Is your work “Me Work” or “Bigger Than Me Work”?

bigger than me About a week ago, I bookmarked this piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education. It mostly discusses the ways in which college students learn and how the arts often push students to learn beyond their “Me Experience”.

But there was one section that I feel speaks to artists as well. Some artists create exclusively from a Me Experience and never truly take it to a Bigger Than Me place. Honestly, I believe that we all struggle to do that from time to time. Even the best of us vacillate between the Me and the Bigger Than Me.

So the question becomes: Are we taking our work beyond what we personally think/feel/believe/experience into the realm of other people? Are we going beyond ourselves into and truly communicating and sharing with an audience?

So, what’s the difference between the ME Experience and the Bigger Than Me Experience? From the article with my additions:

“‘Me experiences” are different from “bigger-than-me experiences.” Me experiences are about voice; they help students express themselves. The underlying question they begin with is, “What do I have to say?”

Bigger Than Me experiences are about insight; they start with, “What don’t I know?” Voice comes after reflection. Me experiences are about jumping into a project and making something—an idea, an artifact, a piece of media. Bigger Than Me focuses on John Dewey’s notion of “undergoing”—making something happen in the world, which requires, first, a shift in our own subjectivity. We must anticipate problems, struggle with ideas, seek some resolution. It’s a process.

The point is to make something happen for ourselves AND someone else – a shift or deepening in their thinking, an experience outside of their own, creating something that reverberates in the world and doesn’t end when they finish viewing the creation.

Me experiences aim at maximizing pleasure, rewards, and positive affect. (Yes “affect” – as in “feeling” -hp). Getting an A on an exam; getting a dozen “likes” on a Facebook or Instagram post; being the center of attention.

Or getting mentions in the press, good reviews on blogs, people praising on Facebook uncritically. These are not bad things in and of themselves. Artists thrive on positive reinforcement. But that’s a PERSONAL thing. If our art has only those ends in mind and our interaction with it goes no further, it is only “Me” work. We have to question our work, look at it from all sides and other perspectives in order for it to help us -and others- grow.

feed ego

On the other hand, Bigger Than Me experiences pursue positive relations with others, a sense of purpose, helping solve a collective problem.

Getting beyond ourselves and our own feelings within the work requires an interaction and exchange with the audience, with actors, with the text itself- not just one way, from us to them. Having something universal, urgent or pointed to convey gives the work purpose. And taking the problem beyond our own internal world and into the audience experience is what makes the art reverberate. That’s when communication and connection happens.

[Bigger Than Me Experiences] also promote an attribute central to creativity: imagination. In “me” experiences, the ego shapes imagination, providing us with material to envision who we are and what we might become. Bigger Than Me experiences help us develop our empathic imagination—putting ourselves in another’s shoes, adopting a different perspective, and trying to identify with a different place, time, or people.”

In the Me Experience the imagination points back at ourselves. This is absolutely necessary for our own personal growth and in achieving goals in life and art. But this is, again, a personal thing. It doesn’t invite anyone else in. However, Bigger Than Me Experiences require us to reflect upon what we express with others in mind. We then use our imagination to craft our own expression outwardly so that others may embrace it – and use their own imaginations in turn.

The arts automatically do this to some extent. . .

. . . but how much of art is about what we want to say rather than how we want to share with our audiences? If you can hit both, so much the better!

If we are creating from a place where personal ego, and the results that support the ego, are the only things that matter, we are creating a Me Experience. But if we are creating from a place of reflection, of communication, of empathy for others, and of purpose, we are creating BIGGER THAN ME experiences.

make others seeI think that most creativity begins at a place of Me Experiences. Personal expression is integral to knowing who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going. But the thing that elevates it to art is the Bigger Than Me experience. When it goes from expression to reflection, from entertainment to enlightenment, from pleasure to purpose. When we start with ourselves and then take it beyond ourselves to other people and their world, raising questions, seeking greater understanding, requiring empathy, and offering a moment of two of insight.

That’s what takes it from a selfie to a portrait. That’s when it turns into art.

ME: What do I have to say?
Mundane or Disposable

BIGGER THAN ME Insight: What do we need to know?
Purpose (Eudaimonic)
Heightened and Purposeful

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