. Willis goes on to explore why youth culture is so important. He says they can “forge new resistant, resilient and independent ones to survive in and find alternatives to the impoverished roles proffered by modern state bureaucracies and rationalized industry” (210). Willis fails to mention how this reformation might be created in real terms which weaken his argument as a whole. Willis goes on to say “symbolic creativity’ is an abstract concept designing a human capacity almost in general. It only exists, however, in contexts and, in particular, sensuous living processes” (211).
Willis discusses the concept of grounded aesthetics which is “the creative element in a process whereby meanings are attributed to symbols and practices and where symbols and practices are selected, reselected, highlighted and recomposed to resonate further appropriated and particularized meanings” (211). Basically, young people are creating their own meanings to old ideas and symbols thus reclaiming power for themselves. Willis says “Grounded aesthetics are the yeast of common culture” (211). This idea makes sense when we reflect back to the beginning of the essay and the idea that “symbolic creativity” is necessary in everyday life because if symbols are not being reused and remade by the youth than a culture as a whole starts to decay. Willis asserts that this process is “the work of culture by culture” (212). Thus this process is both timeless and universal.
The process of grounded aesthetics leads to the concept of universalism which is an awareness of the future and what possibilities may arise from it. Willis proclaims that grounded aesthetics have uses which are “energizing, developing, and focusing of vital human powers on to the world in concrete and practical ways” (213). The result of this process can be wide spread or very personal and act as a treatment for the “injuries of life.” Willis explores the dangers of the above process if it is allowed to result in a text or artifact. He remarks that these material results maybe too narrow in their range of symbolic resources. The “artist” of the symbolic work may focus on the end result instead of meditating and enjoying the process itself. Finally, “Human receivers are allowed no creative life of their own” (213). This last point seems to tie into his over-arching theme that being, symbolic creativity should be enjoyed and that any material result is secondary to the process itself.
Willis sums up his argument by returning his introduction in which “official arts” are removed from the symbolic process and are displaced by time and true and original meaning. When official art loses its underlining context in which it was conceived it becomes merely a “commercial cultural commodity’ and loses the essence of its creation. Willis supports the idea that common culture with time becomes the culture and seeing the results of such an occurrence is what makes life worth living.

1 comment:

PhD Agony said...

Good blog! I am trying to find out the difference between grounded aesthetics and symbolic creativity -- is there one? And is Willis making up his own theory or is there another (broader) theoretical tradition he is drawing on?