Passionate creatives

I think the word ‘creative’ might have overtaken my previous bete-noire (‘passion’) as the most over- and mis-used word in edu-parlance.

For example, I read this blog post recently, and found it very confusing.

A key thrust of the argument is that being technically proficient at something – cooking, dancing, playing an instrument – is not the same thing as being creative.  This I take, but no-one stumbles across a wonderful dish, choreographs a ballet or composes a concerto without having technical proficiency first.  Ferran Adria, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Diaghilev – these people did not display creative genius by simply playing around, like three monkeys each with a typewriter each hoping to put together coherent work.  They became experts in their chosen field by understanding the rules, the history, the context, what has been proven to work; only then were they able to break those rules (whilst still producing something of real value), to experiment with conventional wisdom and to develop their chosen field in a different and original direction.  These three men represent examples of truly original genius, but none of them did it by mere play.  All were trained to a certain degree – Adria as a KP and with a stint as a military chef, Schoenberg took the music of Wagner as inspiration (among others) and Diaghilev received extensive training at the St Petersburg Conservatory.

Punk did achieve ‘a lot with just three chords’, but the lasting legacy of punk is not in the quality of its music but in the anger and disaffection it represented – it’s music preserved in aspic, about as timeless as a Donald McGill seaside postcard.  Do people listen to punk for pleasure?  Does punk still have a valuable message today?  Are people still railing against prog-rock?

Ken Robinson’s definition of creativity as ‘the process of having original ideas that have value’ sounds ok, until you get to the point where he defines genius as being measurable by thinking of a lot of uses for a paperclip (and I bet he wished he’d never used that example now).  ‘Things’ that have value for me include thought-provoking art, theatre or film, beautiful architecture, cures for disease, valid political theory or sensible philosophical argument.  None of these came from playing around – they are developed through a commitment to gaining expertise in one field, often to the detriment of breadth through others.  Creativity is not hindered by rules – breaking or bending rules is easiest when one understands what they are.  Give a child a blank piece of paper and ask them to be creative – how many time out of 100 do you think you’ll get something decent?

I don’t think we do pupils any favours by labeling only some subjects as ‘creative’: Art, Drama and Music are routinely labelled creative, but Maths and Science are not.  The latter two subjects are deemed to be ‘rigorous’ and ‘useful’, with correct answers and limited opportunity to impart one’s personality on the subject.  This is nonsense – there is good and bad art, there are rules in music and there is nothing more creative than science – you get to play God in this subject, creating real stuff that never existed until your intervention – what’s more creative than that?

Finally, finding creative solutions to the problem of pupils not having a pen tends to trivialise the issue.  How about telling them to bring a pen, and trusting them to be capable of doing so.  You can even invoke creative sanctions if they don’t do so.  Incidentally, I stayed in an Paris apartment at the weekend, and the bath plug kept slipping back in to the hole when I wanted the water to drain.  I used a teaspoon to prop the plug hole open.  I suppose technically I needed no training for this and it *was* an original idea with value, but if we need to use examples like this to demonstrate the value of natural creativity over commitment to expertise preceding the creative process, I think we may have lost the argument.

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5 thoughts on “Passionate creatives

  1. Hi there, Diaghilev was responsible for staging ballets and for setting up the Ballet Russes, but he wasn’t a choreographer as such. It’s probably better to think of him as a curator and impresario (I studied all this stuff when I trained as a professional ballet dancer). He wasn’t really someone directly involved in a creative activity like choreography. Interestingly, Isadora Duncan was a very creative figure in the history dance (she is considered to be one of the main instigators of ‘modern dance’ as we know it). However, she was not classically trained at all – she was more of an autodidact. These ‘less trained’ figures often seem to pop up where you come across a sudden shift in a field (think of modern art, for instance).

    The point of my blog was not that skill and technique don’t matter (to quote myself “Yes, technique is important and skill is vital”). The point was that creativity is *more than* just ‘know how’ or even ‘know what’. As someone who makes a living from the creative process I get to improve my proficiency through *doing* – through the process itself – whether that is choreographing or writing. Although reading is obviously helpful to me as a writer, I can’t become more creative as a writer just by reading what someone else wrote, even if that person is someone like Dickens, because that is the end product and not the process. (Ironically, I probably learn more about writing through reading badly written books than well written ones.) In the end, the only way I can get to the personal creativity involved in writing is by *doing* it myself. It is the experience of the field that matters in me developing my creativity – the process itself – not the experience of the ‘end result’ that someone else created.

    That was the point I was trying to make, although you may well disagree, or I may not have made it very coherently. This too is an interesting aspect of the creative process, and particularly of writing. That you cannot really control what your audience takes from what you do.

    p.s. I would definitely agree with you that creativity appears in all fields. I can only really talk about my experiences within the dance and writing parts of it.

    • Thanks for your reply. Fair point re Diaghilev, but replace with Nijinsky, and the same point is made – Nijinsky was taught, and hence learned the art of ballet from a very early age. Not so sure about that many ‘less/un-trained’ figures in Modern Art, or Modernism as a movement (think T S Eliot, Woolf, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian – who were you thinking of?)

      Re Isadora Duncan, I don’t deny that one can be an autodidact, though the word tends to conjure the image of Russell Brand making a fool of himself on Newsnight. Heston Blumenthal is not a formally trained chef, but he has talent, will and has read widely from those who have gone before – he would also come under the label auto-didact. These people are the exceptions – rising up far in their chosen professions without formal ‘training’. Pupils who read widely and practise writing will end up as more articulate and better able to express themselves verbally and on paper – repeated practice is important if one has the ambition of attaining mastery. As Aristotle said – we are what we repeatedly do.

    • If the point of your blog wasn’t about how skill and technique don’t matter, then why were you so disparaging about teachers who take a traditional approach? Frankly, the tone of your original article implied that traditional teachers weren’t ‘creative enough’ and that they were somehow beneath those teachers who, instead of imparting a bit of wholesome knowledge, simply left children to doodle and play. Besides, doesn’t your ‘experience in the field’ count as a form of education? Surely you wouldn’t want to deny children the same opportunities you had yourself?

      Your admission of incoherence is not a reflection of a reader’s misinterpretation, but an indication that your writing was not coherent. Frankly, I am astonished at the audacity with which you seek to blame readers.

  2. Pingback: Passionate creatives | Academic Chat

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