Creativity is all about overturning assumptions. And because I like to be creative when discussing creativity, I often challenge commonly held ideas about it. One is that creativity and art are synonymous, and that artists are by definition creative. Let me show you why this simply isn’t true, and why that’s important for the rest of us to understand.
First, a definition. Scientists’ simplest way to describe a creative idea is to say it is both (a) new and (b) valuable, valued or useful – which is essentially saying a significant number of people like it and want it. If an idea possesses only one of these attributes, it’s not creative. An example of something new but not valuable is my remarkable invention of the “glove-kerchief”: a handkerchief in the form of a glove to be worn on the hand. Now you can blow your nose faster and more effectively! New? Yes. Standards of decorum would, however, render sales non-existent, so alas, it’s not a creative concept. Something which is valuable but not new? Take your pick from most artefacts – a carton of milk, a comb, toilet paper – things we want and need but which don’t change, which is fine by us.
More recently, scientists have begun to add a third attribute to the definition: (c) surprising or counterintuitive. Mere newness is not actually enough: the idea has to somehow violate our expectations or assumptions. Fittingly, the US Patent Office’s criteria for would-be inventions’ eligibility for certification is “new, useful and non-obvious,” which amounts to exactly the same thing.
If the carton of milk (something that’s valued) has a new colour, say orange with purple polka dots – a design no-one’s ever seen accompanying milk before – would that make it creative? No. It’s just a variation, which doesn’t interfere with any intrinsic assumption we have about how milk should be packaged. Imagine, however, a milk carton that is edible (reinforced rice paper?) and you’re talking a more legitimately creative concept. Foodstuffs go on the inside not the outside, right?! (Just after I wrote this I came across Waitrose’s new pasta range which comes in packaging made out of food waste. Bravo!)
Now to art. Ever heard of painting by numbers? You’re doing something valuable (fun, therapeutic) but there’s virtually no room for newness much less counterintuitiveness – you follow the pattern laid down for everyone. It’s definitely art, but it’s not creative. Maybe that’s a red herring, though; what about the “real art” that “real artists” do? Well you’d actually struggle to find pieces of art that tick all three boxes. The vast majority of art works made today are not valued by culture, whether monetarily or critically. If you’re the only person, aside from your long-suffering parents, who thinks your painting of an orange milk carton with purple polka dots is brilliant, it’s hard to conclude it’s creative. (Thanks anyway, mum and dad!)
What about art which has definitely accrued valuableness, whether critically or monetarily? Many pieces will also inevitably be new, strictly speaking: a unique arrangement of materials, shapes, colours and so on, with an original title. Yet most won’t violate our expectations or surprise us. When Dutch painter Piet Mondrian abandoned all sense of representativeness and instead produced entirely abstracted imagery, culminating in works like Tableau I in 1921, it genuinely shocked people. Even Cubism, emerging a few years earlier, retained some sense that things were being recognisably depicted! Mondrian’s work had a definitely creative, even revolutionary, flavour. If you did something similar today, for example painting abstract coloured spots in random configurations which sell for large sums of money – I’m looking at you, Damien Hirst – you’d satisfy the criteria of new and valued, but not counterintuitive. It’s just not a surprise; it does not violate any convention. It’s not creative.
How about Hirst’s much-heralded animals pickled in formaldehyde? His first version in 1991 used a shark. Valuable? Sold in 2004 for a reported £8 million – check. Counterintuitive? Sharks are wild creatures found at sea not suspended in civilised settings on land – check. New? Hmm. In 1989, a full two years before Hirst’s work, artist Eddie Saunders exhibited a preserved shark at a venue in that arty hotspot of Shoreditch, East London – a scene Hirst knew well. Ergo, Hirst’s piece, so identified with contemporary art itself, cannot really be categorised as creative by scientific standards.
Obviously I’m being selective here. Some art from all eras is of course new, valuable and counterintuitive and deserves to be labelled creative, even genius. But just producing paintings, installations, sculptures and the like does not guarantee a truly creative outcome.
My point here is not to denigrate artists but to make a much more positive and constructive point. A great many people feel they are not – maybe cannot – be creative because they aren’t very “arty.” They never did much drawing or painting or even enjoyed going to galleries. But that is no barrier to being a creative thinker. While most art is not very creative, as I’ve argued, what’s even more important to grasp is that most creativity happens outside of art. By improvising a plethora of new, valuable and counterintuitive solutions to the problems s/he encounters under the bonnet of a car, a mechanic might show more creativity every week than some artists do over a lifetime. A good school teacher will be able to come up with new, valuable and counterintuitive ways of conducting a lesson. An effective public speaker can dream up a new, valuable and counterintuitive metaphor to make a point more potent and memorable. And good business leaders develop new, valuable and counterintuitive initiatives within their company.
If you think about your life, whether at work or at home, you have probably come up with ideas that satisfy this scientific definition of creativity. Maybe you just never thought of such humdrum solutions in this elevated way before.
Creativity is for everyone, not some artistic elite. It’s time those “without an artistic bone in their body” started to realise it.