The Oxford English Dictionary defines “creative” as “inventive, imaginative, exhibiting imagination as well as intellect, and thus differentiated from the merely critical, ‘academic’, journalistic, professional, mechanical, etc.” All art is the product of some creative act. Even art that attacks old aesthetics and revels in the readymade creates intellectual space for new aesthetics to arise. Creativity is what brings the imaginary or interior into the world of reality, changing something originally private into something public. There is also the use of the word in the divine sense, as when God created Man in his image. Furthermore, divine inspiration permeates the “creative.” For example, Hesiod and Homer lay claim to “divine inspiration” for their creativity, suggesting that the source of creativity does not lie within the individual. However, the external inspiration for creativity goes against the imaginary and interior sense that creativity also holds. This tension raises the question: Where exactly does creativity come
from, and what is the role of imagination and inspiration?
No art is completely driven by inspiration;there is always the projection of the individual unto the work art as imitative. For Plato, the Gods created forms of objects, like beds, which craftsmen imitated through creation of beds, and artists imitated through images of beds. This understanding completely removes the imaginative element in the creation of images. Also, the image is then twice removed from the truth. However, the
painting of the bed accurately reflects the form that the artist perceives, which is, the true form according to the artist. When the artist creates an
image of a bed from his mind, he creates his own “form” of what a bed is and what it should look like. There is no divine form of a bed; there are only beds
and individual ideas of beds. The deconstruction of the divine form allows for a different understanding of “creativity.”
Even if Plato is right and there is a divine form of a bed, that does not explain why the artist creates images of beds. If “necessity is the mother of all invention”, is the same true for artistic acts? Is Picasso akin to Edison? And what of Newton? Is the invention of calculus and articulation of physical laws different from the creation of Guernica or the light bulb? It seems the answer is both yes and no. While these acts are related, there are different motivations, different inspirations. Certain technological advances, like the lightbulb, are rooted in mimicry, while art is not an imitation; it is expression of one’s perception. Picasso did not paint what actually happened when the Germans bombed Guernica, his painting reflects his perception and feelings towards that event. Most technological advances are rooted in imitation; the light bulb imitates a natural source of light, the sun. And scientific advances are based in observation, the laws of physics existed before Newton articulated them. Yet all three require this “creative” element of extension of man into domains he cannot normally exist, which required a level of imagination. These creative minds had to imagine their creations outside of the realm that the inspiration existed. Picasso translated something mental into something physical Newton did the opposite, taking something physical and translating it into a language the mind could understand. his translation allows man to extend beyond his normal limitations. Picasso’s expression allows for his perception to go beyond his mind, the light bulb allows for man to see when it is normally dark, and the laws of physics allows for man define and understand physical phenomenon. All together, these works are all forms of information exchange.
Yet not all men are akin to Picasso or Newton or Edison in their creative faculties. Mankind has always recognized particularly notable creations, and over time, “divine inspiration” became “creative genus”. While divine inspiration and genius explained this external force that separated great artists from petty ones, these concepts fail to explain the imitative model that Plato proposed. Plato’s model involved an interaction of the inspiration (Gods), the creator (craftsmen), and the spectator (artist). Both the craftsman and the artist are creative, the craftsman is creative in that he takes an idea and makes it physically real, and the artist is creative in that he takes a physical creation and makes his own meaning of it. The most creative act is the creation of meaning out of an essentially meaningless world. Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” is a prime example of this. At first, a chair is just an object in space, something in our visual field, but giving it meaning as something to sit on is a creative act. It does much more than define the chair; it dictates how we interact with chairs, how we envision chairs, and how we think about chairs. So ultimately, “creativity, like beauty, lies in the eyes and mind of the beholder, not in the psychodynamics of the individual who is called creative” (Intimacy). The creative act is the meaning the spectator makes for himself. The artist merely makes an object to behold, but the meaning of the object can only be created by the spectator, not the artist. In an essay titled “The Creative Act,” where Duchamp titles himself as “mere artist,” he writes that the artist is unable “to fully express his intention… [T]he creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act” (Duchamp). Duchamp reaffirms the importance of the spectator to the work. Without the spectator, there is no creativity, there exists no art, there exists only an object. Art without a spectator is like a chair without a passenger, it just becomes meaningless. What Duchamp and comic artist Ryan Alexander-Tanner recognize is that for the artist, “It’s easy to say ‘I’m a fucking genius’”, but it is the community of spectators that ultimately decides the worth of the work. Even though the worth of the work is up to the spectators, there is something that separates popular artists like Britney Spears from timeless greats like Stravinsky. What defines great artists is their ability to cater to a universal understanding of the world to overcome the inability to directly communicate. This notion deconstructs the “original” property that creativity also bears. Supposing that quality of great art lies in its universality, and then to some degree, little can be original since great art must be derived from a truth already expressed. Therefore, all stories have already been told, and there is some sense of a universal truth or form. Furthermore, the necessity of inspiration deconstructs the idea of “creative genius.” If Guernica had not been bombed, Picasso would not have been inspired to create such a magnificent painting as he did. Without WWI and Dadaism, could Duchamp have made The Fountain? While the sense of creative genius still exists, the importance of inspiration serves to undermine the idolization of geniuses.
And yet an important question remains: Why does man create? In the way that Duchamp put it, the spectator creates to make sense of the world. Lois Oppenheim, a professor of Modern Languages and Literature, wrote that the creative act is also a way of making sense of the world. He discusses the necessity of “homeostasis” as it applies to the life of the mind. Life can only be sustained within a set of parameters, which the body tries to maintain through internal or external manipulation of conditions. When it is cold out the body shivers, or seeks out heat; and when it is hot the body sweats and seeks out shade. Oppenheim proposes that the mind works in somewhat the same way, that
in accounting for the modulation of affective states determined by the representation of self and object in the mind, homeostasis implicates meaning, the particular significance an individual assigns to internal and external events. Insofar as creative thinking acts on meaning, modifies one’s appraisal of these events, creativity affects one’s ability to thrive
In the same way the body shivers to make heat, the mind creates meaning to make sense and establish the self. The creative act is reactionary. When the mind is confronted with something nonsensical, that does not conform to one’s sense of the world, the mind has to deal with such irritants in order to maintain homeostasis. The body can only operate within a certain range of heat, so men create clothing and fire. The mind, too, needs to maintain a certain range of affective states that maintain a sense of self (essentially, to maintain sanity), so men create art to reflect upon themselves and try to make meaning for themselves. After WWI, Dadaists believed that society and logic had brought war upon the world, so society and logic had to be deconstructed and built up again. The creative act becomes socially implicated to the point where the artist is merely a vessel for this biological mechanism. Creativity is then a product of a homeostatic relation between the environmental system and the individual system of the self.
Still, this model of creativity as a biological necessity does not leave room for the assertion of the individual in the creative act. In “Understanding Media,” McLuhan cites medical researches Hans Selye and Adolph Jonas in that they “hold that all extensions of ourselves, in sickness or in health, are attempts to maintain equilibrium. Any extension of ourselves they regard as “autoamputation,” and they find that the autoamputative power or strategy is resorted to by the body when the perceptual power cannot locate or avoid the cause of irritation.” McLuhan takes that homeostasis is indeed the root of creativity, and discusses it through the myth of Narcissus taking his reflection as another person. The reflection irritates Narcissus’ mind, so as a counter-irritant, the image generates numbness and shock. Through this “self-amputation”, Narcissus is able to deal with the mental irritation the image causes, and properly identify the reflection as an image and not another man. In addition to this homeostatic relation, creativity is also the extension and denial of the self. The “original” quality of the artwork then lies in the uniqueness of the individual. If artwork is not “original” then it is no longer an extension of the self, but mimicry, which is not creative in the sense that we understand. Furthermore, the imaginative process is one of creating mental images. On a personal level, imagination is creative, it allows us to abstract ideas and make sense of them to ourselves. Differences in individuals allow for differences in associations and imaginations, contributing further to the sense of the “original”. Simultaneously, nothing is original since it art plays to universal truths. The quality of originality that partially defines creativity is rooted in the creator’s ability to come up with his own thoughts through his imagination. Originality is the invention of Cubism or the Newton’s Laws, coming up with something no one else has thought of before. It is the purist creation, creating something entirely new and novel. Artist Will Barnett wrote, “If you are original, you don’t think about originality. If you feel something intensely, and you say it with enough energy, it becomes original. It belongs to you, and it is you” (22). While nothing can truly be original since man cannot create something out of nothing, the “novel idea” and the concept of “individuality” is how originality must be thought of in the creative context.
The creative process facilitates a progression of thought, which brings to attention Edelman’s theories on neural Darwinism. His theory suggests, “neural connections beneficial to life are strengthened, while others become weaker from disuse and die” (Intimacy). Oppenheim goes further and claims that this evolutionary process occurs at a universal scale. The mind has its own life and it is evolving. New and original neural connections are being made that have never been made before, and old neural connections that have become outdated die. New technologies continue to arise, fueling epiphylogenesis of man. Perhaps all stories have not been told, and with the creation of new neural networks, a new mind will arise to create media never before conceived.
Alexander-Tanner, Ryan, and Bill Ayers. “To Teach: A Journey in Comics.” Graphic Narrative and Discourse. University of Chicago,
Chicago. 2 Nov. 2010. Lecture.
Guitar, Mary Anne. 22 Famous Painters
and Illustrators Tell How They Work; New York: D. McKay, 1964.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding
Media: the Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1994.
Oppenheim, Lois. A Curious Intimacy: Art and Neuro-psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 2005.