Chronicles of creativity: reliving the past (2/3)

This text is part of a 3-piece series I am doing on historic concepts of creativity and it’s etymology. Much of what we believe today is a result from such previous thoughts, and I find it interesting to see how they merged and changed until reaching more contemporary conceptions (and misconceptions). The views I’ll present here in no shape or form neglects the plurality of concepts that exists or existed, but how schools of thinkers thought about creation given their socio-historical period. As I like to say, all is up for interpretation and many insights may arise from us discussing about how we came to and what contributed to contemporary concept of creativity.

As you may remember, the concept of creativity was very diverse at the beginning of human written history. Main cause of tension was the origin of creativity: from outside as in a god’s favor, or from inside with humans intrinsically creative. This contrast is perceived in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman philosophers’ works, but came to a swift conclusion in the Middle Ages. For that whole period in Europe, though some divergences naturally appear, scarce documentation pinpoints creativity as god’s will, with humans being sole conveyers of his creative nature. Interestingly enough, in this period we started to separate “doing” as a human thing from “creating” as a godly thing.

But all things come to an end, some for good (as this one), some for bad. With growing sense of independence and freedom at end of the Middle Ages, creativity migrated from god back to humans. Well… sort of. Many early modern philosophers and artists from 15th-century, such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, already saw humans as intentional creators able to produce something that did not exist previously. They were still attached to the paradigm of imitating nature, but transcended strictly religious art. What a violation of god’s will! Luckily their thoughts and work arose in a time much more open to such ideas and paved the way to more modern views on creativity.

Coming back to human

In fact, renaissance theoreticians still put god as the source, but they also emphasized the divine nature of humanity. So creativity could not technically came from god, as it came from the attempt of human’s spirit to raised to god’s level. This humanist movement, present also in the following Enlightenment period, saw our creative essence as the purest expression of the individual, and thus the closest we can get to the divine. This puts mankind at the center of the creative process, closer to Aristotle’s view. The main difference here is that it was not accompanied by an instability or eccentricity, but as a sublimation of human nature. Around this time the verb create was stablished, and a little later on the 17th century the substantive creativity. My thanks to Sarbiewaski, the last Latin poet, for applying the term for the first time.

Here things start to spin around. Following the Renaissance and entering the 17th century, the Enlightenment started to mix Greek and Roman classic rescue to the contemporary and the need to go beyond it. Several schools of thought formed, obviously each with its own view, and somehow they were able to coexist. The conflicting forces that were repressed in the Middle Ages finally had the nutrients to flourish. Humanists coexisted with romantics and rationalists, and this plurality resulted in several new concepts for creativity.

Reason and intuition

They coexisted, but that does not mean they agreed. At the Enlightenment, creativity was already widely linked to imagination, but the conflict was between rationality and irrationality. Representing the first, as the name may indicate, is the Rationalism. To illustrate this movement I quote Sawyer in his book “Explaining Creativity”: “[r]eason, knowledge, training, and education were considered necessary to create good art”. Rationalists perceived creativity as a conscious and deliberate effort, in which the rational mind is stimulated to produce something new.

But this view (as all the others) was not consensual. Descartes, considered a father of the Rationalism, wrote in his Discourse on the Method, Part V:

“what must be understood by the common sense (sensus communis) in which these ideas are received, by the memory which retains them, by the fantasy which can change them in various ways, and out of them compose new ideas”

Oh my! The biggest rationalist talking about fantasy! But this is not contradictory in the rationalist reasoning. The attempt here is to control the irrational part of creativity by rationalizing everything else. Anyone who spends enough time reading, training, and reasoning will eventually come with similar ideas. So creativity is rationalized!

Since humanity is contradiction, this super-human-centered creation began to have some resistance in Europe. Diderot and Batteux wrote that human mind cannot create, but only combine what nature gives. This was mostly due to the idea of creation still being strongly attached to creation-from-nothing (creatio ex nihilo). The counter rationalist movement began to bring creativity back to the unconscious. Romantics put creativity as inherent, natural and unpredictable, which impedes its formal teaching. Creativity was seen as intuitive, and rational deliberation was accused of killing the creative impulse. Romanticism perceived creativity as an escape from consciousness, leaving room for their “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” in Wordsworth’s terms. It was almost a trance, in which geniuses let their inner muse control their minds. Oddly close to the Plato, isn’t it?

Also neither here, nor there

I could not end this text without bringing our favorite Enlightenment philosopher: Immanuel Kant. Being way ahead in terms of creativity, this little smart head wrote about the artistic genius in his “The Critique of Judgment”, pointing that the creative process follows no definite rule, but its product should be both original and “exemplary”. He pointed that originality by itself can result in “original nonsense”. So being new is not enough to be creative. He argued that the genius’ output should not come from imitation, but be a medium to other creations to occur. Kant gave a very good definition to the output of creativity: that an idea to be creative an idea should be both new and appropriate. We could argue then about his view on the process of creation itself, but then this text would never end.

We see throughout history that creativity goes in a see-saw between human-divine, reason-intuition, or from within-from without. I am sorry to tell you that this conflict is still present today and no definitive answer could be given so far. Even so, we can see in current society the influence all the schools I talked about. Humanists brought back originality to humans, rationalists argued that to create requires effort and rationality, and romantic brought back the escape from consciousness (which I will call latter incubation of ideas).

Many traits of our current views are present in these works, but also some misconceptions. The romantic proposition of inherently creative people (which results in being impossible to non-creatives to learn how to create) is still around in current society. Many people tend to put creatives in a platonic pedestal, out of reach, as if you could never be like them. What we affirm today is the opposite: anyone with the adequate motivation can become more creative, and that creativity is much more multifaceted than simply having the Eureka! moment. It requires rationality, irrationality, processes, techniques, discussions, randomness. In this soup of conflict creativity flourished beautifully. Let’s embrace contradiction and we can come out with better solutions.

I work as an interdisciplinary Service/UX designer & manager specialized in service management for data-driven business and digital transformation.