Saturday, 28 April 2012

What is 'creativity'?

I've been exercised about exactly what creativity is for some time now.

Apparently while I've been exercised about this, others have been busy appropriating it. Which is odd, because I had the feeling that creative used to be what your mother hoped you weren't, so that you'd do well in your exams and get a good job.

These days, creativity is a term that is linked more often with enterprise, innovation and collaboration than with drug-fuelled hippies, going off the rails, and lone artists in garrets.

What's being stolen is the origin of creativity. It's being sold back to us as a commodity, something we can buy cheaply and easily, but which effaces the origins of the product, like brightly-lit supermarkets purveying white milk in plastic containers, rather than cows.

Let me give an example. Jonah Lehrer is a clever young chap, who wrote a book called Proust was a Neuroscientist (by implication, I am not, I am a grumpy old woman). I read and enjoyed this book. Basically it argued that modernist thinkers, writers and artists had somehow (despite being artists!) come up with theories it had taken neuroscience much longer to verify. Theories about memory and perception, essentially.

I noticed that the level of quotation from Proust showed a pretty basic mastery of the novel — had he actually read the whole thing, or just got wind of it from conversations, done a bit of research, and plumped for the standard quotations about madeleines and involuntary memory?

I was willing to forgive the superficial reading of Proust and others for the sake of an original argument... until I realised that Lehrer (isn't it extraordinary how people's names match their professions?) had smoothly moved on from this bouncy early puppydog book to becoming overall spokesman for imagination. Imagine! We can now be told that the 'new rules of creativity' include such insights as:
  • Take more breaks
  • Think like a child
  • Watch more comedy
  • Creativity depends on selection and limitation, as much as on excess and productivity (actually that's my insight, what Lehrer said was "It's not until we encounter a challenge we can't easily solve that the chains of cognition are loosened")
  • Work with strangers
  • Prepare to improvise
These gems are to be found in Wired, May 2012, pp. 110-15.

To give Lehrer some credit, I liked the point he makes about brainstorming. Developing what he'd said about creativity being enhanced by limitation, he cites research by Charlan Nemeth of Berkeley which broke groups faced with a problem to solve into 3 camps:
  1. those who got no instruction in how to work together
  2. those who were told to brainstorm, with the explicit instruction that all ideas are valid (at least to start with)
  3. those who were were told that 'most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other's ideas'
Those who debated came up with more ideas and went on having ideas afterwards. Competition doesn't kill creativity. This I liked — we used to call it stimulating discussion. But Lehrer and Nemeth are not quite right, or somewhat naive. Competitive creativity produces a high level of wastage, and competition does kill some kinds of creativity — there are often other things at play, like gendered behaviour. That kind of debating has to be really well facilitated to work. It's essentially Darwinian, and the fittest ideas survive, not necessarily the best.

So what was being served up as insight in Wired anyone working in the arts and humanities could have told you in 5 minutes of intense conversation. It's not that what he tells us about creativity isn't true, it's just that it's the condition of working for anyone who picks up an instrument or a pen, or a camera, or a sexual partner. These are the implicit rules of the game for frustrated writers, tired performers, hyper-competitive improv artists. Creativity is bloodthirsty, sapping stuff, not painting the walls blue, taking breaks and sucking lattes. Creativity is destructive, and not averse to bullying, gameplaying, bitching, undermining...

Sanitized versions of what it is to be innovative, creative, collaborative, like Lehrer's, are very attractive in a digitized era, because they make creativity look clean, infinitely reproducible, distributable, editable, fun with a neat Brazilian.

The monks that used to illuminate manuscripts, and the artists that painted Bible scenes on the walls of churches have given way to raspberry pis programmed by children. In the name of the democratization of creativity, we are at risk of effacing its origins, and in so doing, forgetting how to do it.

P.S. yes, I know I'm writing a blog on a laptop, and without Apple and Google couldn't be reaching out with my harum-scarum argument. Very clever thing, technology. Just don't tell me it owns creativity. It owns techne.

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