Monday, November 27, 2006

Musings on Creativity

I've been reading a lot about creativity lately. It's an interesting topic as it's so hard to define. The book I'm reading right now is one that defines creativity as the ability to add something novel (or original) of value to the culture. It recognizes creativity only if it is recognized by the field that the innovations are made in.
I'm not sure how to feel about this. In my life, I've always been a 'personally' creative person, learning many skills and using them to make the things in my life. When I look around the house and shop almost everything has been touched in some way by either my or my husband's hand. We've literally made most of our lives together. If I were to look at my own creativity from this book's point of view, I would not be considered creative at all. Our creation of our life has certainly not had any impact on our culture, only on our personal lives.
The same, too could asked of my work life... as a designer, I try to innovate, to come up with new ideas that will make my work more valuable to my customers. In the field that I'm in there are many, many innovators - more so than ever. There is no way to know right now who's work will be remembered as influencing the course of the craft in years to come. Someone could, with the available resources in the field, buy an LA machine and do things for their customers that are all designed and thought of by other LA innovators. As the person that matches the patterns to the quilt are they still creative? Could one be said to be creative when they only use another's ideas?
The book is intriguing, though, as it has interviews with so many people from so many different fields. I'm not that far into it yet, but am enjoying the types of questions that it raises. It's called "Creativity - flow and the psychology of discovery and invention" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It's an older book, published in 1996. I'm being disciplined in reading it. Supposedly there is a chapter at the end that has information that is gleaned from all the studies about how to lead a creative life.
I do understand that the point of looking at creativity from this cultural impact point of view probably has as much or more to do with the ability to 'measure' creative impact for the study that this book describes than it does with the actual experience of creativity, BUT part of me rails against that. Once we reduce the creative impulse to just the measurement of its impact, we sterilize and neuter it. In my experience, creativity is messy and organic. It jumps and leaps, it does not follow linear growth patterns. It's true that for every idea that I have that gets fully developed in to a consumable, usable form there are easily 15 - 150 that don't get developed. Sometimes it takes 5 or 10 of those initial 'spark' ideas to form one coherent drawing or pattern. There is no way to jump to the end, to do only the final product without all the pre-product ideas and thinking. Should my creativity be measured only by the ideas that make it to print? Or should it be measured by the ability to generate ideas?
I'd be interested to hear other's points of view on this topic.


1 comment:

Terry Thomas said...

Lisa, finally got around to getting back to this.

First, let me start this by stating how the dictionary defines creativity:

cre•a•tiv•i•ty /ˌkrieɪˈtɪvɪti, ˌkriə-/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[kree-ey-tiv-i-tee, kree-uh-] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation
–noun 1. the state or quality of being creative.
2. the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination: the need for creativity in modern industry; creativity in the performing arts.
3. the process by which one utilizes creative ability: Extensive reading stimulated his creativity.

Don't bother reading, #2 is the one that matters for my purposes: The ability to transcend traditional ideas etc and to create new ideas etc.

So, first of all the premise of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s thesis is apparently flawed. By analysing and consequently ‘re-defining' creativity, Csikszentmihalyi negates his/her results. If I were to redefine the word 'read' as the ability to share words orally with others; then I would immediately create a cyclical and ultimately destructive context in which the written word is only important if read to another. In effect, the author has stated that unless the 'creativity' has been absorbed by others, it does not exist...wait a second!!! So when Fedor Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov, it was not creative until it influenced culture as a whole? This is simply irrational. The story was completed in 1880; it did not change as it was 'absorbed' into culture. To quote an oft used contemporary cliché, "It is what it is." Period. If it was crap, it was crap and if it was a masterpiece it was so without the benefit of others reading it. This is the 'tree falls in a forest' argument but in the case of creativity there is simply not a necessity to be shared.

Is King Lear any less powerful if performed to an empty house? Is episode 144 of The Simpsons any less culturally important if not witnessed by throngs of fans (this is a particularly important episode with no less than three presidential references (Washington, Stevenson and Arthur) and two Canadian legends (Sutherland and Sutherland) but I digress). Or are Lisa’s quilts any less impressive if not shared with anyone else?

Simply put, creativity is creative expression and nothing more. If the expression is not received by others it simply does not matter. Shakespeare’s plays, Matt Groenig’s subversive characters and Lisa’s quilts are equally important even if another set of eyes have never laid eyes upon them.

Personally, I have crafted three novels and a non-fiction book on business and I have a sketch book full of drawings of my trip to Europe and no one has ever seen any of it…do they exist? Yes, I can reach out and touch them. Do they transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination? Well, I like to think so…in other words, they are creative without being witnessed.

Furthermore, we all ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ when it comes to creativity. Clementi and Dussek were influential to Beethoven… Michelangelo claimed to owe his genius to his mentor Ghirlandaio and David Bowie drew from his fascination of Velvet Underground to pen many of his classics including ‘Ashes to Ashes’…did that make these men frauds? Can we simply ignore their genius because they didn’t, strictly speaking, create something that was unique?

The author seems to be pandering to our ‘consumption’ mentality…that is, nothing is good if not consumed by the masses. This is a relatively new idea brought about by our 20th century understanding of what is ‘good’…a book must be a bestseller, a movie must break box office records and a song must be #1 on the charts in order for it to be good.

I have read your latest posting on this book and have comments on that also…when I get some sleep!!