The source of all movement, Shiva’s dance, gives rhythm to the universe.

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.

~ Dalí

Last year I taught a freshman seminar on the psychology of creativity. On day 1, there were 60 students in the room, although enrollment was capped at 20. Once we were down to battle strength, we did a random walk through the literature and three small projects to experience creativity (see post). Each session, I kicked off with a Moment of Dalí, projecting one of his paintings and reading a few sentences from a biography, including quotes from the master himself. Dalí was a lucky – because not fully informed – choice. He embodied three characteristics of the creative person: expert skill, sustained vision, and controlled eccentricity.

Expert skill is essential if one is to attain “Big C”(reativity). Just messing around for shits and giggles may pave the way to “Little C,” but Big C demands training, effort, practice, and then more practice. One must be willing to learn from previous generations of masters. Dalí did that, a fact often overlooked by those smitten with his eccentricity. Dalí was so good, he could paint a face and you might mistake for a photograph. He just chose not to do that (often). Yet, one can see the perfection of his technique within his paintings.

Dalí's sister and Catalan coast

Bum and coast in early Dalí

Dalí’s sustained vision revealed itself as we moved chronologically (a seemingly uncreative strategy) through his life’s work. We found emerging and recurring themes, such as the Catalan coast, Catholic mysticism, feminine buttocks, and the face of his wife Gala. The patient viewer gradually comes to behold the Gesamtkunstwerk, which is a magnificent creation, a super-sized C. Creativity at this level is more than a collection of great stuff.

Controlled eccentricity is entertaining at first sight and intriguing upon reflection. At the everyday level of Little C, a dash of eccentricity is essential so that the person can experiment with possibility, overcome anxiety, and break habits. For Dalí, eccentricity was not only a force driving his art, but also a carefully cultivated attitude and mode of self-presentation. Dalí mastered the art of marketing his work and himself as a package. The only difference between him, Dalí said, and a madman, was that he (Dalí) was not mad.

Creativity is in. If you want to do a successful TED talk, then complain about how the educational system or organizational management has degenerated into a machinery of repetition compulsion, where nothing new ever happens. Call for a re-imagination of education as a creative engine. This strategy worked for Sir Ken Robinson. If you are like Sir Ken, you will not be specific about how exactly you intend to change the sorry state of education so that creativity may flourish; if you proposed a specific plan, your ideas might be put to a test. But that would be as it should be. A creator would succeed where Sir Ken failed; a creator would present a vision with substance. If you tear down, you must be willing to build up.

Like innovation, creativity has become a shibboleth, and thus a notion of presumably intrinsic value. Many believe that creativity is good for its own sake. But is it? What can creativity do for us? Arguably, creativity can link up with two basic values: happiness and freedom. A creative act can itself be gratifying, in a flow-like fashion. Then, a finished creative product can deliver the satisfaction of goal attainment. A creative act can also be liberating. It spells a departure from past routines and habits, and thereby opens the door to behavioral freedom. Yet, creativity also has a close connection to competition, and competition has a corrosive potential.

Creative competition. Business wants to put creativity in the service of innovation. And it’s not just business. There is a general sense in the culture (check Sir Ken) that constant creative innovation is a good and necessary thing. As more and more businesses and individuals feel this way, creativity becomes a competitive game. He (or she) who is the most creative at the fastest rate will reap the rewards of the market place. Creative businesses beat their competitors and creative individuals get to do the jobs that make it so. In the personal sphere, creativity brings rewards in the socio-biological market place. It seems safe to speculate that creative individuals have more offspring. They are creative and procreative.

What could be bad about this? A culture driven by creativity and innovation seems like a progressive culture, and progress is good, right? Perhaps. But there are two notes of caution. First, a culture dependent on relentless innovation is economically unstable. There is no option to pause and continue business and life as usual – in the idling gear, so to speak. There is no usual. In the 21st century, all sorts of trends seem to be accelerating, many of which are known to be unsustainable. Fossil fuels, to use a stock example, are known to be finite. Ordinary creativity will find ways to locate a few more deposits; but it will take extraordinary creativity to find sustainable alternatives of sufficient power. Ordinary creativity will give us iPhone 7 to iPhone N. Then what?

Second, a culture based on creative competition is socially unstable. Competition pits units (be they individuals, groups, or organizations) against one another. When the creative win, there will be losers. Every time a collective manages to form, it will be surpassed and torn down by those who creatively go beyond it. Yet, any creative act requires a cultural-historical context. Without it, there is nothing that can be overcome. Dalí’s case illustrates this point. His art emerged from centuries of artistic evolution. Dalí revolutionized and transcended his predecessors and contemporaries. The society of surrealism rejected him (how non-surreal of them to do this!), thereby giving him the social stamp of uniqueness. Suppose each surrealist had been as creative as Dalí. There would have been no society to reject anyone (unless for each artist all others banded together as an ad-hoc society for the sole purpose of rejecting this particular individual). From the social point of view, the number of creative eccentrics must remain limited, lest there be no one who can be recognized as creative. There must remain a cultural core to represent history and tradition. Creative innovation always works against the fertile bed that produced it.

An appeal to all of us to become more creative is self-defeating because it will destroy our common ground. What should we do instead? If we were to seek creativity selectively for a privileged few, how would we tell the rest to preserve traditional skills and practices? I suspect we need some creative ideas on the matter.

Beyond eschatology

The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom. ~ Hegel

The way we look at creativity and innovation and progress depends on our larger worldview. According to one perspective, things will get better. Hegel (and Hegelians such as Marx) believed that there is a grand trend underlying history. To Hegelians, the world moves toward greater perfection. Darwin (and the Darwinians) rejected the view that there is an underlying pattern, which, after studying Hegel or Marx, one would know and be able to use to make predictions. Yet, Darwinians also believe in positive trends. The idea of random variation and selective retention implies it if only that which works will be retained. Others (e.g., John of Patmos) believe that things will get worse before they get better. To them, history is a long march down the hill between one golden age at the beginning and another at the end. Hindus believe that time is a great cycle of creation and destruction. They decry the idea of progress as an illusion (some of the Ancient Greeks agreed). Much as we might think we are making progress, Nataraja will come along and it’s back to square 1. At least he destroys the world with song and dance.

The Darwinian point of view is the only one with scientific credentials, and it is probably the one that is most agreeable to our efforts to be creative (Campbell, 1960; Simonton, 1999; see blog post). We cast about (quasi-randomly) to solve the problems right in front of us without knowing where it will lead in the long run. For that, you need metaphysics.

Campbell, D. T. (1960). Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes. Psychological Review, 67, 380–400.

Simonton, D. K. (1999). Creativity as blind variation and selective retention: Is the creative process Darwinian? Psychological Inquiry, 10, 309-328.

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