The creative chaos theory

Tidiness and academic work just don't go together, believes Sally Feldman

January 7, 2010

At last, life at Harrow is to be transformed. Our long-awaited new development, including a spectacular arts building, is about to begin. It will be massively sustainable, professional, forward-thinking and flexible. Above all, flexible. Collapsing partitions, movable walls and adaptable spaces will all lend themselves to exchange, experimentation and innovative learning and teaching.

"But", intervened a nervous photography tutor, "it all sounds very clean and tidy. And all the great art schools I know are kind of ... messy." She had a point. Architects are fond of clean lines and empty spaces. Their vocabulary doesn't include concepts such as clutter, disorder and chaos. But these are the very lifeblood of art. Our corridors and studios all bear the evidence of creative endeavour. Piles of timber, industrial steel poles, discarded sheaves of denim, dried mud attached to household furniture - all may be a nightmare to Aggie on How Clean Is Your House? But they're just daily necessities for the flourishing of artistic expression.

As Samuel Beckett put it: "To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now." And no one exemplified this precept more forcefully than Francis Bacon, whose studio was such a model of inspirational disarray that it has been transported piece by piece from London to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.

Every paintbrush and speck of dust, even the plaster on the walls that he used as his palette, has been precisely transplanted. The 7,500 assembled items include 2,000 samples of painting materials, 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, umpteen handwritten notes, drawings, books, champagne boxes and the corduroy trousers he used to rip up and use to achieve his distinctive paint textures.

It's the minimalist's nightmare, the design junkie's vision of hell. But it worked fine for Francis. And mayhem is not just essential to the practice of iconoclastic art. According to Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, it drives the imagination. Too much neatness can inhibit creative activity. Often, the most original thinkers tend to work in chaos.

"In particular, academia is an unrestrained haven of the messy workspace," they claim. "So much so that faculty at colleges and universities often behave as if they've been told their reputation will grow in direct proportion to the height of the piles on and around their desks." One Columbia University professor's office became so densely stacked with papers and books that he was eventually assigned a second office so that students could get through the door. And when Nobel laureate Robert Fogel's desk became too overladen, he simply installed a second desk, which, in turn, gradually became equally buried under towers of paper.

Does that sound familiar? Universities are full of caves and corners where festering piles of old journals and half-written articles jostle for space with student dissertations, module feedback forms, dusty scholarly tomes, course-monitoring templates, killer sudokus and buried budget reports. Academics like to hoard; they are happiest, let's face it, among things.

Everyone craves a comfort zone at work, a means of self-expression. Some do it with photographs of loved ones or carefully cultivated busy Lizzies. University lecturers do it with all kinds of junk. When we had our disastrous fire a couple of years ago, an amazing variety of personal possessions were salvaged from tutorial offices: priceless fashion drawings; statues of Buddha; an armchair; a collection of vintage LPs.

Academics don't adapt well to hot-desking. They'd rather stick to the old, cool kind, the kind that have Post-its stuck to their screens and nice, old-fashioned card indexes balanced on their hard disks. No wonder that since the technological revolution, paper use has actually increased. It's obvious why. No one wants to read great screeds of learned articles or policy documents on screen. And what if the server goes down? What if the system explodes? Far safer to squash hard copies into those ugly grey filing cabinets, risking folder collapse whenever adding anything new.

There are, of course, those who take their comfort zone to extremes. I once had a colleague renowned for the teetering piles of papers spilling over his desk. When someone finally attempted to sort him out, they discovered that underneath were hundreds of applications to the course he was running, carefully obscured and neglected. Another surrounded himself with curling old newspaper cuttings plastered on to every surface and several inches deep on the floor. It was like peering into the lair of Whitney Houston's stalker in The Bodyguard.

Those on the front line may like to live among rubble. But in any organisation, the higher up the ladder you progress, the tidier your desk will be. Once you reach the boardroom, your working environment will be as unsullied as Cliff Richard's bedsheets. As for vice-chancellors, they tend to sit behind a vast, empty expanse of high-polished mahogany, perhaps sporting just one item signifying a reluctant nod to humanity: a golfing trophy, perhaps. Or a bust of Lord Mandelson.

But don't despair if finding your latest seminar paper requires an exercise in advanced archaeology, or if you've lost count of the number of paper clips tangled in the tight coil of your telephone. Just remember the wise words of the notoriously sluttish Albert Einstein. "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind," remarked the father of relativity, "of what then, is an empty desk?"

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