Thoughts on Creativity and Artists’ Liberation

From talks given by Emily Feinstein at a Reclaiming Creativity Workshop, in Warwick, New York, USA, August 2005

Welcome to our Reclaiming Creativity Workshop. Congratulations for coming. Reclaiming creativity and working for artists’ liberation are revolutionary. If you’re not sure you belong here, or are truly an artist, that’s all part of the oppression and what we’ll work on this weekend.

Creativity is inherent to all human beings. It is a natural function. This weekend we will clear out distresses and misinformation that have made creativity less available to us so that we can figure out what role we want art and creativity to play in our lives.

Forget the word “artist” (unless you want to claim it as a contradiction). Some of us have to ignore it so that we can have room to picture what’s true for ourselves. We live in a society that has distorted who we are inherently. We have been forced to compartmentalize, specialize, label, and identify. We end up in various pieces, which makes it difficult for us to talk about who we are and what we love to do.

In the world we live in, we have to fight to remember what’s true. We get to support each other as we battle with confusions that are not just ours but that end up feeling like our own personal struggles. What we are going for[1] is connection and an accurate picture of ourselves. During introductions, when people talked about their creativity when they were young, there was little confusion. You saw a lightness and sureness. That’s just who we were. That’s what we want to get back. 

I love creativity and artists’ liberation workshops because there’s so much “eyes on the prize.” Artists’ liberation is about getting our voices back, our bodies back, ourselves back in the world, present and active. The hurts that left us feeling not good enough, not talented enough, not creative enough, can be discharged. If we don’t work on them, they affect the range of choices we make, how we spend our time, and our ability to be clear and effective in the work we do.

We can’t fully reclaim creativity without taking on[2] artists’ liberation. Artists’ oppression leaves us isolated, marginalized, and confused. It is one of the casualties of classism. Artists have been targeted and misunderstood and set apart as different, because we have challenged the mainstream and gone against some of the conventions inherent to capitalism. We often settle for feeling “gifted, talented, and special.” This can leave us vulnerable to making reactive decisions that can isolate and separate us further.  We
get to do things differently. Working for artists’ liberation provides an excellent road map for our re-emergence. To fully reclaim our creativity and be ourselves, we have to undo the confusions left by racism, sexism, “mental health” oppression, and the oppression of young people.


Intelligence—the ability in a new situation to create a new response—is creativity. We’re in a new moment. We pull from what we know—our experience and perspective—and come up with[3] an entirely new, fresh response. Each person’s particular mind is extraordinary and unique.

Creativity can show in our clothing, our hair, our speech, our home, how we counsel one another. We’re doing something that’s our own, that we haven’t seen before, in a way that makes sense and is personal to us. Some of us take acting classes or garden. Some of us have decided, in spite of all the oppression, to make art-making a priority. There’s a whole range. We must all assume, however, that creativity is ours—that it’s something we can pursue, develop, and have in our lives as fully as we want.


In general, the distresses and confusions from our early lives, along with all the misinformation we continue to receive, have left us feeling separate and bad about ourselves. They have also made it hard to structure our lives in the ways that we want, or to even know what we want. This includes those of us who are actively making art.

Our chronic material,[4] and the oppressive society, can lead to a desperation to carve out a space in which to do what we want. Pushing things aside to create the space to make art can come at a cost. It can limit our choices of what to create and where to show it.

Many of us who decided to pursue a career in art left our families or the communities we grew up in. Unless we go back and clean up the hurts from that, I don’t think we’ll fully have ourselves. The feeling of having to go away to do our work will inevitably affect our relationship to it, and to other people. 

Our work can become precious and private.Whether or not we identify as artists, most of us are careful about how much, and to whom, we show ourselves. We may struggle with being openly delighted and excited about what we do, and feel that only a few people understand our work. We have ideas, we make things, but we may dismiss them or keep quiet about them. We need to discharge and clear out the belittlement, criticism, and indifference we experienced as young people. We need to have lots of sessions in which we fight to feel and show our enthusiasm, our pride, and our minds. It’s in everybody’s interest that we make art and reclaim our creativity.

As we discharge, build resource, and push ourselves in spite of the distresses, we’ll be able to make good choices about what we want our creativity to look like, what we want it to address, and who we want to see it.


As a working-class female, I’ve had session after session about how selfish and indulgent I feel for wanting to make art, especially in times of conflict and war. My other work (that makes me a living), as an independent consultant working with youth and educators, can seem much more important. I clearly understand that a world without art is a world without intelligence and beauty. Still, I have to have frequent sessions or I go under.[5] My distresses make me forget how important and revolutionary art is. If I allow them to take over,[6] I don’t get in the studio, or go for projects.

Females are taught to be nurturing and that the most important thing is everyone else’s well-being. That’s why for women, being an artist is a contradiction to sexism. It’s not necessarily about our relationship to other people; it’s about ourselves and our vision of the world. It’s powerful.

If you have any confusion about the importance of art, think about a time you were moved, transformed, or inspired by it. Think about the joy and clarity you’ve experienced when making it. For many of us, art has been one of the key ways we can remember that we care about the world. 

Think about what it’s like in many schools, hospitals, government buildings, and corporate offices, where no thought is given to the care or the look of them. They are built as institutions, separate from the people they serve. Or think about the neighborhoods that have been ravaged, where constant oppression has made it impossible for the residents to put their minds to the care of them.

In New York, a certain percentage of monies for the MTA[7] go for art in mass transit—for mosaics and sculpture in the subways, for poetry on placards. These pieces of art are little reminders of life and intelligence, and they transform the environment. Where there is no creativity, it’s harder to feel connected. A world without art is inhuman.


Young people learn by touching. They need to feel something to understand it. They take the raw material out here and do things with it. This is how they understand and build a relationship to it—with Legos,[8] blocks, tents made out of sheets. Making our world new is a way to understand it for ourselves. 

How many of you have received drawings from the young people who care about you? When given a chance, young people will make things and share them. It’s one of the ways they show that they care about people.  Art reminds us of who we are and what is true.

It is almost impossible for adults not to correct what young people do. “I really like that one” (and the young person immediately feels like the other ones are worthless), “I really like it when you do that,” and so on. Sometimes parents encourage different siblings to pursue different things. They may encourage a child to do the things that he or she can do easily and not the things that he or she has feelings about. If children don’t feel like they can go after[9] something or do it well, or if they are struggling or making mistakes or starting to have a session, adults often get worried and take it out of their hands. “Oh, you don’t have to try that right now.”

No wonder it’s hard for us to feel complete pride and glee in what we make, in all its different stages. We are hard on ourselves because of all the stuff that came at us. Part of what we need to do is discharge on our histories of creativity, our early creative lives. What was it like moment-to-moment? You made that picture and you showed it to Mom. What did you feel? Really break it down. You wrote that story. When you read it out loud, you were so proud. Then you looked up and saw their expressions—you know, that vacant “Huh? What do you mean? That doesn’t make sense.” Later on you wanted to study guitar, or go to art school, and you were actively discouraged.

These kinds of incidents have had powerful effects on us. We may have learned how to manage, or negotiate, or ignore them, but now we need to go back and clean them up so that instead of feeling devastated by people’s responses, we can stay with people, be delighted, and share what we do. I loved making art all through my teenage years, but I didn’t think I was good enough so I gave it up for a time. In my mid-twenties, after a year of Co-Counseling, I could remember that art was my loveand I re-prioritized it in my life. It didn’t take much.


For most of us, life feels harder these days. We are more stressed. People are working triple time. Things are converging toward the collapse of society, and we are in the midst of it.

Human beings function as a group. We need each other. We can’t move, thrive, or survive if huge parts of the population aren’t living functional, healthy lives. Societies collapse if they are not based on caring for their citizens. They cannot sustain themselves.

The collapse is showing up in many ways. My regular Co-Counselor has been going through the health care system and is struck by how it’s changed in the past ten years. There is more legalese[10] and less access to information. It’s as if everyone is in conflict with everyone else and no one sees or cares about the whole.

A lot of us are so used to managing and negotiating our lives that we’re not even aware of these kinds of changes. We keep seeing our difficulties as personal failings. We don’t see how much harder we’re working and how much more stress we are under. And we don’t see how our being more scared and tired is due to these things. It has also gotten harder for us to gather together with other people—to rally on behalf of each other.

We often end up blaming ourselves and each other rather than attributing our difficulties to a failing system. What I want to say is that we need each other. We need to back[11] each other, daily, to build communities around ourselves—here and outside of RC. One of the great things about the art community, and many marginalized groups, is that we can find each other. In my art community, people continue to find ways to organize and support one another.

We also need to build relationships and understanding with other groups and communities so that we and our creativity don’t remain separate from everyday life. In many communities, artists and local residents are being pitted against one another. Folks who have lived in the neighborhood for years are blaming the artists for higher rents and prices. Sometimes developers wait until artists make a neighborhood “interesting” and vital; then they move in and kick out the local residents as well as the artists. In many communities, people are joining forces and winning battles against these kinds of things. 


Regardless of the conditions out there, we get to fight for the lives we want. Figuring out what we want may be ninety percent of the battle. When we were younger, we often knew what we wanted, and had tremendous hope and expectation, but we didn’t have the resources or the support to make it happen. Much of the discouragement and hopelessness we feel now is from those early battles we felt we didn’t win. We also saw others get hurt. Many of us gave up on fighting. We may have forgotten what it was we wanted, or we minimize it. Part of artists’ liberation is fighting for ourselves, back there. 

I am struck by how many RCers are figuring out that they want art-making central to their lives. Art and creativity are basic. They are pro-human and pro-survival. If people are discharging, moving, and re-emerging, they are coming to this.


Art and art-making have been made to seem special. There is an inaccurate perception that only some people get to make art and claim the artist identity. Being an artist has taken on[12] connotations that have nothing to do with art or art-making. Racism and classism have played a huge role in these confusions.

What does being an artist mean to you? Is it a person in a garret? A person who gets up in the morning, has a vision of what she wants to say, and goes to create it? Take a look at the images in your mind of an artist. I can guarantee you that a lot of them are based on myth and stereotype.

How many of you had music, art, poetry, or clothing that was part of your home or culture but was never defined as art? We all can be artists in what we do and how we approach things.

Some of us have organized our lives and work around art-making. Though we may get to choose what we make or create, we are still workers, like other workers. Most of us work very hard but make little money. We must often work several jobs in order to support ourselves. We make neighborhoods and cities livable, beautiful, and profitable, while investors and others profit from what we do.


We are going to share our artwork in small groups. Many of us will feel embarrassment and humiliation. Some of us will end up sharing our work excitedly. People’s sessions will look different from each other.

If, as counselor, you feel critical of someone’s work, if you think it’s not important or beautiful, that doesn’t matter. Just stay counselor and be delighted. Usually when art doesn’t work, it’s because of distress and lack of attention, and the contradiction isn’t judgment or leaving the artist alone. (Take your opinions to another session, and you may discover some interesting material.)

How do we talk to other artists about their work? How do we give feedback lovingly and with respect? Most of us have been so belittled and criticized for our work that we aim at others the same tone and judgment that was aimed at us. It becomes difficult to give feedback that doesn’t sound blaming or harsh. But it’s possible, and we need to practice.

I was in an art program in which we did critiques. It was an opportunity to learn how to give feedback from a place of trying to figure out what a person was attempting to do, not from a place of judgment. I would look for where I had been reached, for what the person seemed to be trying to do, whether or not he or she was successful. Ask a person what he or she wants from feedback—what would be useful and would provide insight, or perspective, or information for moving forward. Some people want reassurance; others want real feedback.

As clients, there are many sessions we can have about our work. What is it like showing it, talking about it, sharing it? How pleased are we with it? How much did we enjoy making it?  As counselors, we can be pleased and delighted and give clients room to discharge what they need to in order to connect with what they were trying for, and with us.


People keep asking about time—where do we get enough of it? We need time; there’s work to do as artists, and we need to practice and develop our craft. But eighty percent of creating art is attention. We can have three months and not get anything done because we have no free attention. In general, we don’t necessarily need to gather more time. We need to clear away enough chronic material that we can pay attention when we have time. We can do something in two hours with free attention that would take two days to do without it.


Some of us feel that if we’re not paying attention to the collapsing society, we are not taking it on.[13] If things in society are irrational, then we feel that we have to suffer and struggle as well, that we cannot have a joyful life. (That’s how distresses work—there’s an addictive pull to keep our attention on them.) A lot of this comes from our childhoods. It was hard to be openly happy when we saw so much distress and struggle around us.

Reality doesn’t change because of feelings of struggle. Reality is constant, reliable, unconditional. Joy, beauty, intelligence, connection, are operating even if we can’t tell[14] that they are. It’s our job to do the work necessary to notice.

Having good, meaningful lives is re-emergent and rational, and good for everybody. Otherwise, how can we organize other people? By feeling bad, miserable, and guilty? I don’t think so. We must put ourselves first. It has to start with us. I think we have to go for what we want, whether or not anyone seems to be with us. We are enough, and we aren’t actually alone.

Art has played a significant role in history. It organizes and connects. It reminds us of who we are, individually and collectively. Art-making is essential to having a good and complete life. When we make art, we are not colluding with or ignoring the collapsing society. Art is another tool with which to organize, reach people, and be present.

We make a difference. We can create change out there. The more we challenge and discharge our fear and disconnection—the places where we can’t tell that we care about anyone or that anyone cares about us—the more we’ll have a sense of how much we can do in the world. It’s nice; as we move individually, we also move together.

Transcribed by Leyla Modirzadeh

[1] Going for means trying to achieve.
[2] In this context, taking on means adopting and doing something about.
[3] Come up with means think of.
[4] Material means distress.
[5] Go under means become overwhelmed with bad feelings and lose perspective.
[6] Take over means dominate.
[7] The MTA is the Metropolitan Transport Authority.
[8] Legos are plastic, interlocking building blocks.
[9] Go after means pursue.
[10] Legalese is legal-type language.
[11] Back means support.
[12] In this context, taken on means acquired.
[13] In this context, taking it on means facing it and doing something about it.
[14] In this context, tell means notice.

Last modified: 2023-04-15 09:24:12+00