On Creativity

This post was originally published on the Exeter Creatives blog (https://exetercreatives.wordpress.com/). If you’re interested in creativity, writing, music, and finding ways to be a bit more than humdrum then give them a read, they’re interesting!

Due to all of us being rather busy with our own affairs in the lead up to Christmas, we haven’t actually be able to have a meet up and agree on a blog topic for a couple of weeks, but since I felt I’d like to continue writing, I’d like to write a little on creativity itself – fitting for a group calling ourselves ‘creatives’ don’t you think?

To begin then, how to define creativity? We’ll skip the rather grand way of interpreting: ‘the power to create’, since it is not my intention to discuss whether it is the part of Gods or humankind to ‘create’ or ‘bring things into being’. Instead we’ll take ‘originality, expressiveness, imaginativity’ as a starting point.

The problem of producing something original is well known to anyone who has ever tried to carry it out – in most any field (unless you’re fortunate enough for your field itself to be relatively new) it’s impossible to produce something which is entirely original. At least in literature (which I would say is the closest thing I have to a ‘field’) the themes that are written about haven’t changed since more or less forever. They’re so concrete in literature that there have been pretty solid genres in Euro-American writing since as long ago at least as the Greeks and Romans (let’s forget that there’s a fuzzy area between oral traditions and literature for now). The Tragedy and Comedy were populated by tropes and themes which commonly identified them just as today anyone can easily identify a novel’s (or film’s, or song’s, or painting’s) genre without much more than a glance at its legion of features which identify it. In today’s cynical language they’re generally called ‘clichés’;  the clumsy-yet-well-meaning-and-deep-inside-complex protagonist who leads the rom-com, the coming-of-age-but-desperately-struggling-with-the-melodramatic-weight-of-responsibility teenager who heads the young adult novel, the gruff-and-nasty-and-cold-and-gritty-yet-surprisingly-morally-firm-and-tenacious-and-occasionally-very-funny-ex-military-cop who sits in the main character chair of the crime noire. Tobacco (or galactic equivalent) chewing (space) cowboys, naive and straightforwardly bold (princes, princesses, hobbits, jedi) knights, mysteriously appearing sagely (wizards, fairy godmothers, goddesses, masters) elders, that one moody (love interest, exile, former spy, ninja, guitarist) girl/guy – these images are so set in stone that they could have conjured a hundred different stock settings and narratives in the reader’s imagination at this point and we’re barely scratching the surface (incidentally, cover art is so formulaic you almost really can judge a book by its cover), and this is for literature alone not to mention music or film. How to be creative in such a saturated environment?

Many try to set out and make something new by using new forms or new configurations of old forms. A rarer few attempt to write about new themes entirely or reimagine tried and tested themes in new variations. The use of new forms or variations on forms is constantly hampered by the prejudices, whether intended or otherwise, of audiences – the most overwhelming examples being in modern and digital art. The resounding cry ‘that’s not real art’, ‘my five year old could have done that’, ‘it’s all digital, where’s the engagement with the real world?’, ‘those things are trivial and facile and childish’, rises as if from the graves of generations of dogmatic conservatives to choke the use of new form. Contemporary forms from films, paintings and sculptures to hypertext art and videogames all face these criticisms which, in turn, lead those who do appreciate the new forms for their attempts at innovation to be branded as snooty elitists or worse, outright frauds who ‘just make it up’ – as if the interpretation of something ‘traditional’ like an impressionist landscape was any simpler than that of unpicking the textual nature of hundreds of lines of code of hypertext, or a novel any more intrinsically insightful than vast and painstaking installations. New attempts at themes run the even greater risk of being labelled as vulgar or elite or simply being boring on account of readers (listeners, watchers, perusers) simply not understanding how to engage with them. Can you imagine a book written not about love between two humans, but the relationship between an headphone jack and the auxiliary port on a laptop? Can you imagine a story about a noble slice of bread on a quest to become toast by any means necessary? A film about what it’s like to be a tongue? Maybe the bread’s toast quest is almost recognisable since it plays on such a strong theme (epic quest), but can you even imagine writing a hundred pages on the headphone jack? What would a feature-length about being a tongue even contain, and would you stay to watch all two hours and fifteen minutes plus commercials of it?

The new is reviled in its irruption, a problem the modernists confronted by embracing the ‘elitist’ label and creating works built for only the highest of high culture moguls (generally speaking of course). Novels too were hated when they first appeared (the ‘one true literature’ was poetry back then) and only overcame the prejudices of time by, well, time. Now, novels are celebrated (at least commercially) for the vulgarity that they were originally hated for (can you honestly tell me you’ve never read an airplane paperback or can doubt their widespread popularity?). Film, when it first appeared wasn’t considered art or artistic, and now it’s a massive global industry. Videogames still mostly aren’t considered artistic and that industry rakes in more than film per annum (not that money is an indicator of art, just that the medium’s growth and widespread popularity is undeniable)! And let’s not even talk about hip-hop, rap, EDM, or Metal as artistic. Whenever the new appears, historically it has been denied the status of art, and thus the potential for being creative, for being ‘original’ and making the ‘genuinely new’ is stifled by the very audience the creator tries to reach. True, if something truly drives itself into the imagination, it’ll survive the test of time and become the norm in 100, maybe 200 years. If you’re willing to wait for your creativity to be acknowledged until long after your death then I guess you’d best start bucking trends and hope for the best. It’s true that life expectancies are increasing I suppose so maybe one day that’ll be fine, but even then, by the time you’re acknowledged for your work, your style will have become dogma, will have become the boring cliché that everyone else is copying – and you’re denied the right to ‘originality’ again. The techniques that were once experimental and radical and hated by everyone turn into commonplace markers of the form (free-indirect-discourse was new when Joyce did it and now it’s everywhere – heck, the first novels didn’t have chapters or paragraphs, imagine how chuffed the person to invent those must have been, and how uncreative (s)he’d seem now!).

Is it possible to be creative in one’s own lifetime? Is it possible to be groundbreaking in your own age and also hailed as ‘original’, ‘expressive’, and ‘imaginative’ in ages to come? I know some would simply recoil at the idea of using this example, but due to its universality, if for no other reason, let’s talk about Shakespeare. Even those who turn their nose up at the archaic language, hated it in school, or simply don’t like theatre, there isn’t anyone who’s taken an English Literature class who doesn’t know who William Shakespeare is to some degree and who hasn’t at least heard of Romeo and Juliet (sweeping statements alert [as if I haven’t made enough already]). Imagine that, almost 400 years after your death being considered ‘the greatest poet in the English language’, theatre groups and students still squeezing relevant, dramatic, and ‘original’, ‘expressive’, and ‘imaginative’ richness from your work. Imagine being considered so ‘creative’ that 400 years later many still consider you foundational in (read: the creator of) massive swathes of a whole culture’s literary tradition. Not to mention you tended to pack out the theatres in your own lifetime, the biggest show in town, appealing to everyone from royalty to the lowliest street urchins who could afford to chuck your theatre a coin. Now, true, not everyone can be The Bard, but if we, who consider ourselves creative could ask him how in the world he did what he did (Elizabethan English notwithstanding), would any of us pass up the chance?

Here lies the crux of the discussion. What we cannot do, is find out from the man himself what his ‘creative process’ was. What we do know is that he was considered not only pathbreaking and revolutionary but also masterful and enormously skilful within the ‘traditional’ disciplines of the time. The sonnet form of poetry pre-existed Shakespeare by many centuries. Tragedy, Comedy, and indeed, even Tragicomedy had been around since Aristotle in 300 BC. Shakespeare didn’t just come out with new things by endlessly mixing and remixing these media which had been around for hundreds of years – in some ways he wasn’t very creative at all, he just produced, in a very traditional way, some of the best material there had ever been in a certain form while adhering to its conventions.

Beyond here lies speculation.

I believe that, broadly speaking there are two main ‘types’ of creativity. One is inspiration, the other is mastery. Inspiration is the blissful visitation of the muse, the descent of the gods from Olympus to bless the mortal pen with divine and eternal beauty – it’s the flash, the ‘Eureka’, that one evening where you sit down and for no reason you can think of, just keep writing until the sun comes up and have something remarkable. Mastery is slow and bottomless process of study, it is searching each hay stack in the barn for a needle, it is slapping the camel’s back with straw hoping it will break (not that we wish harm on camels), it is playing those scales and arpeggios one more time, it’s doing that last push up and going out for that drizzly Sunday morning run again. It’s that training montage that doesn’t happen for only as long as Eye Of The Tiger lasts but carries on until you’re heavyweight champion of the world, and far beyond.

Of course, it’s absurd to think of these two as separate, I don’t think anyone does either in isolation, but I do think these can be heavily polarised. Some writers will be familiar with the notorious fickleness of inspiration, of how standoffish the muses can be. One day, the divine is before you, blinding, and you’ve never written better in your life – the next three months your pen might be drier than a Triassic creek, your picking fingers fat and clumsier than horse trotters, your cinematic eye and panoramic imagination more stale than a month-old baguette. That’s not to say that those devoted to mastery do any better though. Another day slogging through another exercise, another day forcing myself to study and learn and scrutinise and practice in ways which don’t let me express, which don’t let me be free, which might even be (dare I say it?) lethally boring (seriously though, scales and arpeggios…). I do believe that there is a difference though. One who reaches mastery, who does break the camel’s back with straw, who finds a needle in every haystack and keeps on searching, their mastery will never leave them, it will never forsake them like the erstwhile muse. One the other hand, the inspired artist may create in a day, a month, a year, what the student dedicated to mastery never accomplishes in fifty years.

I can’t say for certain whether Shakespeare leant towards one or the other – maybe he was blessed with both? I do favour the idea that he was of the type who leant towards mastery, however. He was beloved in his own generation for being a brilliant poet of all the most traditional styles (Shakespeare did not, contrary to the naming sense, invent the Shakespearean Sonnet). He did not, as far as I believe, begin his career with outlandish or experimental work, or by attempting to break with the theatrical traditions of the era. He was, to all intents and purposes, what one might analogously call, a ‘pop playwright’. True enough, the academic elite playwrights  of the time are believed to have criticised and decried his early work – sound familiar? I believe that Shakespeare’s (and most all creative) genius is ultimately not just the product of miraculous awakenings and flashes of brilliance, but rather, a rigorous and developed, studied, and learnt quality which is enriched and refined through investment in forms and traditions, through deliberate limitation of creativity.

Anyone who is vaguely familiar with my beliefs on martial arts practice will know that one of my favourite martial arts sayings comes from one of the great Aikido masters of this generation; Master Seishiro Endo. It goes like this:

There is no such thing as freedom just like that. It is an aim to become free. Freedom is often referred to as being free of something, but that kind of freedom, to be free, for example, of a duty, or a person, is not real freedom. So what is? – That is an important question. It certainly is nothing you get just like that. There is no easy-going freedom.  I think, in order to become free, you have to restrict yourself at first to a very unfree form. By practising within that form, you will learn to be free – step by step. You practice within a restriction, but in the course of the repetitions within that restriction – it may happen that the restriction rids you of itself. And then the whole practice suddenly, becomes egoless, light – and free. Practising a form thoroughly will, at some point rid you of the form. To reach that stage in a practice means to have acquired freedom. –But within a form.

What Endo says of freedom is, to my mind, true of creativity. If creativity is originality, expressiveness, and imaginativity, then I believe it should follow the same structure as the freedom outlined above. Plenty of people are wildly imaginative – they can picture a scene or a story, an object or a sentence or a concept which others would be awestruck by and which would be uniquely their own. But to realise that imagination, to transform it into expression, will not happen without mastery, or rather, submission to form. By submission to form, I mean learning. I mean becoming so immersed in learning poetry that you end up breathing verse, being to invested in music that you dream in lyric and melody, being so captivated by and dedicated to painting that you see the sky like your own version of van Gogh’s Starry Night, and yes, being so extensively drilled in martial techniques that even the cadence of your step is as intimately martial as your most flamboyant throw. Then your work becomes ‘original’. There is no creativity ‘just like that’: I can’t just turn my idea for a wonderful novel into a book. My imagination is constrained by my technical limitations. In mastering, or rather, being mastered by a form, in ridding myself of ego, I gain expressiveness – my native mode of expression becomes form, I can transform my inner imagination directly into expression. This is ‘originality’, this is creativity. Whether I’m remixing and sampling a sick beat for a brand new experimental mixtape or asking my violin to show my audience how I feel about the Dvořák violin Sonatina – this is true creativity. It’s what happens when you can say someone who might be doing something ages old ‘makes it their own’ – not in the way Simon Cowell idly applauds his stagelings on X-Factor, but in the way everything from Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet to Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker gives you chills. In the way that both Eminem’s Lose Yourself and Nicola Benedetti shredding a Shostakovich solo take your breath away, and in the way both T.S. Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and the 1982 cartoon The Snowman accompanied by We’re Walking In The Air are both profoundly moving experiences. Even the way water droplets play across the floor of Teshima Art Museum or Amazon’s drop-down menus elegantly and smoothly opening and closing when moused over have this character.

In this way, creativity has little to do with ‘the new’ in the sense of breaking away from things that are dogmatic or ‘traditional’, but rather has to do with sincerity. The sincerity of expressing an aspect or character of something (of yourself, of your medium, of a specific form, of a moment, of an object) which is thoroughly native to that thing is creative – it makes something new happen, even if that’s not in the sense of being genre defining or groundbreaking in the sense that might be more commonly accepted. Creativity is self-expression of the most appropriate order. That which is creative expresses its inner ‘selfness’, its ‘vision’, its ‘imagination’, if you like, through the form of something else. Indeed, it isn’t non-newness which is really the s(c)eptic that rots pop culture – it’s insincerity, the deepset feeling that the ‘artists’ in the big industries aren’t really committing anything sincere to their work at all. It’s not a matter of there being ‘nothing new’, but a matter of there being ‘nothing true’. To begin with creativity relies on there being something non-new there to be expressed through. To reiterate: creativity is expression through form. The violinist expresses themselves through their instrument, the conductor expresses herself through the orchestra, the composer expresses herself through the orchestra, and the conductor, and the paper she wrote the notes on, and the contemporary musician expresses herself too, through all of the above, by sampling and recombining their work. Just because any one of these artists use methods and media that they did not invent (how to play the violin, a conventional orchestra, the conventions of a sonata, someone else’s sonata) does not make them less creative. It is the imagining of one thing through the profile of another thing which is creative and which, in the end, is what makes the whole of aesthetics churn like a geyser from the muses’ fountain into fiery life.

If you have managed to read this far and still not be convinced – I dare you to not at the very least marvel at the technical skill, the artistry if you will, and the inspiration, vision, and expressiveness of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTx3G6h2xyA

Thankyou very much for reading. I hope this has proven an interesting and compelling read! Some of you may have noticed two rather odd tags on this post: OOO and Object-Oriented-Ontology. I haven’t actually written on OOO (the acronym of choice for Object-Oriented-Ontology) here, or anywhere else on the blog properly, but I would be lying if I said that these ideas were not heavily influenced by the thought of particularly Timothy Morton and Graham Harman on causality. If you care for philosophy, I certainly recommend them, especially Morton’s Realist Magic and Harman’s The Quadruple Object. They’re fascinating. They also have their own blogs at: https://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/ and http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.co.uk/. They’re actually very regular updaters and very entertaining bloggers. Given that they’re dedicated to bringing philosophy out of the dry and prohibitively elite/complex dogma it’s been stuck in (amongst other projects), it’s not really that surprising, I suppose! Once again, thanks for reading!



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