Artistic Expression Models the Value of Mental Flexibility

With the changing circumstances and events in today’s world, it is worth our while to consider artistic expression as a model for the flexibility we need to succeed. Creative artists are flexible and imaginative in their approach to change. When you’re flexible, you think in a creative way and find innovative solutions to solve problems.

“Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist, professor, and author noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity

The artistic process requires flexibility—the willingness to let go of something and to take a new direction. Artists are well poised, through their ability to stay open, responsive, and resilient, to adapt to complex challenges in their own world and in the world at large. Artistic expression is a transforming process that involves facing and grappling with something, letting it go, and bringing something new to life. 

While it is difficult to follow increasingly unsettling world events without some angst, fixed attitudes and denial of significant changes can lead to anxiety, depression and ultimately, failure. On the other hand, if we choose to be more flexible—stretching ourselves, taking on new challenges or learning new skills—we can open ourselves to new perspectives. We cannot succeed without flexibility. Fortunately, with practice, it is a skill that can be improved. 

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” ~ Maya Angelou

In a sense, a creative artist remains flexible and surrenders to the work in progress. The works of art, the artists themselves, and those who are involved from the periphery learn to appreciate the beauty in this flexibility. They understand the value of growing and detaching from strict predefined aims that can hold them back. 

Years ago, I observed a group of college students rehearsing the Trio Sonata from Bach’s Musical Offering in preparation for an upcoming concert. I noticed tensions among them building over the weeks as challenging personal issues and the usual pressures at the end of the academic year impacted their relationship with one another. All these issues seemed to multiply and weave together into a complex web of weight and worry. They were surprised that every time they emerged from their rehearsal, they laughed and enjoyed themselves, talking as if there were no problems anywhere in the world. Music performance is an excellent example of the value of flexibility. While the part you play is always important, you must be ready at any moment to assert yourself or give way to someone else in a fluid exchange of ideas. You can become so deeply engaged with the movement of the music that its strength and sheer joy carries you forward toward a common goal. Insurmountable problems seem to disappear within the environment of flexible exchange.

Samuel Barber found success in his Adagio for Strings only after he pulled out the middle movement of his String Quartet in B minor and arranged it for string orchestra. He continued to revise it for seven years between 1936 and 1943.

In the late 1930s, Henri Matisse made a triumphant return to painting after he was proclaimed by critics in the 1920s as a “has-been.” He adapted his style several times as he travelled and read, eventually becoming one of the leaders of Fauvism, a painting style that was an important influence on subsequent artists. 

Picasso’s work transformed many times throughout his career as he experimented with different techniques. His means of expression was in constant flux until the end of his life. 

These are just a few examples of how artists use the artistic process to transform—to stretch themselves and grow. Mental flexibility is not limiting. Rather, it moves us beyond limiting thought patterns to more openness and possibility. With a more flexible mindset, we can all benefit from less stress and more creativity. In everyday life experiences, the arts can support the understanding and mental capability to function with the flexibility that is so necessary for success in the shifting circumstances of today’s world.

“Flexibility is a requirement for survival.” ~ Roger von Oech, American speaker and author whose focus is the study of creativity

Patricia Hoy

Are you interested in learning more about the value of the artistic process?

Check out my book on Amazon: Arts Awareness: A Fieldbook for Awakening Creative Consciousness in Everyday Life by Patricia Hoy, GIA Publications

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