The Role of Error in Creativity

To err is human and importantly productive in creative endeavor.

Posted Feb 23, 2019

I am, both in substance and in form, involved in risk. The topic I have chosen is value-laden and complex, and it requires me to draw on material from the rich, risky, and dazzling domains of aesthetics and the psychology of creativity.

What does error have to do with creativity? Some years ago, in one of my research explorations of the creative process in visual art, I met with a woman sculptor who did large-scale abstract work in perfectly smooth white plastic material. These sculptures had perfectly clean lines and perfectly even coloration and were obviously proportioned according to exact specifications. I marveled at their seeming perfection, and she described to me the detailed engineering process involved in creating such elaborate and elegant works. Then she took me over to look at one of the large surfaces more closely. Pointing to a gnarled and slightly raised blemish on the surface on one of her works, she said, "Do you see that blip on the surface there? Well, that's me."

This sculptor's dramatic and metaphoric reference to the single error on an otherwise absolutely perfect constructed sculpture may readily be related to poetic and philosophical conceptions of the human condition. To err is indeed to be human, and the sculptor's equating of her self and of her own individuality with the error on her creation is consistent with aesthetic and philosophical emphases on celebration of humanness, and of individual style and performance. There are surely other meanings, too, both aesthetic and psychodynamic; we can also surmise that she may also have felt uncomfortable and disavowing about the mechanistic and technological perfection of her creations. The unbroken sleek lines and machine-produced smooth surface in those works of art certainly produced some discomfort in me.

There is, I believe, more than personal psychological issues to be taken from this sculptor's remark, however. It is not only that erring is human and that artists assert their humanness or individuality in the errors they make, but, as I shall presently clarify, the error itself, and a special orientation to error, is intrinsic to the creative process. Both commissions of errors and the handling of errors are important and special matters in creative processes. First, errors are not merely allowed but, given a requisite very high level of technical skill, they are actually courted to some extent in the process of creating products in art, and in other fields as well. Second, in significant way errors are linked and integrated into such created products. The sculptor was not merely acknowledging an error in her creation, she was embracing that error and including it as a significant part of the product itself. Indeed, she considered it to be the sign of her handiwork and her style, and she thereby indicated what is referred to as the artist's "signature." Broader in meaning than the literal name written on a canvas or a sculpture pedestal, her signature was the error that figuratively represented herself in her creation. This way of handling, thinking about, and using error in the creative process involves a factor I have designated the sep-con articulation process (sep=separation; con=connection}. This process is a major factor in creative activities, and the process of sep-con articulation of error is a particular manifestation of this factor.

Sep-Con Articulation of Error

I have designated the process of "sep-con articulation of error" in a specific way. Literally, the word articulation means a joint, but it is a word with a double sense. The articulation or joining of one clearcut element with another produces at the same time both a connection or coming together and a separation. When we call someone an articulate speaker, we mean that that person separates, speaking clearly and distinctly, and also that his words and thoughts connect and flow in a smooth unbroken stream. Thus, the articulate person separates the words and thoughts from each other, but he or she also connects them, both in sense and in syntax. Such articulation, with its connecting and separating, is a cardinal feature of creative processes in art, literature, science, and many other fields. There is constant bringing together and separating in many different dimensions--conceptual, perceptual, volitional, effectual, and physical. The creative person--artist, groundbreaking scientist, or other--separates out critical aspects of the abstract or tangible material he works with and concomitantly fuses or brings these elements together in producing a creation. In the course of a creative process, errors that appear are articulated; the sep-con articulation of error is a constant and far-ranging process: it involves both separation and connection of various aspects of abstract and tangible material into effective literary, artistic, musical, scientific and social creations.

The Process of Sep-Con Articulation of Error in the Creative Process

Creative people have an orientation to error that is out of the ordinary. Most people, when engaged in highly skilled difficult work, tend to be quite careful or controlled, and they are wary of making errors. Mistakes are irritating and bothersome and sometimes are of a type and magnitude to provoke discouragement and cessation of the task. Although creative work itself is almost always quite difficult and is very highly fraught with error, creative people characteristically deal with errors and mistakes in a different way. While engaged in the creative process they think in a highly free and wide-ranging fashion, and they take risks and chances that invariably lead to error. When errors occur, they may or may not be subjectively felt as bothersome, but characteristically they are directly noticed, assessed, and, if possible, articulated with the creative work in progress. Valuable or interesting elements within the error are clarified and elaborated, and they are joined with the developing product as a whole. The error elements may be connected and incorporated within the product, or they may lead to the development of the product into new directions.

Sep-con articulation of error is not a matter of rejecting material because it is wrong or a matter of turning away from an incorrect approach. Unlike what is generally called trial-and-error thinking, in which errors are removed or corrected, sep-con articulation of error involves preservation in the whole work of new, interesting, or valuable elements within a miss or a mistake. In the creative process, the sep-con articulation of error involves both separation and connection together.

To illustrate how the process operates in artistic creative work, I present an example from a painting by the artist Henri Matisse, a painting entitled "The Bather" (Figure I)

Albert Rothenberg; used with permission
Bather; Matisse
Source: Albert Rothenberg; used with permission

In the major portion of his works, Matisse was interested in organizing color and pattern on a two-dimensional surface. He was a master of constructing patterns, and one of his achievements was the invention of the collage style of painting. In this oil on canvas painting was done in 1909, it is rather easy to see the use of bright, strong color design, and the emphasis on the nude body of the male bather as a pattern of lines on an essentially two-dimensional surface. While the body is presented with some traditional line perspective, and there is some degree of depth and solidity, this effect is somewhat secondary to the effect of strong lines, contours, and especially a sense of movement on the flat surface. How is this latter aesthetic effect achieved?

First, of course, the lines outlining the body contour are thick and black: they stand out. But did Matisse draw out these lines all at once with a perfect unbroken motion?  Not at all. Close inspection of the painting shows numerous repetitious and erroneously placed lines: in the hand region, behind the back, and on the legs. And now, it is important to note, that when I say erroneously placed when examined closely, I am not describing the aesthetic effect of this painting, because these lines do not appear to be unnecessary or wrong in the total overall context of this work. Indeed, these seemingly stray lines emphasize and enhance the rounded contour of the body, and they impart dynamism and a feeling of movement to the whole. That is precisely the point of such sep-con articulation of error. While a careful examination of the painting indicates that Matisse's hand strayed several times while drawing the nude figure, he was able to articulate these strayings with the overall final pattern he produced. Not only are the strayed lines part of the aesthetic form of the painting, but one could also infer meaningful philosophical and psychological content from the crude and erroneous lines, notions similar to those involved in the sculptor's remarks about herself that I quoted earlier.