Monday, April 19, 2010

What is Creativity?

"Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity." ~ Charles Mingus

It is difficult to have a discussion on art without defining creativity. Before I give my definition, lets take a look at the word itself. The root word is "create" or what the dictionary will define as "to bring into existence." Creativity is then defined as, "the ability to create." Though I agree with this general definition, I think I am in the minority when it comes to explaining what is actually being created. If you were to ask yourself this question, how would you answer? Most likely you would say some artifact is being created: a painting, a piece of music, a performance, or maybe a book. I would say, that's not it at all. I would argue that none of those things are created. They are simply a reorganization and manipulation of what already existed.

The painter takes raw materials - canvas and pigment - and organizes them in a particular way to produce an image just as the musician takes the sounds made by instruments and organizes them in a particular way to produce a melody. A computer programmer takes code to produce software. A Chef takes food and prepares a delicious meal.  A writer uses words to write a novel or a poem.

I provide the last example because it is something that anyone reading this blog can do - write.  Yet, it is not often we look at the way in which we have strung a number of words together and say that it was the act of creativity.  Usually its simply a matter of utility - a means of communication. Yet, I am willing to bet all of us have felt moved by the eloquence and verve of a well written book, the lines of a poem, or the lyrics to a song.  The writer, in a creative act, organized the words in a way that gave them meaning beyond mere utility.  In such cases, I would argue that something was "brought into existence" that did not exist before - beauty.

I think society has perverted creativity to mean 'different' or 'novel'.  For most of my life the modernist movement dominated the art scene and a few pompous critics tried to convince us that the ugly monstrosities that were being shown in galleries as art.  Everyone I knew who saw it quipped, "I don't get it."  I don't get it either. An unmade bed, soiled and sweat-stained, surrounded by garbage is not beautiful.  It is not creative.  It is not art.  Yet Tracey Emin proposed this very thing as her work of creativity and it is on display in a modern art museum.  I ask you, is there any human being on earth who could not recreate this scene in their own house with enough slovenly disregard?  No beauty was created here.  Its simply blatant exhibitionism - more of the same "look at me" attitude that bombards us in the media.

Please don't misinterpret my statements above to mean that I do not appreciate abstract art.  I love abstract art that is well conceived, designed, and executed.  It takes great skill to make good abstract art, just as it takes great skill to make good representational art.  Despite the perception, many of the same skills used by the representational artist are also used by the abstract artist.  The use of composition, color, light, shape, and form to create beautiful paintings or sculpture.  This is much different from finding dog droppings on the ground, sealing in a jar, putting it on display, and labeling it as a creative act of genius.

I believe creativity has a purpose beyond simply seeking unconventional means for solving problems.  Its purpose is to create beauty.  It takes great skill and knowledge to create beauty.  We rarely look at someone who is just beginning to learn the piano and consider the music they play to be beautiful, but a pianist who has years of training, study, and practice  transform the simple sounds made by the instrument and elevate them into something truly moving.  Its not limited to what is traditionally considered "the arts" such as music, dance, writing, or painting, but to almost any human activity.  A mathematical formula can be beautiful.  A meal can be beautiful.  A speech can be beautiful.  A golf swing can be beautiful.  The way someone provides customer service can be beautiful.

Beauty matters.  The modern world seems to be forgetting this.  Rather than explain this myself, I recommend watching philosopher Roger Scruton's six part series on YouTube on why beauty matters.

When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong. ~ Buckminster Fuller

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