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?