Creativity Series part I: A portrait of the artist

09.2021 | Lee Blake

Part I: A portrait of the artist (WC: 1392)

Evolutionary theorists claim that reproduction is the ultimate desire of all living things. I can’t remember exactly where I read it, but I’m sure it was Socrates who was quoted as saying that we could produce children with both our loins and our minds: The fact that humans can devise and then transmit new and useful ideas to one another is, more so than sexual reproduction, the reason you exist and are reading this article.

Creativity and natural selection can be thought of as mirror processes that affect change in human culture and genetics respectively; both are vitally important for the advancement of our species. It is also believed that culture–itself a product of evolutionary processes–can, in turn, exert its own effect on natural selection. Yet another way to conceptualise this relationship is that creativity may be the personification of natural selection; in other words, humans’ ability to so drastically change their physical environments at whim can be considered evolution being consciously directed. Incredibly, artificial intelligence (AI), a consciously created advancement, may itself even be capable of creating, thereby relieving us of this task in the same way that we are robbing evolution of its designs.

But, what would humans be if the most human of capacities can be automated? To fully grasp the implications of this question it is worth understanding both creativity and its links to evolution.

The criteria and dimensions of creativity

This article (part 1 of 3 in this series) will question whether there is, perhaps, a bit more to creativity than the inner machinations of the genius who invented the machine you’re reading this article on. More recently, there are many who believe this to be an incomplete view of creativity–a myth, even. At the centre of this argument is that creativity is not (only) the product of rarely gifted individuals, but is first and foremost about recognition and discovery within the environment. Part 2 of this series will engage with this aspect of the argument further, as well as unpack the numerous, and rather surprising parallels between creativity and natural selection. The final instalment will then discuss our ability to move beyond both natural selection and creativity. Specifically, how could AI automate many of our creative outputs? But, before any of this is possible, we need to understand the obsession with creative individuals, and how and why their existence contributes to (what I believe is) a mythologising and elitist perspective of creativity.

Odling-Smee, J.F., Laland, K.N. & Feldman M.W. (2003) Niche Construction
Montuori, A., 2017. The evolution of creativity and the creativity of evolution. Spanda J, 7, pp.147-156.

Between creator and creation

Humans regard only themselves as capable of casting their minds across time and space; alone, able to grasp things beyond immediate experience, and then make those things a reality. There are, however, limits to what can subsequently be created. As the great German idealist, Georg Hegel, briefly put it, “to act is to err”. This might seem obvious on the face of things, but for reasons which will soon become clear, we must explore why this is.

What Hegel meant was that there will always be a gap between what we first imagined, or idealised, and what is subsequently created. Errors are unavoidable in the real world because there are simply too many externalities worth considering. Even though our minds are immensely sophisticated—more than any other on this planet—perfection is in the realm of the gods. However, the more talented, practised and skilled the craftsman, the closer to the ideal their imagined objects might manifest in reality. But then surely not everything we make can be regarded as creative? As it turns out, there are actually two very (deceptively) simple criteria to separate what is creative from the rest: newness and usefulness. In my opinion, this is more often than not the distinction between craft and art: art is new and useful, while craft is only new or useful.

Dimensions of creativity

Our obsession with the creative genius, I believe, stems from the fact that we have tended to focus on the two more obvious dimensions of creativity: the product (a painting, for example) and person (the artist). There are, however, two further dimensions that allow us to piece together an altogether more encompassing picture of creativity. Firstly, the dimension of place—referring to the environment or context, whether historical or physical—and, secondly, the problem dimension, which also emerges from the specific context. When we neglect these latter two dimensions (particularly context), an incomplete, and very egocentric view of creativity tends to develop. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with an account of creativity that rests of production and person alone; however, it certainly falls short of explaining this most important of human functions in its entirety.

Protecting the narrative

To explain why this notion of creativity persists, we need to look no further than the creatives themselves—the scientists and artists. As a field, psychology has made many contributions to this limiting notion; specifically, theorists have, for instance, stated that only men were capable of creativity at the highest level (more on this in part 2 of this series). Alongside this, we have master creatives such as Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso each venturing interesting (to say the least) opinions on the creative process, and of themselves as creators. Whereas Pollock believed himself incapable of making errors, Picasso took this a step further and proclaimed himself God.

Grandiosity and delusion

In his bold and highly distinctive approach to painting, Pollock specifically sought to express his internal world and to make obvious the actual process of painting. Hitherto, painters had been obsessed with skillfully hiding the process of painting from the audience. This was achieved through subtly blending the paint and disguising the strokes. Pollock noted and reacted to this trend by throwing and splattering the material against the canvas with reckless abandon. Indeed, when pressed about the amount of luck that surely crept into this process, Pollock retorted, “I don’t use the accident, because I deny the accident” . In contrast to Hegel’s dictum, then, Pollock believed that his creative products were the perfect manifestation of his intention: He willed them into existence in precisely the way he had intended.

However, if we ignore these claims and consider Pollock’s paintings within the context of the entire western canon of art, we are able to judge it most appropriately. Through this context, we can most certainly regard his paintings as something new. But, to be creative, they must also demonstrate use or value. I believe this is why Pollok felt compelled to deny the mistake: without the idea that there exists an extreme level of craft to his process, anyone could perform abstract expressionism. This realisation would erode any idea of value or use to his work, and so too the idea that it is art (or creative). Picasso took egotistical thinking even further when he once said to a friend, “God is really another artist … like me … I am God, I am God, I am God”.

Harrison, H. “Through a Glass Brightly: Jackson Pollock in His Own Words”. (1998, Nov 15). Accessed 20 May 2019. https://www.nytimes.

Research suggests that these grandiose opinions are not outliers. We now know that creative fields tend to disproportionately attract exactly the type of person who would bask in the view that they are perfect or gods even. In fact, people measuring high on scales of narcissism are not only more likely to self-report as more creative than others, but are also better at convincing others that they are, in fact, creative (even when blind testing has proven otherwise).

All too human

Because our highest examples of creative genius have told us that their creativity is the result of their personal characteristics (and often that alone), we have looked to psychology for answers about creativity. In this undertaking, we have tended to neglect the fact that, outside of us is a swarming ecosystem of information with which we must constantly engage to do anything new or of any real value. Contrary to the omnipotent Picasso, we will always be beings bound to some greater context. Pollock admitted this himself when he agreed that modern art is “definitely a product of evolution” based on a progression through a historical context. It is from this context that our challenges, inspirations and limits emerge—factors I’m sure we can all agree are essential to creativity. In short, what is possible is dictated to us by facts of the environment, first and foremost. This is, after all, because ideas are maybe not created, as conventional wisdom would have us believe, but recognised. We are perhaps less magicians pulling rabbits out of hats, and more hounds on their scents.

Goncalo, J., Flynn, F. J. & Kim, S.H. (2010). From Mirage to Oasis: Narcissism, Perceived Creativity and Creative Performance