Cultivate Curiosity

“Curiosity is the main energy.”  – Robert Rauschenberg

We recently had a great series of field trips for our New Year New Art exhibit.  The work in the exhibit was quite varied. There were no real unifying themes, and the main distinguishing concept behind the exhibit was that the art was new – most of it being created within the last five months.  Since the work had no common element, we decided to focus the gallery talk on art as a means of presenting identity.  I explained to the (mostly-third-grade) students that art was your chance to show the world your true identity – what you are all about.  We discussed how you could make art about the things you love – dinosaurs, kittens, glitter, video games, and climbing trees.  I elaborated that art was the best way to stand on top of a mountain and say, “I am (insert name here), this is who I am and I AM AWESOME!”

No sooner than I had said that, I began to wonder why everyone isn’t an artist.  If art is simply an expression of yourself, then probably most every person is an artist to some extent.  If art is expression of ideas – and not necessarily bound by the need to create “realistic” representations of the world around us, why aren’t more people doing it?  If art is people sharing themselves in the most intimate way, why aren’t more people looking at it?  

I have come to the conclusion that people don’t “get” art because they aren’t curious enough.  As a creative director in an arts center in a rural town, I am often baffled by the lack of curiosity in the world.  Our building – a former Post Office built in 1909 – looks quite “official” and we get a number of people come through the doors with questions like, “Is this City Hall?”  “Is this where I pay my water bill?”  “Is this the courthouse?”  It’s an easy mistake to make, but once they come into what is obviously an art gallery, they quickly realize that they are in the wrong place. What I find baffling is that they rarely go on to explore the space.  They never decide to investigate further.  Maybe they’ve seen that it’s an art gallery and have already decided, “That’s not for me,” for whatever reason.  I often find myself wondering – what would it take to impress them enough to pause, take a look around, and really take it all in?  Maybe if the art gallery were instead a wild tiger sanctuary… a rain forest… the surface of the moon…  I really don’t think that anything would impress them enough to make an impact on their daily routine.

I’ve decided not to take it personally when people are resistant to the positive impact that art could have on their lives.  I’ve often maintained that the greatest enemies of the arts aren’t politicians or philistines.  The enemies of the arts are ignorance and apathy, and perhaps a lack of curiosity is one of the most noticeable symptoms that one has been affected with these ills.  Why aren’t people having more creative experiences and interactions with the arts?  They simply aren’t curious enough to care.  

Some may claim that curiosity is a character trait – something that someone either possesses or does not (like a tendency to be introverted or extroverted), but I think that curiosity can be cultivated.  Throughout history curiosity has come with both great risk and reward.   “What happens if I stick a fork in an electrical outlet?” = risk.  “What happens if we explore the ocean?” = reward.  Although there are both risks and rewards, I feel that curiosity usually swings in a positive direction.  If you risk something, and it goes badly – but doesn’t kill you – you aren’t as likely to try it again (which can be a good thing: see fork example above).  If a curious experiment goes well, you’ll probably push the boundaries and expand on its potential.  I believe that curiosity has led us to an ever-improving (for the most part) way of life.  Early in the history of mankind, our ancestors were curious enough to try different things. Through trial and error, we learned what berries were good, what animals we could tame, and what crops we could successfully cultivate.  We quickly learned from those who were not successful – the poison-berry-eaters, the bear-tamers, and the crop-that’s-now-extinct because-it-failed-forever farmers.

With the amount of knowledge available on the internet today, we should be the most curious generation of all.  Any question can quickly be researched and answered on a device in your pocket.  Perhaps that is part of the problem.  With all of the answers out there and with all of the problems solved, it could be that we aren’t seeking answers ourselves.  We aren’t willing to experiment to prove something ourselves because some kid on YouTube already has it solved.  She’s got it figured out and already has 1.6 million views before you even thought to ask the question.

One of the biggest differences between the curious and non-curious is that the majority of curious people are willing to embrace uncertainty.  While searching for THE answer, they are quite content finding many other answers, rather than the definitive end-all capital A – answer.  Curious people aren’t as easily destroyed by failure.  Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Curious artists are the ones that are willing to try new things, simply to see how they work, or to see how others respond to them.  I can imagine Jackson Pollock first trying his “action painting” style, wondering if it was going to be a success or a disaster – or Mondrian, stripping the composition down to bare lines and color.  The only way to see if it worked was to try it.  Marcel Duchamp took a big risk when he displayed a urinal as artistic sculpture, and ended up changing (or breaking, depending on who you ask) the way we perceive objects in art.


When I see artists that are making interesting work, their work is usually the visual manifestation of curiosity.  When you look at their art, you can almost see the questions they were toying with – “What if I changed this color? What if I made this bigger?  What if I juxtaposed these two ideas?  What if I layered these two things?  What if I eliminated the background?”  I believe that artists must possess enough curiosity to be willing to step outside of their comfort zone and experiment with new possibilities. I also believe that if audiences were more curious – asking more questions – not only of the artist, but of themselves as well, we would have a much larger, more appreciative audience.  If audiences were curious enough, I have no doubt that we’d have a lot more groundbreaking artists as well.

I advise you to cultivate your own curiosity.  Search for your own answers (especially after google doesn’t give you the answers you want).  Try new things.  Use different materials in your art, or experiment with the ones you have.  Go to international restaurants and order things off the menu you can’t even pronounce.  While you are practicing your own curiosity, don’t forget to encourage those around you as well to explore the unknown.  If you see someone around you taking bold new risks (read: safe and legal bold new risks), let them know that you notice and you appreciate their curiosity.