Particularly in Western society, valuations of artistic output tend to privilege the divergent and unique over the conformist, to which we instinctively assign lower levels of creativity. While novelty is certainly an important part of the definition of creativity in one sense, adding to this commonly held view, I would like to present the case that the simple notion of deviation from a mean fails to represent creativity operating in qualitatively different ways and forms than what we might expect. Individual uses of creativity vary widely. Even limiting our discussion to artistic creativity, people use art in a great range of ways, in line with their own psychological motivations. Appreciating the creativity of a person based on their art work, while not impossible, is a always a complicated matter.
In a recent workshop – although this example serves as an excellent general case – I closely observed a group of children painting. Artists broke down into two categories, which for the sake of argument I’ll call Workers and Talkers. Workers were more absorbed in their process than Talkers, and select members of the Worker group included those who we’d usually be tempted to call the “good artists” – those producing technically more proficient or thematically more divergent works than their gabbier peers. Due to their focus on the task, cognitive processing and energy manifested more readily in the art, making for better drawings from the standpoint of formal evaluation.
Meanwhile, a group of around four Talkers chatted away, with less obvious investment in their art. Their pictures bore an uncanny surface resemblance to each other, with nearly identical subject matter and composition. A predictable course of action as an educator might have been to intervene by shushing the talking to allow for the necessary concentration to make “better” drawings, perhaps adding a little instruction that each work of art should express individuality; however, my clinical training in art therapy inspired me to get more curious about what else might be going on.
The nearer I looked, the more I detected an attentiveness in the Talkers to nuance in relationships. Their pictures were similar because of a jointly imagined scenario in which they all lived parallel lives of a sort, with only slight differences accounting for personal variations in perspective. Creativity was not being exercised in an outward sense, but rather in development of a shared narrative. Through this barely visible game, boundaries and beliefs of others were systematically explored and tested as each member contributed their creative input to find it accepted, questioned, or rebuked by other members of the group. Without bearing witness to this play, assessing the mere pictures post-fact would almost certainly have resulted in a reduced appreciation for the creative use which their consensus served, with creativity here understood as the generation of informed alternatives.
Just as there are strains of human endeavour that seek the boundaries of thought and experience, so too are there impulses leading back to their center. Both serve the essential function of homeostasis – the force within an organism whose job it is to strike a balance between its outside environment and internal regulating milieu. Closely linked with the associative process, creativity is that which assists this regulatory imperative in achieving optimal results, through creating more options, thereby maximizing freedom and movement. By discriminating against optional sets whose natures are inherently cooperative, we diminish our spectrum of creative potential, and thus, our adaptive capabilities. If we only allow ourselves to choose divergence, we limit what we can achieve on a personal level. And when we privilege uniqueness over assimilation on a broader scale, we critically fail to perceive the latent intelligence of social minds sensitive to the needs and moods of others, and the degree to which such an inclination helps one navigate the world.