Creativity in Art is Risky Business
“Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.” Wikipedia
Creativity & Commerce
I feel lucky to live my life in two worlds: technology and fine art. This intersection has given me insight into the risky nature of the creative process.
Risk-taking is tied to commerce, otherwise, making (and keeping) money would be easy. As a 40-year veteran of the tech world, I can say without doubt techies are risk takers. They can appreciate the past and present world but remain focused on what comes next, what hasn’t been created.
Name the risk-takers in art. Vincent Van Gogh, David Park, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso come to mind as my favorites. They challenged the aesthetics of their time to chart a new path, and at the same time placed commercial success secondary. Prioritizing artistic creativity over commerce can be difficult–even impossible–for many artists today to achieve. It’s a real challenge: how do we move our art forward without taking risks, especially if our livelihood depends on it? And that’s the real issue: attempting to be financially successful while at the same time taking a commercial risk by pushing creativity in directions that the art market may not be ready for or appreciate.
How Art History Impairs Creativity
Art history has too much influence on contemporary artists as too many art buyers are only comfortable buying what they’ve seen before (as “validated”), and too many artists don’t have the confidence to create a completely new path that risks their livelihood. These artists repeat a playbook that ensures sales, but at the expense of moving their creativity forward. As a community, I think we have to accept that and support both artistic paths, as divergent as they are.
Here’s a test: If you were to see the Mona Lisa today in a gallery among these other contemporary works without historical context, which would you prefer? Yes, da Vinci was an incredibly creative genius who formed new paths for his time, but new paths continued throughout history by risk takers much like him. My concern is that we don’t have enough risk takers today (me among them).
I’d buy any of these works over the Mona Lisa. I can hear the shouts of sacrilege now! I appreciate the significance of the Mona Lisa in the context of the time it was created, but if artists after Leonardo didn’t seek divergent paths, where would we be now?
Another Way: Become Divergent Thinkers
To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result (short video here). Research shows there needs to be a balance between these two types of thinking, but that divergent thinking declines as we age—not through biology but societal influences and teaching methods that favor convergent thinking.
To support my theory that art history as a form of convergent thinking harms creativity, consider this NASA research and the stunning decline over time of our ability to be creative from childhood to adulthood (see chart below). A 5 year old is almost 3 times more creative than a 10 year old, and the decline continues to adulthood (at 2%). The conclusion of the research is that children are taught to eliminate divergent thinking in order to improve on their convergent thinking abilities pushed by our education system, harming creativity in the process. Art history reinforces the wrong kind of thinking.
Rebuilding Divergent Thinking to Create
We’re so lucky to have as a guide to divergent thinking: children. Have you ever watched a child draw or paint? No rules, nothing is wrong! Negligible self-doubt or judgement. Just experimentation. Experiment. Discover. Oh, what would it be like to draw for the first time! Children have strong divergent thinking skills, that is, they find their own path through intuition. In divergent thinking, their subconscious mind is primary.
Here’s an impractical idea: rather than start art education with art history–which sets up expectations for what art is “good”—perhaps we end with art history, and instead start with a “blank sheet” that forces creativity and divergent thinking.
After the basics of paint/materials handling, what if the art professor put out art materials at your desk, while in front of you stood a beautiful human being. “Make art from this” is the only instruction you’d get. What would happen? Without art history as context, what would students create? I’d love to see this, but it’s impractical for a 19-year-old college freshman previously exposed to art history or what society holds up as “art.”
Building Creativity through Divergent Thinking
Through our traditional education system, convergent thinking has been ingrained in us, but it’s never too late to recover creativity by building divergent thinking skills. Some exercises to try (courtesy of Natalie Shoemaker and Saga Briggs):
I hope this post helps you think differently, and balance art and commerce. As always, I appreciate reader feedback in the comments section. I have a feeling this will generate some discussion.