Creative Thinking in the Arts

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By Tim McCreightMore from this author

An Assessment of a Lecture Series and Panel Discussion at the Program in Artisanry of the Swain School of Design.

Creativity is almost universally regarded as a good thing to have. From corporate business to cooking on a campstove, creativity is the something extra that elevates the leader from the pack, the exceptional from the mediocre. The notion of creativity, as common as it is, is a difficult subject to treat. Ask a hundred people if they know the word and they will answer yes; ask them for a definition and you'll be met with long pauses.

Creative Thinking in the Arts

What, exactly, is creativity? How does it differ from creativeness or creation? Where does innovation fit into the picture, and what of inspiration?

In the hope of addressing these issues, the Program in Artisanry of the Swain School of Design, in conjunction with Southeastern Massachusetts University and with funding from several state and federal sources, presented a lecture series and panel discussion on April 23.

Dr. Rudolph Arnheim of the University of Michigan is known to many artists for his important literature on the psychology of vision, including his books Visual Thinking and Art and Visual Perception.

Dr. Howard Gardner is the codirector of Project Zero at Harvard University and is an Associate Professor at the Boston University School of Medicine. Among his books are The Mind's New Science, Frames of Mind and Art, Mind and Brain.

Well known among metalsmiths is the pioneering work of Cyril Stanley Smith, Professor Emeritus of MIT. In addition to scores of papers, he has published several books, including A Search for Structure and From Art to Science. He is particularly known for his interdisciplinary work between art and science and for his premise that it is art, rather than necessity, that is the mother of invention.

The fourth member of the panel, Dr. Larry Bakke, is a painter and Professor of Art at Syracuse University. In addition to his work on campus, Dr. Bakke conducts seminars on creativity for corporations.

Each of these distinguished scholars presented a lecture in the afternoon segment of the event, and all joined in a round-table discussion in the evening. A review of their comments reveals the great range of feeling about creativity.

Dr. Arnheim dealt with the topic through a case history. He chose as his subject a familiar artist and object: Picasso's Guernica. Professor Arnheim took up the role of art historian and shared the results of his investigation into the preliminary sketches for this famous painting. As he noted, this work is almost unique among major 20th-century works because there exists for it a closely spaced, well-documented prehistory in the artist's notebooks. By tracing the sequence of modifications within the composition, Arnheim sought to instruct his audience in the fragile unfolding of the creative process.

It seems that creativity, like hot fudge sundaes or circus rides, is just not as much fun once-removed. The detective work involved in the search was probably exciting, and the results no doubt add to the storehouse of critical literature so important to art criticism, but hearing this lecture brought me no closer to an understanding of the nature of creativity.

Dr. Gardner, a former student of Arnheim, chose a more direct approach. He briefly described the popular view of creativity as established by the famous psychologist Piaget, then went on to explain his own construct, as it is laid out in his book Frames of Mind. To compress dramatically, the 19th-century view of intelligence held that a person who was smart in one field would probably be smart in any field. Similarly, a creative person could make a mark in any field in which his or her creativity was directed.

Dr. Gardner proposed, in what he told us was an "iconoclastic" view, that there are in fact at least seven intelligences. In an articulate and convincing discourse, he described intelligences in linguistic, musical, logical, spatial, bodily and interactive skills. This radical view, he told us, will bring about reconsideration within the educational community that can lead to a broader acceptance and nurturing for the creative individual.

Well, I'm in favor of that. But, in review, it seems that Dr. Gardner's categories are of interest primarily within his field of developmental psychology. Forgive my oversimplification, but a good deal of his radical theory boiled down to the notion that just because a person is not good in math doesn't mean they might not be good in art. I knew that. We all did.

Dr. Smith, perhaps even more than the other highly regarded scholars, is as much a person as a lecturer. Through a large collection of slides, he sought to convey to the audience something of his wonder of the world in which we find ourselves. It struck me as ironic that of all the presenters, Dr. Smith comes from the most didactic background (the material sciences) and yet was the most poetic. Dr. Smith showed us connections between artifacts and processes we usually assume to be unrelated. Drawing examples from microstructure, science and art history, Smith found metaphors for the creative process in nature. In the introduction to his collected essays he puts it this way:

The principles of pattern formation, aggregation, and transformation seem to be the same in matter and in the human brain, and if properly formulated they may provide a kind of visual metaphor that will serve to join and mutually illuminate physics on the one hand and geological, biological, and social history in the other—with art in between.

The disjointed quality of his lecture was, for me at least, compensated for by his obvious enthusiasm for his premise. Where Gardner broke the creative intelligence into subgroups, Smith headed beneath the surface of all.

Dr. Bakke, rather than discussing a case history, played the role of one. Starting from the premise that the creative individual is someone who maintains a uniquely cockeyed view of the world, Dr. Bakke's lecture was a harangue against assumptions. He randomly sprinkled the hall with alternate interpretations of advertisements, classic paintings and graphic illustrations. These seemed not so much to be leading to a point as simply illustrating a modus operandi for dealing with the world. He is the kind of guy who leads corporate businessman to say things like "those artists."

Participants who came to the lecture series in hopes of gaining a firmer grasp on the nature of the creative process probably went away disappointed. The panel discussion, which might have synthesized some of the diverse views presented in the afternoon lectures, failed to build meaningful bridges among the positions of the speakers. Perhaps this was the more difficult because the speakers did not really disagree. The only point that was made clear was that creativity is such a highly subjective topic that it is difficult to find even a common premise or vocabulary on which to base a discussion. No less formal a scientist than C.G. Jung sums up the difficulty this way: "We have to break down life and events into meanings, images, concepts, well knowing that in doing so we are getting further away from the living mystery."

The title "Creative Thinking in the Arts," contains the kernel of some very weighty dilemmas. For instance, is creative thinking in the arts different from creative thinking in other fields? Also, is "thinking" really the correct word? Does one think of creative solutions, or does intuition play a major role? To what extent can creativity be influenced? Can we make ourselves or our children more creative? And if so, is this a matter of doing something, or rather of not doing something that inhibits an otherwise natural process?

Creativity is like an onion: Each layer you peel away only reveals another layer. Each definition raises more questions than answers, and successive theories seem to point in diverse directions rather than toward a confluent analysis.

The selection of speakers at this discussion represented, at least symbolically, the huge spectrum of thought on the topic of creativity. If not much is known in a clinical way, it is not because the topic has been overlooked by scientists. Numerous studies have been conducted to research into the creative process. An answer to the question "Where does creativity come from?" would delight no one so much as the scientific community.

Studies seem to focus on recognized artists, persons with partial brain damage (typically through head injury) and children. Just as the first step in pathology is to isolate a virus, the attempt is to remove creativity from its living context so it can be better studied. As Jung has pointed out, this involves problems.

From the mass of conflicting observations, a pattern becomes notable because it is mentioned so often. In describing the origin of an invention, a symphony, an equation or a work of visual art, a consistent sequence seems to recur. The first step is a period of preparation in which technical skills are mastered. This is followed by a time of concentrated effort, sometimes to the point of physical discomfort or exhaustion. Typically, this is met with a period of withdrawal, a time of consciously setting the matter aside, sometimes referred to as a period of incubation. The next phase is the most dramatic, a moment of insight, exhilaration and elation. This has been called the "a-ha!" or the "eureka!" experience. The process is then concluded with a period of verification, application or resolution. The theory is tested in a lab, the score is written and so on.

One of the appealing attributes of this construction is its relevance to any kind of endeavor. Arthur Koestler has written a theory of the creative process that has similar broad appeal. He describes creativity as a bringing together of diverse elements. This line of thought echoes an essay by Freud in which he describes humor as originating from the collision of two unexpected thoughts or descriptions.

When the poet makes a simile between the movement of an animal and the changing of the seasons, it is special not because either element is new to us, but because we hadn't thought of these two activities as related before.

Another recurring theme in the literature on creativity is the importance of framing the question. Great thinkers through the ages are known for a childlike naiveté; the ability to misunderstand what the rest of us take for granted. Dr. Arnheim said, "Every creative act is the solving of a problem situation." Identifying and phrasing the problem, then, becomes a vital part of the process of being creative. Perhaps this is why children are so creative, because they have not yet learned our limiting approach.

Current research into the activities of the right and left hemispheres of the brain also takes up the question of creativity. It seems that innovation, an important part of creativity, is a right-brain activity. This part of the human mind deals with The Big Picture and appears to move with a fluidness between ideas and around biases. Our appreciation of music, color and spatial relationships is centered here, and perhaps plays a role in the creative process. It is not usually associated with esthetics. We hear of an "elegant" mathematical equation or a "symmetrical" theory of nuclear physics.

Since analysis is a left-brain activity, scientific research on creativity takes on the look of a dog chasing its tail. An essentially mystical subjective experience cannot be translated into another form of expression without diminishment. The creative impulse expresses itself through creation, not reflection. As Isadora Duncan said, "If I could dance it, I wouldn't have to tell you." And this is the rub, our analysis removes us from Jung's "living mystery."

If creativity is an onion, we should be gourmets rather than botanists. The flavor of the onion comes not from dissecting it, from segmentation and analysis, but from the use of it. Creativity, like its products music, dance, art and artifact, should be savored, reveled in for the sheer pleasure of the moment. It is this pleasure that I think has been left out of most theories about creative thinking.

The preparation phase mentioned earlier as a common foundation from which creative thinking rises refers to technical expertise. The mathematician learns his formulas, the composer learns her notes and so on. My experience points to a broader mystical form of preparation.

I think creative individuals, and this would include most young children, are tuned in to a timeless vitality that is a spring of creativity. I believe there exists a cosmic vibration that is an essential and unqualifiable component of life. Windows into this essence take the form of religious fervor, ancestor worship, acts of heroism or marvels of creativity.

A prior preparation phase, much more important than the earth-bound notion of technique, is a matter of being open to this eternal energy. Children seem to be given to us with their antennas properly in tune with this, some more able than others to use the power. The necessary demands of existence tend in most of us to diminish the chord, to allow our unconscious reception to waver. Creative thinkers are people are connected with this force, who are motivated and talented enough to bring it to practical results.

I can't imagine that science will ever isolate the source of creativity. If it did, the accomplishment would, I think, be hollow. Creativity has a different role to play. I see in it the mystery of humanness, uniqueness without the possibility of retreat. Creative thinking is our bridge to mystery, a common ground that can perhaps join humanity in wonder of how unknowable we are.

I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing
Than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.
—e e cummings


  1. Cyril Stanley Smith, A Search For Structure, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1981.
  2. G. Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, Pantheon Books, NY, 1966.
  3. Donald MacKinnon, in Creativity: A Discussion at the Nobel Conference, edited by J. D. Roslansky, North Holland Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1970.
  4. New Poems, from Collected Poems, Harcourt, Brace and Company, NY, 1938

Picasso, Seeping Woman, etching and aquatint, first state, 1937. From: Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, by Alfred Barr, Jr. 1946

By Tim McCreight
Metalsmith Magazine – 1986 Fall
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Tim McCreight

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