Art = Creativity: Consequences of a Classic Error

In an earlier article I dedicated some virtual ink to that brand of collective self-consciousness pertaining to feeling creative.  I’d like to elaborate here on the topic a little further, by drawing attention to a highly common association that artistic activity is synonymous with creativity.

Often when I suggest to folks that they join an art class, the response comes back that they can’t do art because they aren’t creative, effectively doubling up their roadblocks to participation.  The first hurdle to get over is the idea that you have to be good at something already to take part in a class.  In fact, being open to new experiences and willing to appear vulnerable are important components of creativity, so just saying yes to that class makes you a little more creative right away.  The second obstacle, however, derives not from nerves but rather an essential misconception that creativity must be hardwired into art in all of its forms.

There is no doubt that art is a field in which great acts of creativity occur.  But the same just so happens to be true of every other area of human endeavour.  Conversely, it is possible to be an artist, even at the professional level, while patently uncreative.  Picking up observational technique (insomuch as it is relates to being an artist) is, after all, largely a mechanical process, bounded by the regulated world of optics on the one hand and conventions of perceptual notation on the other.  The road to getting good is light years long, but that’s another kettle of fish.

Part of the problem lies in the assumption that art is purely subjective, as opposed to, say, math – for most, the ultimate symbol of determinism.  In this model, you have to be creative to be in art, as there aren’t any rules or guidelines to suggest why one would make one thing and not another.  “Creative” here takes on an ex nihilo sense: making something isn’t about combining existing elements, but more like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.  While scaring certain people away from the world of art, even within that world there are negative effects, as ego and anxiety loom large due to this same notion.  By extension, the evidently “non-creative” professions which emerge as the inevitable shadow side of the belief end up getting short shrift.

Art lives in a deep structure aligned with its long and relatively well-defined history.  Evaluating whether something is truly artistically creative requires some knowledge of this structure.  Not every artistic act is automatically creative, and there are definite means beyond personal opinion that allow us to develop an understanding of how and why certain acts are or are not creative and to what degree.

For our would-be art student, this is good news!  Not only can one avoid being “creative” in some special sense to begin with, but as it turns out, becoming more creative in a given context actually seems to require the humdrum business of learning.  When you know about what’s gone before, you know what you don’t have to do, and the chances of contributing something truly interesting get better.

Creativity underlies our entire existence, and art is just one of many ways to focus it.  It is not within the exclusive purview of any one discipline, although a focused course of study doubtlessly helps to shape creative thought by articulating specific problem sets.  Surprisingly, the primary way to become more creative doesn’t involve studying a discipline at all.  In fact, it couldn’t be simpler – just become more aware of your daily routine.  That’s it.  Awareness is the absolute basis for creative action, as noticing more empowers you to make different choices, both in life and narrower applications.  Interestingly enough, this principle is exactly the same in art teaching and in therapy.









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