Studying Creativity?

Creativity Subsumed

Creativity has not been a major emphasis of art/design education for some time. Art Historian and educator Thierry Du Duve describes in the history of art teaching a shift in emphaisis from talent to creativity to attitude. The art academies of the 19th century depended on talent in their students, a predisposition or ability one was born with, and then honed through imitation of masters.

Creativity replaced talent in early Modernism, chiefly in the classrooms and studios of the influential Bauhaus, where instructors suspended problem-definition in favor of exploration of materials. Seeking a more socialist and egalitarian approach to art and craft, Bauhaus saw artistic success in terms of discovery of new potential in media, outside of proscribed values or criteria. Anyone and everyone could be creative, given the right environment and freedom to explore. Such creativity was seen as crucial to the construction of a truly modern society, in which the past held no sway and the future was bright. Technologies old and new played a key part in this, as artists and designers modelled themselves after scientists. Media were deemed as instrumental in social change.

Du Duve posits that this emphasis on creativity gave way to a new appreciation of attitude and critical position around the late 60’s / early 70’s. Coincident with many events heralded as the end of Modernism, this change saw less value in discovering new material potential than in assuming particular critical discursive positions. Students began to be instructed in contextualization over exploration – success depended on claiming an informed and innovative (if often ahistorical) position in relation to other work or ideas. Around this time, contemporary art saw a surge in “process art,” “ABC art” or “conceptual art,” in which construction of a pre-determined system was prioritized over exploration or innovation of material form. Artist Sol Lewitt wrote that the artist should no longer make art, but should instead make the machine that makes the art. John Cage rolled dice to determine musical compositions, the work of the surrealist/dadaist Marcel Duchamp assumed a place of prominence. Warhol removed the hand altogether from the work, and in design and architecture, the “Design Methods” movement began searching for ways of automating the design process through algorithmic construction, computer-run simulation of style, “shape grammars.” Into the late 70’s and 80’s, even art education for young children shifted to concern itself with personal expression and issue-politics over creative use of materials or problem-solving.

Meanwhile, theorists of culture in the study of modern and postmodern life had observed (and in part conceded) that creativity was hardly possible in a late capitalist society. Walter Benjamin influentially described the loss of “aura” in art produced in an age of mechanical reproduction – with infinite copies of the Mona Lisa in existence in every form, size and variation, art’s value shifts to its mere material existence and worth as an “original” or authentic artifact, and away from its particular innovations or inventions. Innovation is proscribed, predetermined, and instantly absorbed. Adorno and Horkheimer observed that “culture now impresses the same stamp on everything.” As early as 1944, they wrote in their influential essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception that “any trace of spontaneity from the public in official broadcasting is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions and official programs of every kind selected by professionals….As soon as the film begins, it is quite clear how it will end, and who will be rewarded, punished, or forgotten.” In this influential vision of the modern world, the demand in commerce for non-alienating forms of innovation pushes creatives to privilege style over substance, style which grows quickly old or ineffectual. Design, art, and architecture of the 80’s and 90’s saw an explosion of pastiche, quotation and recycling, in which through “post-production” creatives rearranged rather than created, sometimes with irony and sometimes with glee at the lack of historical knowledge in their customers or clients.

In this climate, art and design education have shifted away from instruction in technique or creativity of form to less explicit pedagogical strategies. Richard Cary describes the emergence of “hidden pedagogies” in art schools, where students are critiqued and educated according to confusing criteria, but still guided into professional success through selective mentoring and invitations to emulate instructors’ language, work-habits, and values.

Thus creativity has taken a decided back-seat in art education, despite a resurgence of interest by city planners, business schools, economists. With “Web 2.0”, the explosion of “production as the new consumption” through DIY and craft movements, and the rise of design-awareness in consumers, creativity has seemingly never enjoyed such favor. Yet who is trained in this, and how? What sorts of creativity are rewarded and recognized, and by whom? Can researchers still look to artists and designers as “creative” practitioners after modernism? Can an action still be described as “creative” when its popularity wanes within hours, or when a more learned or expert audience is only clicks away?

Creativity Re-scaled

In this context, creativity is likely to be closely aligned with “authenticity,” as the ocean of production by consumers and producers alike overtakes the Bauhaus’ nostalgia for a gesamstkunstwerk, or ultimate form of syncretized craft, concept, innovation, and social affect. From the perspective of a trained producer, such as an artist or designer, such authenticity is likely to be identified with intentionality, individuality, and effectiveness.

If there is a need for study and facilitation of more creativity in design or art, then this effort would be best directed at helping facilitate processes that are driven by the creator or creative group, by acknowledged rather than implicit influences, and by processes that are explorative, rather than proscribed. In other words, if there is a need for more “creative” work, let’s call it a need for more agency and power by creators. Makers need to feel as though their products aren’t wholly anticipated before arrival, predicted by the sum of their professed influences, or dismissable as of a particular niche.

Such an effort would likely require:
1 – a renewed emphasis on methodologies of ideation and research
2 – recognition of the increasingly narrowed audience-segments of creative products
3 – inclusion of networked or distributed forms of influence and action
4 – an accounting for the differences between collaborative and individual production

This sort of study might be thought of as a scaled-down analysis, studying closely articulated stages of creative processes in the context of specific audiences and disciplines. Recent scholarship in breaking down different stages of creative process or approaches to creativity will be useful in this regard. Most importantly, if the goal of such a study is to facilitate or catalyze more creative processes, then creatives need to be made aware of the bounds of their own practice as part of the study. An effective creative aid, in other words, should bring into sharp focus for the creator exactly what criteria, setting, and process are required and employed by a particular task.

Externalization Expanded

The literature and scholarship on creativity frequently returns to the necessity of externalization in the process. D A Schon’s 1992 paper Designing as reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation explains the importance of “seeing-moving-seeing” in the design process. Subsequent work by Vanderlugt or Nakakoji on sketching tools and other externalization methods support the importance of material manipulation in the process of thinking and achieving creative results. If perception is an active process of organizing the world, then the perception of new possibilities or creative avenues is an active process.

I suggest that in the context of markets and disciplines in which creativity is almost universally valued, almost never taught, and highly contingent upon the scale of a given problem or audience, the process of externalization should be expanded. Externalization needs to include not only the materials of a design situation, but the influences, criteria and bounds of a creative problem as well. Scholarship on the importance of creative problem-definition to achieving creative products supports this proposal.

Externalization implies a material, tool or medium. What tool or technology might successfully include manipulation not only of immediate user experiences but of the designers’ influences, evaluative criteria, and problem definition as well?

How might “mind-mapping” or the other networked idea-generation techniques associated with “inspirationalist” models of creativity or with early stages of design be made present and malleable as part of the process of acting on matter? How might the sort of broad-scale reflection associated with evaluation of creative products be better incorporated and manipulated into the creative process?

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