For the first time ever, this week’s newsletter is a collaboration with another writer. I’m handing the bulk of today’s space to George Steedman Jones so he can talk about joy — specifically the joy of creativity and how it is stolen.
I met George in 2020 through a campaign called #PasstheMic. We were both working along side other activists to radically change the messaging promoted on the David Attenborough instagram account, created solely to promote a documentary. We campaigned for the account to stop pushing an overpopulation narrative and amplify the voices and experiences of those on the frontlines of climate change instead. (Unfortunately, the account has become inactive and didn’t amplify anyone from the frontlines, but if you want to read about the campaign and why we wanted to change the narrative you can read an open letter I wrote at the time.)
The campaign drew George’s attention because of his childhood love of Attenborough, wildlife documentaries and conservation. This passion is reflected in his educational and professional pursuits — he is an environmental documentary photographer and artist. He also hosts a podcast — Coffee with Conservationists — and you can catch some of his work on Instagram and his website. Here’s what he had to say…
I’m now entering my third year of a BA in Marine & Natural History Photography at Falmouth university. So I’m still struggling to implement a lot of my own recommendations. I still don’t take my own advice all the time, and I’m no expert. But as someone who has had their joy stolen from them by university, I feel in a position to write this — as a gentle helping hand to others who I know are in the same position.
The assignments, like in a lot of arts courses, have been challenging but I throw myself into them and give it my all. The act of developing ideas, researching, creating work, making it tangible and bringing it to life — this all brings me joy.
But surely, a “creative degree” is itself an oxymoron? Creativity shouldn’t be put into a box. When you’re asked to take any art form, all of which are subjective, and submit it for a single person to check against a list, both the one on paper and the pre-conceived in their mind, how is this useful? What purpose does it fulfil?
Of course, the feedback in useful for progression in your practice. But overall, all this does is institutionalise a raw, ever-evolving tangible expression of pure imagination.
When an assignment is done, I enter a slump. I fall back into old, extremely unhealthy habits of making an image just to post on Instagram, or taking a photo because I think I should, not because I want to.
Here lies a major issue. Working on several intensely creative, imagination-heavy projects at a time, you become completely absorbed into them. Nothing else seems to matter. And however proud you are of the final result, all-too-often you’re only making that work because a lecturer prompted you to.
Would you actually have gone out and made it without that looming deadline, that threat of a bad grade? Despite even tutors saying grades don’t really matter, we’ve been physiologically programmed to think they always will.
I spoke to a friend of mine recently who said she was giving up photography when she graduated her degree. Her BA had actually realised how much she hated the art form. And in my opinion, the window of opportunity to change her mind is rapidly closing.
So many talented creative minds have been lost because they took a break from their practice after university — fell into a career to make ends meet, and then never looked back.
I get where my friend is coming from, I really do. A fair while ago now, I did a GCSE in art. I drew and painted and made all sorts of things before that GCSE; and then I just didn’t. I don’t think I picked up a pencil or pastel or paintbrush for well over a year after finishing the course. Eventually I picked up a camera instead, and just ran with that. Luckily, I made a good choice for me. But so many people aren’t as lucky.
My friend is a perfect example of her degree stealing her joy. She’s incredibly talented, and finds joy in her work. But the constant box ticking, the constant deadlines and tasks and limiting imagination, it steals joy away from us as creative people.
So how do we reclaim this joy? The feeling we get when we finish a portfolio or make a piece of sculpture that we’re proud of — how do we get that feeling back?
There’s a few different ways, and the most important, in my mind, is to work at your art at your own pace. Yes, there will be times when you have to create work to a set deadline. But do you love that work? If you do, run with it. Bring it to a stage where you’re happy to be judged by another person for your work to their set of rules, then after that, your art is yours. Work on it some more after the hand-in date. Nurture it, love it, care for it. A body of work doesn’t need to end when your lecturer says it does.
The second most important way that you can reclaim joy from your creative degree is break up with Instagram. It’s a platform that you’ll get told you need to use. Yes, in today’s society painters, illustrators, scalpers, ceramicists, game artists, photographers, filmmakers, and more, all use Instagram. Businesses are built there. But do you need to be there all the time? Do you need to please the algorithm, constantly churn out post after post after post just because a lecturer told you to live in the 21st century? Of course you don’t. Share work that you’re proud of, don’t overthink it (something I’ve done an awful lot of, if I’m honest) and share it at your own pace.
A final (vital) recommendation I’d make here is that you work at your art outside of term time. Most art degrees will have well over five months of holidays, and very few holiday assignments. So make something else. Think entirely for yourself, with zero input from your tutors. Just make something. Go out and write a short story, paint a watercolour, photograph a snail, film an old couple holding hands. Nobody says it has to be amazing. It doesn’t have to be professional or anything. And nobody is grading you (grades don’t matter anyway in the arts, they’re just there so the University looks good and gets more money).
So go out and reclaim your joy. Because that’s what creativity should be. That’s what art should be. Expressing yourself to the fullest with words, videos, audio, music, photography, rock, soil, metal and ink, to name a few. An institution of learning should foster creativity, not steal it and pack it up in a box. So take back your joy, and create for you.
Although George talks from the point of view of education stealing joy, via what is essentially forced creativity, his piece is still relatable… Because anything can be art. This newsletter is a form of art, my garden and how I design and develop it for biodiversity is art, cooking is art. Anything you put your soul into creating is art.
How many of us have had something creative we find joyful turn a little sour because it became a numbers game, there was a deadline (even self-imposed ones), or we did it solely to share with the online world?
George’s points reinforce the idea of manufactured joy which is born through three streams; production, consumption and validation. Catching ourselves manufacturing joy — instead of chasing authentic joy — means asking ourselves…
Who are we creating for? Are we creating solely for others to consume? And, are we seeking validation from others when we create?
If the answers are always that we are creating for someone else and never for ourselves, we may feel the pressure of joylessness surrounding us. We may have fallen into the capitalist trap of manufacturing joy, instead of chasing a more authentic joy… Authentic joy is the kind of joy that isn’t easily capitalised on, it’s a joy that creeps up on us when we’re doing things for ourselves, simply for the love of doing them.
To reclaim authentic joy we should follow George’s points:
- Do things at your own pace
- Remove yourself from social media and online spaces (at least a little)
- Do things for yourself
And I want to add a fourth. Be fully present when creating art. Take a pause and notice how you feel, what you can smell, taste, feel, see. Authentic joy is internal so experience those moments by living in them.