Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On Creativity

In my practice as an artist... drawing and shit... creativity doesn't come up much. Any drawing I've done is first and foremost an exercise in muscle memory, then visual memory and failing those two a form of... I guess spacial memory - remembering where in my many reference folders, reference books or pinterest account is a solution to whatever composition problem I am trying to solve at the time.

When I'm putting pencil or pen to paper, it is very rare for me to have the conscious string of thoughts 'I need a creative solution' largely because, that doesn't mean anything to me.

And yet, 'creativity' keeps coming up. Visual artists, Film makers, Musicians, Photographers, Designers, Architects etc can get lumped together under the term 'creatives', (I have problems with this term) and due to everyone being the best artist somebody knows - we've probably all at some point been complimented either directly or indirectly as 'x is very creative' spoken by a relative lay person.

Creativity is a celebrated but vague concept. It's a concept that concerns me because the emphasis placed on being 'creative' I believe stresses fledgling artists, possibly even accomplished and established artists. Which makes me feel I can't keep writing about creativity without parading out the etymology, let's find out what the Roman's were talking about when they brought up 'creativity' it derives from 'creo' to create, or make - However Chaucer gave the first example of 'create' used in English in a divine context. So before Chaucer, creation was anchored to a production of labor (maybe, I wasn't there.)

God 'making up' the heavens above and Earth below is the kind of creation that is quantum. And yes it's very slippery to try and describe divine creation, given the testimony of the physical universe all suggests that never happened. To my understanding there's very little physical evidence that a concept like nothing exists, or nowhere. But Chaucer may have been the first to push creativity in the direction of 'originality' which is a bit more convuluted but seems to ultimately derive from Latin's 'origo' - 'to rise up.' but generally means what you'd expect it to mean, the source, first, beginning etc.

It is this equivocation that to be creative = to be original that is interesting to observe, or at least test in the wilds of the art world. To simply produce something is necessary but not in itself sufficient to be creative, you must produce something never seen before. I'm asserting that creativity does not require originality, and my experience makes me confident, but not entirely convinced that what we call originality, doesn't really exist.

I'm going to break the post up into a selection of pieces because I can't figure out a way to tie them into one continuous narrative.

'Creatives' is an offensive term

If I may circle back, take for example the term 'creatives' used by people of all walks of life to describe certain walks of life. Visual Artists - painters, photographers, illustrators, sculptors, graphic designers, fashion designers etc. Audio - singers, songwriters, musicians, programmers, dancers...

And so on, I don't like this term when you switch from positive screening (adding professions to the category) to negative screening (excluding professions from the category). It doesn't really work any more - is an accountant non-creative? You may say 'yes' thinking stereotypically, but I say no. You get some very creative accountants when you have someone earning $10 million a year paying zero income tax. Is a lawyer not creative? No again, perhaps lawyers, in their requirement to 1) pick a specialization 2) research and memorize a tonne of precedents etc in order to build an argument for court or write new legislature, perhaps best illustrates what a creative process really is, once the mystique of originality is removed.

In all but the highest-compliance professions, there's scope to be creative in any human endeavor. Even someone fitting the bungee cord to you and doing the safety checks, while not having any scope to improvise on the job, is not excluded from dreaming up ways to innovate bungee jumping.

I can accept that words have meaning, and people 'know' what we mean when saying 'creatives' that we aren't referring to economists or auctioneers, telemarketers or fry-cooks. We are referring to 'those kind of people'. Just as I can accept that to describe an individual as creative, might suggest that individual is highly original in their output and I do not have sufficient lever to make this definition wider.

But creative as an adjective is best applied to individuals, and not professions. I even find the advertising world kind of strange in terms of their penchant for splitting up their workforce into 'creatives' and 'execs' or something, I've never worked in the world but my understanding is that you basically have an ideas-man who comes up with concepts and perhaps creates copy or imagery, and then another person that sells the idea to the client. The fact that it's treated as a fait accompli that the person who comes up with the idea cannot possibly sell the idea could possibly explain why so much advertising is bad and so much advertising dollars is wasted. I would also never suggest that sales people aren't creative. They may perform a script, but the repertoire they build up is essentially no different to a musician performing their catalog of original songs and covers.

You probably aren't creative.

In Zack Galifianakis' 2nd interview on Marc Maron's WTF podcast, he talks about his early days contemplating doing stand up and approaching Al Franken for advice. The advice is 'To be honest with you, you're probably not funny.' Zack reflects that what he was saying was 'a lot of people think they're funny, and they're not, and you should probably know that.'

And in a surprising sense of flow, this is the polar opposite but no less compelling reason to dislike a term like 'creatives' which is to say that most musicians, artists, designers etc are not very 'creative'. insofar as the common currency of the term 'creativity' = 'originality'.

Many artists are highly conservative, not as a political ideology but in what they do. I've met musicians who are dogmatically Jazz musicians, and musicians that are dogmatically classical musicians, and both generally have the air of conservatism, just Jazzholes are less conscious of it.

A great example of this un-original creation was the ABC's 'Redesign My Brain' episode dedicated to creativity. A series that explored neuroplasticity the recent buzzword for 'practice', sure felt like it was clutching at straws when it came to an episode on creativity. It did contain one gem though, the host was set a challenge by some guy, to design a vehicle that could travel 3 or 4 meters or something using only the energy of a mousetrap.

The host's solution was to attach a lever to the jaw of the trap and then tie that lever to the rear axle of the car so when you released the trap it drove the wheel and propelled the car forwards. In year 7 (first year junior high) I was set the same challenge, and devised the same solution.

When the host was getting evaluated, he was marked very low on originality. This I feel is a source of insight for all. The guy that set him the challenge remarked that his solution was rather obvious. Consider that in conjunction with every riddle or puzzle you've heard over your life. Eg. Betty lives on the 14th floor of an apartment building. Most days she rides the elevator to the 9th floor and then walks up the last 5 flights of stairs, but if it is raining she takes the elevator all the way to the 14th. Why?

The answer may not be immediately obvious, however there's only one answer that fits. In Betty's case it's because she is actually a small child, and she can't reach the buttons in the elevator above the 9th one. But when it rains she is carrying an umbrella so she can use it to press the 14 button in the elevator. And so forth with every riddle, the answer isn't immediately obvious, but you will feel satisfied at having deduced the answer, or you will possibly admire the person who eventually explains the answer to you, even though they may not have deduced it themselves.

Are you creative if you solve a riddle? Yes and no, your mind generated a solution to a problem, but by definition the solution can't be original. Few riddles are just open ended problems. But in art, you can get open ended problems and yet, while the answers aren't necessarily immediately obvious - most artists will flock to quite obvious answers.

There was a period of two years where virtually every art exhibition opening I went to had an artist statement that contained some slight deviation of '... the artist invites the viewer to re-imagine their relationship with space.' this was at the height of a frenzy of installation art, conceptual art, video art and performance art. The kind of art people hate, the kind of art that gets paraded to incense the broader community as to the decadent and deviant lifestyle of bohemians - that this is a profession.

Now consider that well worn artist statement as a job description - 'your primary task is to make people rethink their relationship with space.' If this was the job of an artist, that job gets very, very easy. You simply need to disrupt people so they become conscious of the space they are in. So... remove the chairs in a restaurant, or the tables, or even just the forks leaving diners with nothing but knives to use. If you can't get a restaurant to cooperate, or don't wish to go to the expense of setting up 99% of a restaurant in a gallery, there's very simple, very unimaginative ways to disrupt a person's relationship with space in ways that make the conscious of how they move through a room.

Take a used mattress, pierce it with toothbrushes until it looks like a porcupine flattened by a vehicle and put it in the center of a gallery, and you have something that 'invites the viewer to re-imagine their relationship with space' or go more minimal and just take the nearest chair on hand, lay it on its side and put it in a gallery, and you've made the same profound statement for less effort. Empty a wheelbarrow of sand, and observe that in the context of a gallery space observers are trained to find meaning and may start muttering about it's 'zen like qualities' or that it represents 'time unbound of the hour glass.' or the 'imminent threat of automation to the working classes.' and so on.

Let's get mathematical. And by saying that I mean I can't. Let's talk Jazz though, and a specific kind of Jazz, the kind of Jazz where you detach the mouthpiece from your saxophone and blow through it, or grab a pair of forks and gently scratch at the skin of a drum head, or take your sticks and tap out rhythms on the stands holding up the cymbals. This happens, I've seen it first hand. Performers seeking to play their instruments in any way but the conventional. Thus it seems unconventional, however there's an objectively knowable truth out there that I suspect a mathematician, statistician or actuary could determine - that there's far less ways to arrange the sounds produced through unconventional playing, than there is playing an instrument conventionally.

In absolute terms, of course if you incorporate the unconventional into the conventional you've expanded your options, if you focus and fixate on being unconventional though, your music very quickly starts to sound very very samey. There is of course, the very real possibility that our ears are not trained to identify unconventional sounds, and thus not appreciate unconventional music aka noise. But I suspect there is at least some truth, that there's less ways to be unconventional than there is - counter-intuitively - to be conventional.

Take your standard 52 card deck of playing cards. If you shuffle them fairly, the odds are that the same sequence of cards has never ever been produced before and never will again. I was told a perhaps apocryphal tale of a person that taught some Indian monarch the game of chess and the king was so pleased he told the person to name his reward, and the person asked for a bushel of rice doubled for every square of the chess board, the king thought it very modest, but discovered the power laws meant that the request would empty the national granaries. In mathematical speak 52! (52 factorial = 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 ... x 2 x 1) results in a number so large it renders it possible that no two people could shuffle two decks of cards and have ever produced the same 52 cards in the same order.

Thus when it comes to a sequence of playing cards, it's very very easy to do something very original that has never before been seen in the universe. Except it isn't very interesting. It's kind of amazing that in the Western Tradition of 8 distinct notes in an octave can be arranged into melodies that though similar seem endlessly interesting to us, especially if they tend to arrange into the progression of 3 chords that are most familiar to pop songs and most popular as a result.

It's strange. You can use just two shapes in Penrose tiling to produce a pattern that never recurs, which seems original but just because it never repeats doesn't mean that any picture of Penrose tiling doesn't look superficially the same. Give people an open ended abstract art concept to realise and they tend to produce very similar works. Very similar works to...

Marcel Duchamp was not that original

Duchamp took a men's ceramic urinal, laid it on it's side, signed it 'R Mutt' and put it in a gallery. The art world allegedly reeled in shock at such a challenge to the establishment, though I have no real understanding as to how insular the art world was, or how accessible it was to society at large. I don't know if in 1917 Mechanics listening to the radio in a workshop were debating whether 'Fountain' was art or not. I wasn't there.

But a century on, I've heard people credit it as the establishment of the genre of 'found art' and that it was one of the most profound statements in art history etc. When I first heard about 'Fountain' I was also pretty impressed and that Duchamp must have been quite a smartarse, which to an adolescent private school boy, is pretty much the pinnacle of human achievement.

But what if on Debut of 'Fountain' a single observer had said 'Reminds me of the flower sermon.' Now did Duchamp invent found art? Performance art? Perceptual art? or did the Buddha, along with Zen Buddhism 4 centuries before the birth of Jesus? at the very least did some Chan Buddhist monk invent the flower sermon and subsequently found art 9 centuries before Duchamp.

Or was it the ancient Greeks? According to Nassim Nicolas Taleb, the ancient Greeks distinguished between know-how and know-what. They had, two words for two types of knowledge that I can't be bothered digging out of a book I possibly lent to a friend 3 years ago and never had it returned. (google suggests it's episteme and techne which sounds about right to me) He suggests that know-how leads to expert domains, so baking involves know-how, you can be an expert baker. But art probably gets into the domain of know-what, and you can't really have any true expertise, just establishments that are ultimately, defenseless against anti-establishment attacks.

Which is what happened with 'Fountain' and whatever artist canned their own shit and sold it (almost 50 years later), and to an extent Minimalism, Concept Art, Video Art, the works of Damien Hirst and the Banksy fueled street art. They are all at core pointing out 'you can't tell me what art is('nt)'

This revelation, that art is undefinable, seems profound. To me, and I can only testify to my own emotions, to say that art is boundless, undefinable etc. is trivially true. Because my own experience of art across mediums demonstrate that I don't need infinite options, but options within a fairly narrow spectrum. That narrow spectrum is vastly more interesting to me, than the vast spectrum of possible art.

If there comes a widespread established notion that art is purely carved out of marble or oily pigment smeared onto a stretched canvas, virtually any object can make that same statement as fountain, Duchamp's bold statement may seem like a turning point in art history, but if you wanted to reproduce his piece it's very very easy. Just take an object you didn't make yourself, sign someone else's name to it (Duchamp's if you like) and display it in a Gallery.

Most of us intuitively recognize though that signing a butt plug Duchamp and putting it in our local gallery is more or less the exact same thing as 'Fountain' even though it is completely different - different materials, different utility of the found object, different signature, meta-references... yet our mind knows it makes the exact same statement, a statement everyone's heard and that the real pressure to be creative was to recognize that Duchamp recognized a singular moment in history where there was a prevailing assumption, that art consisted of paintings and sculpture produced and signed by an artist. Then he simply didn't do that.

Now, the issue of creativity truncates, so let's start with

Art History

Just as between the start of high school (or junior high for Americans) your Maths will walk you through linear equations, quadratic equations, trigonometry, probability in nice neat partitions. An education in art though seemingly mostly about making stuff, will actually consist of a walk through Classical Period, the Renaissance, Impressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, Pop Art and then you're more or less into post-modernism. I was educated in a day and age where 'digital art' was the new thing, and nobody was predicting street art.

The thing is teacher wants you to go and paint or draw something in that class and to teach you a little art history and give you some ideas to go draw you get a string of names corresponding to the movements - Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Dali, Picasso, Warhol... it's not an exhaustive list, but there are defining artists from each period of art that eclipse their counterparts, even though names like Botticelli, Monet, Magritte and Kahlo get mentioned.

Because of the practical component of an art class, the teacher focuses attention on a few individuals to give concrete ideas of what to have a crack at. So you get Dali's melting clocks and told to draw on dream imagery, Picasso's overlaid perspectives of faces in profile and front on, Andy Warhol's flat color pallet and borrowed commercial imagery. So you can put on your smocks and go have a go.

Even in adulthood, art history is presented to the lay person in the kind of special exhibitions state and national galleries put on. Here the issue is marketing, how many more people turn up to a 3 month long exhibition of 'Van Gogh' or 'Monet' than one simply labelled 'The Impressionists'? Even though the third option may contain the best available pieces for loan of Van Gogh and Monet - presenting the best value, I suspect that the undiluted names of the superstars get the most feet through the door.

What effect does focusing on the heroes of movements, the most prominent figures in a scene have on an aspiring artists mind? It gives the impression that once a generation a singular individual, a creative genius, walks straight out of a vacuum and turns the art-world on its head, with a flash of insight and the shock of the new.

Just as with music genres, there tends to be a defining act, typically the pioneer, but this way of teaching the history creates a sense of magical originality that doesn't reflect reality. Even the genius is a product of their environment creating the new from the raw material of the familiar, but this gets lost in showing the works of Picasso in isolation, out of context or perhaps in the artificial context of a Picasso retrospective, Picasso Artbook or Picasso Gallery.

I could try and tear down the originality of Van Gogh, who was not an Impressionist, but post-impressionist as my rudimentary research shows, making him not a pioneer of Impressionism but one of it's best known examples and one of many artists in the Paris scene that jumped on the Japan-band-wagon as Japanese prints started flooding the Parisian markets and changing the preferences of colour palettes .

Or even Picasso, who didn't just advocate borrowing from other artists but stealing from them, who applied his principles of cubism to classical compositions by other well known artists and appropriating african art particularly mask art.

Both Picasso and Dali emerged from Dadaism, Dali more directly than Picasso who went off on his tangent of Cubism. Dali not only borrowed compositions from Renaissance masters, and did an entire series dedicated to the lost drawing skills of the renaissance, but was heavily influenced by the writing of Sigmund Freud, particularly 'On the Interpretation of Dreams' hence his amorphous blobs of self portrature that both resemble his face and a limp phallus propped up an a stick. He tied Freudian theories of sexual repression into the Catholic iconography of his Renaissance idols.

If you are willing to get really close, read all the sleep inducing info cards at the exhibition, or periodically look up and review the great artists history and development, strain their work through chronology, geography, history. You find their 'great quantum leaps' are often simply small but significant ones. That ability to really get up close and understand their processes and context though is lost when an art teacher has 10 minutes to flip through a book in front of a class, 30 minutes to let the students play at being an impressionist, surrealist, pop-artist etc. and 5  minutes for brush washing and 5 minutes for show and tell and then it's done for another week.

Pattern Recognition

For the record, I don't believe the correlation between intelligence and creativity is a particularly strong one. I suspect for example, a lot of people who create stuff, do so because they are really bad at estimating the probability of their success. Furthermore, it's generally accepted that there are multiple intelligences, of which most people I suspect can name two. Emotional Intelligence, and the intelligence people are talking about when they describe someone as intelligent.

I confess, I don't know what that kind of intelligence is, I project though, that it's pattern recognition. And pattern recognition is the thinking artists' means to appear original.

So an IQ test might ask a question like 'Guess which number comes next in the sequence: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, ?' the answer to which is most likely '20'. The clue is a string of 9 numbers in the sequence. Let's say they gave you just two numbers in a sequence: 1, 1, ?

To which a pattern recognizer might say 'the next number is 2, if it's a Fibonacci sequence, or 1, if the sequence is all ones.'

Those are the two smart guesses, given such little info. I would suggest for impressing a smart crowd, you guess '1' and then pontificate on how there isn't enough data to be confident it's a Fibonacci set, and in front of a less smart crowd guess '2' so you can wow them with the information that the Fibonacci set exists at all.

But if you want to look creative, and wholly original. Just guess anything but '1' or '2' like '3' for example.

This to me is the simplest way of being creative. To be non-conformist. By recognizing a pattern, you then simply don't do what the pattern predicts. Being creative is as easy as 1-2-2, as easy as A, B, F.

I've written about this before in a post about a year ago but only insofar as it relates to people logging onto fb, looking at the trending topics, and then writing a status update on those very topics. If you want to be an original voice in your social network, just exclude yourself on commenting on the topics that are trending.

Duchamp recognized a pattern that art going crowds were heavily subscribed to, and then he simply didn't follow that pattern when he produced Fountain. The limits of such originality is this:

Which is to say, you can be original once. It doesn't make for the kind of career a one-trick pony can bank on.

With 4 million+ views on facebook, that kid is not going to be able to make a career of casually strolling and then breaking into a run in the NFL. Specifically not him, because his reputation will proceed him. He'll probably have to fall back on excelling at completing passes to make it.

Sadly this doesn't happen in the domain of art. Infact the opposite seems to happen. Duchamp strolls past the gallery defenses with a urinal, and a century later, the artist kids are putting down the brushes and applying for a grant for their butt plug signed Duchamp.

All breaking the pattern really does though, is point out to people that the pattern existed in the first place.

Before moving on though consider short and long patterns.

If you have to do something original with a short sequence like 1,2,... it's much harder than a long sequence, because of the lack of information. Other people's minds are open to more possibilities at this stage. 1,2,4 is not that shocking. It's an easy adjustment to go from counting upwards in steps of one to doubling each step.

But if I gave you the sequence 'ABCDEFGHIJKLM...' being creative is easier, because the amount of information has got the audience closed in on strong expectations. Hence 'ABCDEFGHIJKLMLKJIHGFEDCBA' is trippy, although it produces 109 results in a google search prior to publication of this blog post, albeit only the second result appears in a book of poetry from 1998 as a line in what is essentially ASCII art presented as a poem, the rest are all ASCII art about creating a 'pyramid' 'ABCDEFGHIJKLM14151617181920212223242526' by contrast produces two results and neither featuring the actual sequence in totality. It is possibly wholly original.

But pattern recognition is the place to talk about the great literary deconstructionists. Alan Moore in the western comics canon, George RR Martin in Fantasy, and even recently in Japan - whoever directed One Punch Man.

There's a pattern to recognize among deconstructionists like these three, they take a trope laden long running genre and redefine it by injecting a kind of emotional realism into things that are traditionally escapist.

Even these guys are not as original as you may assume. In Fantasy it was Michael Moorcock who wrote the essay Epic Pooh in which he railed against Tolkein's precept that fantasy must be pure escapism and started writing fantasy centered on an anti-hero that in contrast to Conan the Barbarion, was weak and sickly sustained only by his magic sword. It was different enough.

George RR, bases many of his ideas in a Song of Ice and Fire, or as most know it 'A Game of Thrones' on History, and has the character of Sansa stark initially representing the escapist fantasy perspective living in a world that is tragically real for her. Compared to much of the fantasy that preceded it, George RR's work simply takes the notion of Knights and Dragons and removes all the romance from it, so the relationships are more politically expedient economic transactions, the Knights are professional sociopaths and we are given characters to empathise with and root for in the horrible reality of feudalism.

Alan Moore, worked with an even more ridiculous world, but his ability to generate a compelling comic book series in the 80s was simpler and in many ways more spectacular. His work on Miracle Man simply takes Superman, and then gives Superman human emotions. He asks reasonable questions that generated more interesting stories than DC ever has for Superman - not least of which, why would Superman bother with the alter-ego, the civilian life?

One Punch Man debuted last year to much acclaim, and while it is a truly great show in and of itself, a classic for the ages, it was a fine example of how an unoriginal idea can seem wholly original in a certain context. One Punch Man is the first work I'm aware of in the history of Japanese comics and cartoons to really get into deconstruction. It's essentially the same existential crisis of Moore's 'Miracle Man' run, but in a Japanese cartoon, and much more humorous and whimsical in tone. I'm not suggesting plagiarism, but just that it does stand out because the Japanese are really late to the deconstruction party in their popular culture. In a culture so laden with tropes that you do from time to time see self conscious references to them, they really haven't done a narrative based on deconstructing those tropes until One Punch Man - even so, it could be more spoof or parody than deconstruction like Moore and Martin are doing.

It's possible that another Quarterback will pull off the same trick as that middle school kid one day. Because when you are drilling a team to recognize and react in a split second to a play, it's hard for a manager to really have them invest the energy of the players into watching out for the Quarterback's body language. It won't be original, but in the NFL it may be more amazing as a play. But unlike deconstruction which is taking a long sequence - an entire genre, an entire history of a body of works, and changing it up, to ask the question 'how does a Quarterback behave?' is tackling a short sequence, by casually strolling, nobody could recognize that they in that moment were even playing football, that team pointed out that the pattern was there.

If I were to write though 'ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWBYZ' (9 results) that would be a good story with an unexpected twist at the end. These are the Christopher Nolans, and the somewhat less popular M.Night Shamalans of the world. There's still 25 other points of articulation to continue playing with. Unlike 1,2, Stroll... instead of 1,2,HUT!

By contrast, let's go all the way back to shuffling a standard deck of playing cards. Each draw is historically unique, and yet, it does not amaze us or leave us riveted just to watch cards get drawn from a deck. It facilitates excitement in Gambling, because almost any pattern we perceive to be recognizing is almost certainly false. To try and bet an how a romantic comedy will unfold would not work, the house would always lose when people know to hold their bets off until the third act where she realizes she should be with the protagonist.

But shuffling a deck of cards is not entertainment intrinsically, because too much is changing

Enter Scott McCloud's creative archetypes

While I'm confused by Carl Jung's concept of archetypes due to ignorance, I have some understanding that it was his observation that human's don't behave randomly that lead to more formal takes on personality. Myers-Briggs have one methodology that results in 16 personality types, then there's the 'Big Five' personality types, and shy away from because I don't view neurotocism as a personality trait so much as a character flaw - but that's my prejudice.

Most popular today are the 4 broad personality types, particularly in business settings, where you divide personalities up by introversion and extroversion, and then whether people tend to value concrete or abstract things.

Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, and Making Comics among other titles, was as far as I know the first to divide up these personalities in the creative arts. His four categories are:

1) Animists
2) Classicists
3) Formalists
4) Iconoclasts

Let me try and reword his classifications and extrapolate - Animists are primarily concerned with story, narrative how a piece makes us feel. They are all about connecting with an audience. Classicists are all about aesthetics and form, mastering the art, the technique and rendering things beautifully. Iconoclasts are all about the shock of the new, smashing forms and defying that which has come before it. Formalists are all about the science of the art, but rather than an aesthetic appreciation of form, they want to define the rules - the kind of people who make video-essays on Youtube to explain the method behind the magic of some film you like etc. and are kind of the chameleon creative camp as they determine formal rules for what the other three camps are doing intuitively, so they can reproduce it methodically.

The previous section about pattern recognition, could be regarded as a bunch of formalist bullshit I made up, to describe a mechanical way to be an Iconoclast. Just as an example.

The value though of putting these concepts into your head, is to broaden your definition of 'creativity'.

As a slight but relevant diversion, even if you don't regard yourself as creative, you might want to do a quick and dirty personality test. Draw a largish '+' on a piece of paper. like compass points. But instead of north and south write 'Tell' up top and 'Ask' down the bottom. Then in the west and east positions write 'Task' for west and 'People' for east. Now draw a small 'x' to mark the spot on the horizontal and verticle lines (so two 'x's) that roughly approximate your preference, or the ratio with which you tend to ask vs tell, and the extent to which in a project you tend to focus on the task or the people in a project.

After this you draw lines straight up and straight across from those x's and where they intercept, that's your personality style. Having done that, you can just have a look at this and hopefully the quarter you landed in describes how you behave in an organisational context, it should describe you, because I basically just asked you to describe yourself. Don't get too into it (or yourself) though, because these Jungian personality models just describe preferences, and people generally have enough flexibility to become 3/4 quite easily depending on the context. They can be all 4 just the non-adjacent quadrants take the most energy out of you.

This should however predict what creative campfire (to use McCloud's analogy) you tend to sit around, or would sit around if you started being creative. This isn't something formal though so the match ups are my opinion or conjecture.

Animist = Steadiness, Classicist = Influence, Formalist = Conscientiousness, Iconoclast = Dominance.

The DiSC model is primarily used in business contexts, primarily to describe management styles - and I made the analogy because there's an interesting phenomena that is relevant to attitudes about creativity: Different management styles are in vogue at different points in history.

In the early part of the 20th century, the star managers where Conscientious, because they had to poor over books and analyse data, humble modest men (historically speaking) that had to answer to bankers face to face and substantiate every transaction. By the 60's it had shifted to Influencers, the Madmen era, Madison avenue, marketing was just beginning, branding was taking off, real wages and consumption was growing and people needed to be sold stuff.

By the 80's Dominance came into style, because wage growth stopped in the 70s (and never resumed) and what was in vogue was growth through acquisition. Companies buying smaller companies and sending in some domineering dick bag to fire as many people as possible and cut every cost conceivable, report higher profits for a single quarter and then sell the hollowed out company at an improved evaluation.

There's no real evidence, but it seems the Conscientious people, weren't sitting idle for 60 years but instead were discovering that the Steady style of management produces the best results, because successful businesses are built on relationships. What there's no evidence of though is that introverted people who care about others have ever managed to be in vogue as managers. It seems they just produce really great results on the rare occasion they get to manage, when not shut out by a dominant or influential personality.

Now consider that art has a lot more history than the recent phenomena of corporations. So in the Renaissance - Classicist artists were in vogue, people who could render beautiful propaganda for the Church and Nobility. Da Vinci though, could be described as a stand-out formalist, attempting to capture the realism of nature and developing methods for accurate anatomy, rendering, perspective etc.

There have been various movements attempting more Realism, and perhaps the Dutch Golden Era of painting was a time for Formalists where a lot of what we now know about composition, lighting, focus etc was really perfected by the old Dutch Masters.

Tracking somewhat with the trends in business, the Iconoclasts rode high in the 80s with punk-rock. Even though its anti-establishment ostensibly, it's very much self-expression as priority, but with a disregard to aesthetics... a real 'Fuck you, you have to deal with me' aesthetic. But Iconoclasts have probably been vogueing for most of the modern era.

Alain De Botton in Art as Therapy, or at least when talking about it, advocates for art to be a return to propaganda, because much of art history was art as propaganda. It just propagated good values and ideals. He notes that intellectual movements that moved us into the modern era - namely that art should exist for arts sake, have left us with a glut of art that really says nothing of the human condition.

Thus, emerging probably with Dadaism, and resulting in things like performance art, conceptual art, installation art, video art, pop art etc. are all heavily biased towards an Iconoclast notion of creativity.

The pinnacle of the creative ideal is not to craft something so beautiful it takes our breath away, or write something so touching it makes us weep, or even to understand something so deeply that we cannot discern art from nature, but to make something so original it destroys our assumption of what art is.

Take a gander at a group of art students, and you'll notice the dominant aesthetic is still very 80's punk. DIY asymmetrical haircuts, dyed hair, piercings things that tend to say 'fuck you for judging me' so loudly as to invite judgement.

So I kind of like my pet theory that the Iconoclast quarter of art philosophy is overvalued. Except when you look at reality a little deeper.

The big money makers in the creative arts are... Pixar, Disney (Including Starwars), Harry Potter... Superhero movies are bit muddy, but Pixar, Disney and Harry Potter certainly are driven from an Animist foundation. They speak to the heart, of the human condition. People like them because of the emotions they illicit, and not because they challenge our pre-existing conceptions of what art should be.

Another important point is that the best stuff isn't produced by strict adherence to one particular camp. In my opinion this is the most important point. Writing an animist narrative about the human condition will be better if it is also finely crafted to Classicist ideals, it can be improved again by having a Formalist's insight into both the structure of narrative and the application of techniques and how to moderate them. It can be improved even more by adding iconoclastic elements of surprise.

So if you look at a big earner like 'Frozen' you'll find these elements. I suspect strongly that the main contributor to the success was that it spoke to the heart, it was a movie about sisterhood, betrayal, isolation, alienation, loyalty, love and acceptance. It's a Disney film, so the classicist standards of design and rendering almost go without saying. It was formalist in the sense of having higher degrees of self-consciousness than we are used to seeing from Disney, and there seems to be a great extent to which Frozen really consciously addressed a lot of the academic criticism of Disney animated features that have built up since the Little Mermaid-Lion King era. And subsequently it had iconoclastic aspects as well. The princess was saved by the princess, prince charming was now the villain, and the hero was more or less incidental. But at no point does it appear that the movie stopped caring about the characters in it.

In all my experience of people and personality tests though, (including horoscopes) the most common response is to gain a sense of validation that your way of doing things, your preferences have value and are legitimate. However, this tends to result in people being more obnoxiously themselves, and yes, it's possibly for introverts to be really obnoxious about it.

It's rare that the takeaway is to recognize that other preferences are equally legitimate and valuable. It seems in the domain of the arts at least, the market is just too large in this post modern era for anyone to be rail-roaded by their own creative personality not to be in vogue. There are markets for iconoclasts that might seem more prevelant, but there's still plenty of room to be a formalist, a classicist or animist and even make a decent living.

Can I wrap this up?

If reading this accomplished anything, I would hope it might give you enough food for thought to relax about being 'original', I do feel that originality is overvalued. Which is not to say it has no place, but is at most, one quarter of the creative picture.

I would advocate a definition of creativity, that simply entails if you create something, that is a creative act, whether it is 'truly' 'original' or a pastiche, a homage, or downright plagiarism.

Though outside my own subjective experience, I don't want to completely deny that quantum insights can happen. I'd be skeptical if they actually happened with the regularity that most lay people perceive. A really good articulation of this illusion of originality is in this video:

However the video itself uses the term creativity as an equivocation of originality. An equivocation that is false in my opinion, and I hope to have substantiated.

If there's any group of creative people I feel a need to defend, it's the classicists, and defending them in the face of an arts education that is increasingly abandoning any interest in teaching technical know-how.

Imagine if you will going into a gallery and looking at a bunch of canvasses that to your naked eye, appeared blank. Confused and possibly indignant, you read the plaque next to the piece and it says 'all the pieces on display are painted using pigments that reflect non-visible wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, the artist invites you to reconsider your relationship to the nature of reality.'

It's an interesting point best made, and has been made, by scientists, but it makes for boring art. The canvas may depict a zebra where the 'dark' stripes reflect X-rays, and the 'light' stripes reflect UV, but to you it just looks like a blank canvas. All the paintings do.

Even though very little of the electro-magnetic spectrum is detectable by human retinas, the tiny slice that makes up our rainbow is infinitely interesting. And so to repeat myself, I find the vast horizons of iconoclastic notions of what art can be far less interesting than the relatively narrow subject matter of what art traditionally has been.

I like depictions of faces more interesting to draw and look at, than any other subject matter on earth. I generally prefer pieces that feature humans or anthropomorphic creatures than animals and landscapes, and I can follow my heirarchy of subject matter interest right down to the pits of art I'm adverse to seeing like found art, the lowest of the low.

But I like the flower sermon, and I like Duchamp's Fountain. I like cans of shit, and I like much of Hirst's stuff too. I liked the exhibition of nothing that toured the world a wile back and I like many of Yoko Ono's pieces, I rate her as a very talented artist.

But what drives much iconoclastic work is the excitement of novelty. Novelty is like magnesium though, it burns brightly and then it's gone. Part of history, formalists will come and tear it apart and explain why it worked and how and then it really becomes part of the classical cannon.

So many young artists aspiring to novelty, the new, the original, actually bring a classicist approach to it, they study and immitate the masters of historic iconoclastic movements. They create pieces that make the exact same point as Fountain, and reveal that once the point has been made and you've accepted it, Fountain is just not that interesting to look at. It conveys no emotion, it has functional value but otherwise little sculptural interest.

Many art pieces convey nothing more than 'I, the artist, get the point that some prior piece was making, because it made it's point well, but for some reason I needed to create a piece of art to broadcast the fact that I, like most people, get the point.'

Attempting to be original is too cerebral, I feel a good question to ask is 'what's going on emotionally?' Ask this of contemporary art and you'll see two clustered emotional responses to much art (excluding of course, boredom, because we tend to ignore bored people) - a kind of smug pride for the audience members that 'get it' and a kind of irritation/indignation for those that don't 'get it'.

The emotional landscape of contemporary art audiences is a divided one. In-Group vs Out-group, and if you are sensitive to it, you'll notice that much of a contemporary art exhibition, particularly graduate shows are just exercises in posturing, and very intellectual posturing. You could test it by keeping a tally of how often people at the exhibit say 'I think...' vs 'I feel...' and yet, despite all the aspirations to be original, I observe little evidence that anyone chasing that unicorn is really putting any thought into the pursuit.

So aware that this is supposed to be a conclusion, what is going on emotionally with me? Why write this post? What motivated me?

To be an artist myself has involved a lot of decisions that are unpleasant in order to afford the time I need to hone my craft- 6 years in still very much a work in progress. But I've been through that phase in life where people have asked me what I do, and I had no answer for them. That's a bad time of life. Remembering how bad that is, not fitting in, I have a visceral reaction whenever I learn of a young person enrolled in an Art school spending their time learning how to posture intellectually instead of doing the work that is really time intensive - honing your actual craft.

A concept is good, but it will always be an advantage to be able to express your concept more beautifully than somebody else. To get articulate in any art medium, means you have to spend a lot of time not being original but studying tried and true techniques. Thus I'm horrified to learn of how little art, art students create when they have 3 or so years sheltered from that question of 'what do you do?'

Few seem to emerge with any appreciation of simple, timeless concepts like 'beauty' and 'truth' etc. but are trying to articulate convoluted concepts like non-euclidean geometry through crochet.

To me, emotionally, it's a travesty that any institution would be trying to teach originality to people conformist enough to enroll in that institution in the first place. Steve Jobs would never work for Steve Jobs. I don't know if originality is what is lauded and what is taught, I just notice that my local reputable arts institution produces far more jazz musicians than society is demanding, far more installation artists than society is demanding, and far more avant garde theater directors than society is demanding.

There's an alternative explanation to the curriculum though, and that is that art schools attract risk-averse conformists. Who naturally gravitate to genres and mediums that have rarefied audiences and buyers to protect them from being truly exposed to popular opinion, and create works that require no real investment of time to build up the skills to execute at a generally accepted standard.

That world is opaque to me, I don't see the process just the output. So I don't know what is going on.

I just feel for the person who wants to create beautiful things, or to understand how things are created, who truly, honestly want to experiment, even if it's recreating. Or people that just want to express their sadness to see if anyone else also feels their sadness.

These are all good reasons to create.

No comments: