September 3, 2010

On Creativity, Part I - Nothing New Under the Sun

What could possibly be less original than cat art?
        Any time you get involved with art or writing, you start to hear a lot about "creativity."  Indeed, sometimes it seems that no one ever actually makes anything any more - they only ever create.  Teachers create lesson plans, students create demonstrations, managers create Powerpoint presentations… In all that "creating" there is certainly some genuine creativity, but also a lot of Not So Much.  But why do some ideas seem more creative than others?  What is creativity?  How does it work?  How do you practice it so that it comes more naturally?
        I think most of us would start with the idea of originality - newness.  And right away that's where we run into the first muddy patch.  After all, there's nothing new under the sun.  Do I make a wood block print of a dragonfly?  It's been done before.  A sleeping cat?  A train?  A landscape?  A portrait?  They've all been done before.  Do I write a story about children who set off on adventures without their parents (as in my Kate and Sam Adventures)?  It's been done before.  Do I include the ability to speak with animals?  It's been done.  Magic amulets that summon genies?  It's been done.  Happily ever after?  It's been done.  It's all been done before.
        You've no doubt heard the statements about how there are only x plots in the history of the world, where x = 7, or 3, or 36 or whatever.  Art could likewise be divided into some "only x" statement, based on medium or subject matter.  But these statements, while true in a certain sense, fail to tell us anything about creativity.  After all, to say that no fantasy quest story can ever be creative because the idea of a fantasy quest has already been done - over and over and over - is absurd.  Some fantasy quest stories are clearly wonderfully new, original, and creative, and some… Not So Much.  Complicating matters further is the inevitable fact that tastes differ.  After reading Paolini's Eragon, for example, I placed it solidly in the Not So Much category, but obviously plenty of others loved it.  On the other hand, I think Harry Potter is highly original, while some critics complain that it's old hat.  *shrug*
       But if there's nothing new under the sun, and yet we all recognize that some stories and some art succeed in creativity nevertheless, that brings us right back to where we started: What is creativity and how does it work?  In the next two posts I plan to share two ways of thinking about creativity that I have found interesting and helpful.
        So stay tuned… To be continued…

[Picture:  Nightshade in the Sunlight, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007.]


  1. I googled the 'phrase nothing new under the sun' and came across your blog...interesting concept that's been coined before ironically! Anyway, I put out a question to artists in another site asking them to define their art in terms of style. Some prefer to think of their artwork as unique, and not fitting into any particular category. I'm sure others feel their art does. But to be truly creative, I guess you need to come up with something that has not been done before, and I'm always amazed when a totally new, never been thought of before product appears on the market! On the other hand, it's interesting to see how some ordinary non original things will sell successfully over and over flower paintings for instance...they never lose their appeal!

  2. Hello, Nina. Yes, this is interesting stuff! I think it's a mistake to think of creativity and newness as synonymous. My point here is that it's impossible to come up with anything completely and entirely new, and yet obviously people come up with creative ideas all the time. They have new elements, or combine old elements in new ways, or look at an old thing from a new angle, or, as I say in the follow-up post, "make new things, or make things new." Some flower paintings are indeed utterly unoriginal, but others... Just because paintings of flowers have been done before doesn't mean there can never be another creative painting of flowers.