Why Creativity is Too Important to Be Left to Artists
‘Creativity’ is one of the most prestigious ideas of modern times and as a result, we often want to feel creative while lamenting that our lives don’t give us sufficient opportunities to be so. But this impression may come down to an unfairly inflated and unhelpfully skewed notion of what creativity could actually involve. We are far too focused on creativity’s dramatic highpoints within a narrow, cliched band of activities, like the writing of a prize-winning novel or the making a film that receives accolades at Cannes or Berlin. By this standard, almost no-one can be creative and creativity must remain an elite and even freakish anomaly entirely disconnected from ordinary life.
Pablo Picasso, Tête de taureau (Bull’s Head), 1942
In 1942, Pablo Picasso dismantled an old bicycle and attached the handlebars to the seat to bring out the resemblance to the head of a bull. It’s hard not to be a bit charmed. It is a move that helpfully gives us a more accurate idea of creativity. The items Picasso used were already very familiar to everyone. The key initiative was that he rearranged them to make each part more valuable than it had been in its previous role. This act of combination tends to be central to the creative act. There is very little that is entirely new under the sun, but to be creative is to learn to see how apparently unlikely elements might fit together in a fruitful new arrangement. One might borrow a way of organising information from the world of computers and apply it to the management of a gym. One might take an idea associated with the history of Ancient Greece and set it to work within the running of a modern school. One could take a way of speaking popular in Japan and collide it with contemporary English diction.
Essentially, creativity means spotting an opportunity to improve things through recombination. The German philosopher Hegel put the idea in its grandest terms: we are creative, he wrote, when we ‘strip the world of its stubborn foreignness and adapt it to our needs.’ Usually, we just put up with matters that are frustrating or disappointing. But when we get creative, we adapt what is to hand – combining, reorganising, starting afresh – so that it better matches our interests and ideals. It is the opposite of feeling stuck and resigned, it is a refusal to accept the status quo. The creative person is someone particularly committed to the idea that there must be a better way of going about things.
A lot of work – paid and unpaid – is more creative than we usually suppose: when we repaint the bathroom and choose a more pleasing colour that we noticed in a book about houses in India; when we cook a meal and arrange the asparagus on a serving plate in the way they did in a film; when we introduce a set of icons in a report so that the main points come across more clearly, when we put a pot of geraniums we found in the garden center on the window sill to make a space more cheerful or introduce two friends to each other because we’ve realised how, despite some quite striking differences, they’ll get on well. In every case, we are being creative because we are spotting an opportunity to make an improvement and increase our pleasure in life through an act of rearrangement and combination.
Creativity isn’t a rare and highly dramatic activity; it’s not a side-show incidental to the core concerns of our lives. It’s something that – ideally – we’re always involved in. It’s a refusal to accept the world as it is in all its facets, it’s a commitment to doing better with what we have. As creative people, we don’t have to write novels, we are just persistently on the lookout for ways (sometimes very small) of improving our lives: we try being more complimentary to a tricky colleague; we experiment with different music in the car; we reorganise the cutlery drawer or get up ten minutes earlier so we can do some stretching exercises first thing. We don’t see the current arrangements as fixed; we’re always ambitious to fine tune, to re-arrange, to adapt, cut out and adjust in order to creatively bring a little more pleasure and coherence into our own lives and those of others.