Thursday, September 22, 2005
Synthesis: What makes me creative?:
by: Bruce DeBoer
'My 8 year old son is so creative he's going to be an artist.' How many times have you heard that? Naïve art – young children are natural at it. It's the first rain in the desert, new run-off paths are spontaneously created; the water forges streams where there were none. An 8 year old discovers crayons uninhibited by life experience, ego, and deadlines. Nearly every connection is a new one. She hasn't yet learned how not to be creative.
When we say that art is immature, what do we mean? We don't necessarily mean that the artist lacks originality; more likely, we mean that its originality is born by an artist who doesn't yet know enough to be interesting, or deliver emotion in a compelling way. The moment a child realizes their art is immature, the crayons stand a good chance of being surrendered.
Information and experience are like food for the creative process. It's raw substance. Information needs to be digested to brain-fat so it can re-immerge as mature creative energy. It's as if it needs to be inculcated into our souls before we are free to randomize it into original creative expression. If we don't digest it, a creative product – art, innovation, music, etc. – is sure to be more derivative that original. Creativity is using our unique inner selves to rearrange the raw material.
Society teaches the creativity out of our students. If X, then Y is easy to teach. If X, then Y gets results. It generates tangible and immediate ROI. Do this and get that result. Take an alternative path and risk failure or – even worse – ridicule. Research creative history and learn what got rewarded and what was ignored. Teach high craft and call it high art. Creativity is too soft and round; there is nothing to grab onto. There are often no clean results to judge. Creativity is messy but we all crave the rewards.
When do we begin to fear our own creativity? I believe it is the point at which we began to market ourselves. True creativity is deeply personal because we have to create new streams – new run-off paths in our souls. Risking creative rejection is terrifying. It's rejection that cuts so deep it's worse than a High School crush laughing when you finally get the nerve to ask her to the movies (I digress, forgive me). Creativity takes courage. Being vulnerable takes guts. Needed is a willingness to be rejected for what is among the most personal of expressions. The stakes are high.
Taking a less risky path is more about fine craft than innovation. I'm reminded of advice from an emerging professional as I left college: he told me, "On the outside, there is no room for 'b" quality work." In other words: it is the end of experimentation without consequences. Experiment all you want on your own, but come to work with your "A" game: bring what you know will meet approval.
Hugh MacLeod of Gaping Void fame uses the Sex and Cash theory to explain how creativity and business relate. Re: Sex and Cash, "This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended." Creativity is sexy. The more you get paid for your creativity, the less sexy it is. I believe there are laws governing sex and cash, are there not? Do we dare go counter culture?
The occasional and often publicized young creative genius can lull us into the false impression that creativity is only for the immensely and naturally talented. "I can't do that, I've never been creative." The truth is creativity is hard work. Creative people are talented because they put in the hours. There is a passion for the doing; they can't not-do, and the results are secondary to the act but no less important than their original idea. Does this confuse you?
Whether you're an artistic temperament seeking structure or a rational temperament seeking imagination, creativity is constructive only when related to others. If you've heard improvisational abstract Jazz you know what I mean. An artist's passion can be intensely creative but the results can fail to inspire others – it's self indulgent.
Ever try to talk through your raw creative ideas with another? Sounded dim, didn't it? People often reject another's raw creativity; it's simply too intimate until it takes a form prone to mutual acceptance. Raw creative ideas aren't ready for prime time – they need at least minimal crafting. Like a beautifully written song sung out of key – poor craft masks the emotion or defeats the function.
For those of you in need of concrete illustration, the DeBoer creativity equation will keep you busy:
Imagination x Craft x Emotion = Art
Imagination x Craft x Function = Innovation
[This should help with the test at the end, so pay attention.]
However flawed you may find these equations; my point is that emotion and function are the human relational elements to art and innovation. Without emotion, art appears dry and mechanical. Without function, innovation is pure Rube Goldberg. Craft is the vehicle of creativity. Crafting the creativity allows the emotion and function to "sing".
The good news: Creativity is portable. The bad news: fine Craftsmanship is not. When people say I'm a great photographer, most are telling me that I've honed the craft of photography beyond the ordinary. I can't move my honed skills from photography to writing, to music, to business, but I can take my creativity with me. It's fluid that way. We begin to recognize talent when an accomplishment tipping point is reached in the three elements of our creativity equation.
Talent doesn't need a creative process per se. Talent finds formulaic process stifling: a canvas and a deadline, however, is a different story. Talent will surface no matter what; it won't be denied. Talent doesn't need the best camera to make great imagery. Just as money can't buy contentment, the best guitar, camera, or paints can't aid creativity, only help polish the craft.
Process helps companies hide their poor creative talent. "We have a great creative process" that we use to get our accountants to think "out of the box". Ugh! Isn't that what Enron boasted? Remember what I said about putting in the hours? Either a company hires those with creative passion and nurtures it with a catalytic culture or it doesn't. Usually it doesn't. Reflecting on the process undermines the ability, it takes us back to "if X then Y" and the crayons stay in the box.
Watching creativity is like watching a cow lactate – all day long nothing is witnessed, then, WHAM, milk. Once you have your milk, only then should you send it through the process. Make sure it solves the problem. Make sure the Function and the Craft in the Innovation equation is honed to a fine edge. Bad milk? Keep moving.
Somewhere around puberty we accumulate enough junk in our minds that we need to organize it: make it linear. Random thought is no longer an efficient way to make it through the day and stay sane. Most of us lay down our crayons. Those who don't surrender, usually become artists, musicians, fashion designers or advertising art directors who wander through the desert waiting for rain."