The Necessity for Balance

Milenko Matanovic responds to the question: "What Next? Now that the page has turned, what stories will we need to change our world?"
Andy Goldsworthy sculpture, photo by Mark Barkaway

Andy Goldsworthy is an artist whose work reflects an interest in tension and balance.

Photo by Mark Barkaway

It is my belief that creativity requires tensions.

On the one hand, as creative humans we need to see the world just as it is, face it squarely, and accept it without filtering out the uncomfortable. We must accept both the beauty and the ugliness, the gentle and the violent, the wise and the stupid, the just and the terrible. We can’t move forward unless we have the courage to take it in without flinching.

On the other hand, we must imagine what is possible. As creative humans we’re compelled to create images of what the future could and should be. In my opinion, we need to nourish this desire, learn to articulate this imagined future’s attributes and qualities, and share them with others. By doing this we can create a shared understanding of what our future ought to be.

Without this ricocheting back and forth between what is and what could be our creative ability diminishes. It’s easier for us to resolve the tension by becoming realists or idealists. But when the tension is released, we lose our ability to figure out the immediate steps we need to take to move toward our ideal future. We forget about the relationship between the small acts and the big picture. In short, we get lost.

Holding this tension isn’t easy. We’re conditioned to define success as the resolution of tension. From fairy tales to Hollywood movies, we’re accustomed to the “they live happily ever after” closure.

But a real creative process isn’t like that, and real life isn’t like that. In both life and the creative process, success means tensions sustained.

Holding opposites together requires a different set of qualities: flexibility instead of rigidity; alertness to the moment; jazz-like improvisation; teamwork based on the idea that together we know more; a sense of irony and humor borne of the distance between what is and could be; and compassion for the imperfect. Artistic work rarely matches the possibility of that work. A perfect architectural plan is downgraded by lack of funding or municipal ordinances; a wonderful script is diminished because of a low budget or inadequate directing; a great relationship is challenged by the individuals’ irritating habits. Perfection smashes against limits all the time.

Like many people I know, I delight in Barack Obama’s election and celebrate his courage and wisdom. I think he understands how to balance immediate actions with long-term visions. I also think that he understands how issues are connected and interrelated. He seems to practice balance between idealism and pragmatism. I hope that under his leadership our collective creativity should flourish.

The problems we are facing will take generations and much wisdom to remedy. The work ahead requires patience and an ability to connect diverse priorities so everyone benefits from new initiatives.

Do we, the people, have courage to lay aside our singular agendas to uncover elegant strategies with multiple victories, strategies that do not waste any of the important aspects of our world? An editorial in the Seattle Times questions why no person from the Northwest was invited to the cabinet and if the Northwest will be neglected by the new administration. And so it begins: the “what is this administration doing for me and mine” grumble has begun and will undoubtedly grow into a cacophony of demands for specific, singular actions. But together, I think, all the specific actions could make the larger success less achievable, maybe even impossible. The Obama presidency won’t succeed without the understanding and support from us citizens. I worry that by pressuring for immediate results we may ‘win the battle but lose the war.’

Artists understand tensions. They define success in terms of steps rather than a finished journey. They know that choosing between being a realist or idealist is not an option, that both modalities are required at all times: the focus on the big picture can not make a mediocre brushstroke, and the focus on the brushstroke can not diminish the big picture. They know the journey is long, but taking one right step is better than taking a thousand wrong ones. Faced with limited resources, they must do a lot with the little.

I believe we all need to adopt these if we are ever to succeed in creating a just, sustainable, peaceful future. Every profession, every interest group should be asking how its experience and skills can contribute to realizing a livable, more harmonious, less wasteful and more sustainable future.


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