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by Grant Bartley
David Bowie was the Picasso of pop. Bowie deliberately completely changed his artistic direction every few years, pushing the style and content of his creativity off at a brand new tangent every time. In this he copied Picasso’s habit of radically, deliberately, frequently reshaping his artistic interests and identity. Bowie was also like Picasso in having the exceptional talent and creativity needed to pull this ambition off. You might even argue that Bowie was one of the few geniuses of art produced in Britain (or even the world) in the second half of the twentieth century. Think of your own list of other geniuses here if you like.
I define a genius as someone who communicates or creates new possibilities for experiencing the world or living in it. More precisely, genius is the ability, first, to see things in new ways, then to effectively create or communicate that vision (artists), or to put their new way of seeing into practice themselves (scientists and engineers). The genius of Picasso was to greatly enlarge the possibilities of fine art, both beautifully and radically. Bowie did the same for rock music, and he did it with panache. (And how they conducted revolutions for their own media could potentially be applied to any art, by the way…)
Whatever else is essential to genius, both talent and creativity are. And we can at least incontrovertibly say that Bowie and Picasso were both talented and creative to a rare high degree. But what do those terms actually mean here?
Creativity is fundamentally the ability to come up with new ideas. An alternative term for it might be free imaginativeness. And let me define talent in this context as the ability to turn ideas into reality. Here, talent means having the technical ability to create a vehicle that will convey your creative vision. In other words, it is about bringing the products of your creative imagination into being, or communicating your ideas well. To be a genius you need a strong impulse to see beyond the horizons envisioned by your fellow humans, and high levels of both knowledge and technique, in whatever area you’re working.
One useful definition of ‘God’ is ‘personal creator being’. I’m intrigued by the idea that the name of God in the Old Testament, ‘Yahweh’, is best translated as ‘Creative Being’, or something close to that. In any case, being creative would be the closest to aligning with the essence of the divine that humanity can reach, since creativity must be central to the idea of a Creator. How does that sound to you? Tempting? But whether you think that would be a good thing or a bad thing, how does creativity actually work?
First, I think curiosity is vital for creativity, since creativity is in part a function of the degree to which you want to see beyond your present ideas. This is true by definition, if creativity means coming up with new ideas. That definition also means that to be creative, you have to be willing to do things differently – otherwise you’re just copying. (Having said that, a good piece of advice concerning not just creativity, but all aspects of life, is don’t abandon the good ideas you’ve gathered until you know you must. The ideal is not just to create, but to create well, even to create excellently.)
Albert Einstein was chronically making bad puns, whenever he had the time and space to do so. Punning is a common trait among (otherwise) intelligent people. It demonstrates another essential aspect of creativity, which is the habit of making mental connections – perhaps the more abstract the better, and the more tangential, the more creative. Another pro-creative trait is being brimful of different ideas from a lot of different sources, as a result of a wide range of reading, watching, and listening. This is good for creativity both in order to have many ideas to connect together, but also to inform you about the sort of thing that happens or can happen when you do this connecting. Having a wide and deep experience of other peoples’ creativity also improves your perception of whatever problem you’re being creative about, because it finely informs your mind about the sort of ideas it’s good to be looking for. In other words, a good range of cultural influences helps you to build the intellectual telescope or microscope through which to examine the world, or at least your present creative problem.
A further necessary requirement to be highly creative is to keep trying. To paraphrase Picasso, working won’t make you a genius, but genius has to find you working.
Maybe you can also think of other core aspects of creativity that I haven’t mentioned here – perhaps because I lack the necessary creative imagination!
In this issue we’re questing wide to understand creativity. To start our genius engines up, Les Jones takes a philosophical dive into the requirements of creativity. Christine Battersby and Elliot Samuel Paul consider academic perspectives on creativity, including a feminist take on genius. Next we consider two applications of creativity, in terms of generating wise environments for life (‘Creating Cities’), and in terms of generating wise thoughts (‘In Praise of Aphorisms’). Finally, author James Gallant looks in his creative mirror, to help explain how writers work and what they are ultimately trying to achieve.
If this issue’s theme of creativity strikes some sparks in you, perhaps you might also like our publication The Ultimate Guide to Aesthetics, which covers this fruitful intersection between philosophy and art, and which is out now.
• Grant’s video on How the Brain Makes Consciousness was recently released on YouTube, at youtu.be/7TJRV68Vrgw.