Too much of a good thing?

creativityWe’ve heard the business gurus: This is the age of creativity. Only the dreamers survive. The MFA is the new MBA.

But hold on. Stefan Leijnen and Liane Gabora, researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, point out that too much creativity may not be a good thing. Their argument boils down to this: Innovation–creativity–is necessary to introduce new ideas. But for any innovation to take root, it must also be copied. Society depends not just on creators but also on followers. If everyone invented and no one imitated, we wouldn’t advance through innovation.

Come to think of it, this latter scenario bears some resemblance to the current state of play in the art world, where following in earlier innovators’ footsteps is seen as a somewhat passé notion. Instead, it’s all creativity all of the time. The Canadian researchers have drawn up a chart to find a productive mix of innovation and copying. Where would a healthy balance lie for the visual arts?

Writers and thinkers have been raising doubts about excessive uniqueness elsewhere. Art market expert Maurice Rheims wrote, quoting an antiques realer, that for a thing to have value “it must be rare, but not too rare.” In other words, values depend not just on originality but also similarity. (An extremely unusual, one-of-a-kind object, such as a cherry stone with holy scripture carved into it, is just a random curiosity.) And Georg Simmel, my favorite sociologist, observed (I may be paraphrasing): “If there was only one kind of tree, the concept of tree would never have been invented.” In other words, we perceive the world through concepts that tie together not only differences but also similarities. Meaning and the complexity of perception depend on such interconnections.

Should we rethink the pursuit of highly individuated expression in art, and encourage more copying? How would we even tell the difference between creativity and derivation?

3 thoughts on “Too much of a good thing?

  1. Debby Luzia writes:

    “If everyone invented and no one imitated, we wouldn’t advance through innovation.” Does anyone think we are anywhere near such a scenario?

    The most interesting aspect about this research is the multi – disciplinary conjunction between computer science and psychology in the research of culture. “The age of creativity” is the age of awareness of the importance of creativity – and about time too! (Don’t miss Sir Ken Robinson’s wonderful lecture on the subject of creativity and education). Even creative people are not creative all the time. Sometimes they are creators and other times followers.

    But let’s talk about creativity in art: History shows that the greatest innovators in art were not appreciated immediately, because there was no previous knowledge to help viewers accept their innovations. It took time to develop the language and the taste for the new art. This is what Andras means when he mentions concepts of perception. If we don’t have a drawer with a label on it to put in the new information it may take time to create one.

    When we look around us today, do we see genius as far as our eyes can see? Do creations manifest out of thin air with no context?Everything is based on previous knowledge as today is the age of knowledge – we have access to endless amounts of it, and it seems hard to imagine the invention of something that we have absolutely no knowledge to help us digest. On the contrary, I have the constant feeling that I’m seeing more and more of the same – copying is done shamelessly and I long for streaks of originality.

    In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell shows the procedure in which trends “catch” – they are viral and they spread like an epidemic. He shows how through history there are those innovators and mavens that help spread new ideas and products. When Henry Kahnweiler fell in love with Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, he was certainly an innovator and preceded his time – that definitely can be beneficial…. But unfortunately, I don’t think too much creativity is a problem at this point, though I am a bit worried about computer models attempting to capture the multi layers and nuances of human creativity and reducing them to a graph.

  2. I unfortunately agree that, at least in regard to the art world, we don’t have a surplus of creativity, but rather a surplus of imitation- which actually is directly proportional for the art market. Probably if the art market didn’t exist we would still have imitators, but because demand for certain kinds of work emerges, that provides a financial incentives to reproduce what would be original ideas to have copies of those ideas- and this is something that includes the original artist, who often succumbs to make endless variations of his or her more successful works. So we may be indeed able to argue that uncreativity is actually good and necessary for the art market.

    But art market aside, when trying to apply this theory into the art realm we face two problems: one is that creativity in art is hard to define. Picasso, who stole ideas from others and made them his own, is nonetheless seen as a master of invention. Bach introduced no new forms, yet no one would describe him as uncreative. And is Sherry Levine the epitome of un-creativity or of the creative strategy to circumvent the creativity problem? The second problem lies in that, in contrast to science, we have now abandoned the hegelian idea that art is a progression toward something. It indeed is a progression, but we have no idea if there is an ultimate goal, or a point even, and probably we will never know. So does it matter if, in an imaginary world, we all were completely creative and original? For psychologists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, creativity is the key to happiness- a personal and somewhat tangible goal. I rather strive for individual happiness than to make the art market happy.

  3. There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say. My favourite example of this psychological approach to the study of creativity is Arthur Koestler’s grandly titled, ‘The Act of Creation’. He set out to prove in 1964, in the minutest detail, how the seemingly spontaneous evolution of ideas comes about.

    Creativity, he argues, is what separates man from animal. We have the power to invent and dream, while other mammals merely to imitate or follow – parrot talk or bird song being two examples. I say, if we have the unique capacity for mental evolution, then why not use it? Maybe artists are happy to knowingly copy (ahem, appropriate) if this enhances or encourages the reception of their work, but I’d hate to think of myself as a chimp, merely impersonating other writers.

    Then again, maybe there is a balance to be struck, because one argument has it that you have to repeat yourself (and perhaps the work of others) for a while, at least until it’s possible to come up with novel forms of your own – even if Koestler sees habit as diametrically opposed to originality. Jazz musicians call this ‘wood-shedding’, literally paying your dues by whittling away at your craft until you find your own voice. Just look at Damien Hirst’s heavily Bacon-influenced new paintings, more of which are opening in London next week – he’s been slated for his unoriginality, but maybe out of that will come one original thought.

Leave a Reply