As we see from a growing number of books addressing the subject, there is today a growing interest in creativity, but many of them suffer from some major deficiencies:
• They fail to address art
• They have no concept of culture
• They focus on neurophysiology
• They confuse mastery and problem-solving with creativity
Many of those writing these books are not creatives. They are neurophysiologies, psychologists, sociologists, and journalists, but not artists, architects, or scientists.
In looking at them one is reminded of the joke about the police officers encountering a drunk crawling around a lamppost at night. The officer asks the drunk what they are doing and the drunk replies, “Looking for my keys.” The officer asks, “Where do you think you dropped them?” The drunk replies, “Over there.” The officer asks, “Why are you looking here under the lamp post?” The drunk replies, “Because it is light here.”
Mozart and the Beetles, Michelangelo and Duchamp, Newton and Einstein, are each remarkably creative individuals. But treatments of them, if they are addressed at all, in the books I mention, and in many other books, fail to catch the essence of what they did. Yes, they were talented, and yes they prepared (maybe sometimes for 10,000 hours), and yes they were focused or experienced flow. But that is not why they are important. They are important because they were each immersed in the spirit of their age. They sensed that their world was changing, and that others were not aware of the change. They were driven to create works that would bring to others an experience of the emerging world, and in so doing they also changed the world, driving it forward into an unfolding future.
This is the essence of Visionary Creativity. It is this capturing of, and at the same time driving the world forward, that others book on creativity do not present.
The Act of Creation
by Arthur Koestler’s
Let’s start with the best book on creativity (until mine). Look at current books on creativity and ask if you would want to re-read any of them twenty years from now. After almost fifty years, Koestler’s 1964 book is still worth reading. It suggests that creative insights come from the shaking together by the unconscious of previously unconnected ideas. Koestler, a brilliant polymath, began his career as a literary and political figure, and ended it by writing a series of books on science in a cultural context. This book, rich with examples, is from time to time rediscovered by those studying creativity.
Imagine: How Creativity Works
by Jonah Lehrer.
This book spent time on the New York Times bestseller list. Lehrer is a good writer, although better in his earlier Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Here he is deliberately using Gladwell’s techniques of drawing from sociological research.
My contention is that this research tells us little, and indeed, Lehrer manages to tell us that creativity takes place in groups and in isolation, that it requires concentration and letting go, and that it involves various parts of the brain with Latin names. As I sarcastically say about a related subject in my book, it is too bad that Mozart and Einstein and Picasso did not know about these studies and these parts of the brain with Latin names. Think of what they could have accomplished.
And, while it is fun to read about the invention of the Swiffer mop and Post-it Notes, these are examples of problem-solving, not of creativity.
In contrast, my approach is culturally rooted. The West is different from other cultures. What creatives did during the Renaissance, did at the beginning of the twentieth century, and do today at the beginning of the twenty-first century, is in each case different. Creativity takes place in a cultural context. The only book on the list that recognizes this is McLuhan’s Understanding Media.
Proust Was a Neuroscientist
by Jonah Lehrer
Terrific book, looking at late nineteenth and early twentieth century creative figures, and evaluating them in terms of how their work is about how the mind (and body) works. Rediscovers the tradition of art reflecting the consciousness of the era. Despite Leher’s problems.
by Daniel Goleman
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups. Of course this is important, but to be a bit unkind, it gives social scientists something to measure so they can pretend they are scientists. And it can make people who do not measure up in IQ the notion that they measure up in something else. My book looks at what people create, not at how they are measured. Some of the people I address had high IQs. Some did not. And while their families were certainly affected by their emotional intelligences, it had little effect on their work, which is what changes our lives.
by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow does not address creativity. It is a feeling of intense wellbeing such that one loses all sense of time while focused on something. One might get that feeling while making a painting, but also while playing a video game. What is the difference between playing a video game and making an important work of art? Csikszentmihalyi does not say. I do. An important work of art reflects its time and restructures our consciousness to comprehend our emerging world.
I say that in creating such a work, a person experiences JOY. Joy comes from accomplishment at something about which one is passionate. Joy for the Visionary Creative comes from experiencing the spirit of the age, the energies of the universe pouring into the world, and from the satisfaction of working within that spirit and with those energies.
The Genius in All of Us
by David Shenk
Shenk tries to say that genius is not intrinsic, but something acquired, and that we can all acquire it. But really, he is not talking about genius, he does not present profiles of any geniuses, and he is not even talking about creativity, he is talking about mastery. Like many of these authors, he presents lots of sociological and psychological studies, so it sounds like he is saying something. In ten years, there will be a new bunch of studies and these will be forgotten. Genius is complex, it is a matter of both the person and the context in which they act.
Where Good Ideas Come From
by Steven Johnson
Excellent book, but it is about innovation and problem-solving, not creativity.
The Art Instinct
by Denis Dutton
Dutton opposes the view that art appreciation is culturally learned. He states that it comes from evolutionary adaptations made during the Pleistocene. This may be true of our attraction to certain shapes, but it does not explain how the art of different cultures comes to be different, for example the art of China and of the West.
The Creating Brain
by Nancy Andreasen
Another book that gets hung up on the neurophysiology of creativity. In addition, she says things like: “Creative people tend to approach the world in a fresh way that is not shaped by preconditions. The obvious order and rules that are so evident to less creative people, and which give a comfortable structure to life, often are not perceived by the creative individual, who tend to see things in a different and novel way. This openness to new experience often permits creative people to observe things that others cannot, because they do not wear the blinders of conventionality when they look around them. Openness is accompanied by a tolerance for ambiguity. Creative people do not crave the absolutism of a black and white world; they are quite comfortable with shades of gray. In fact, they enjoy living in a world that is filled with unanswered questions and blurry boundaries.” Think for a minute; does this really tell us anything?
Rise of the Creative Class
by Richard Florida
This book only briefly talks about creativity itself, and sees it very broadly. It is more about urban development, explaining why cities that attract creatives prosper and those that don’t decline. Ten years old, this book is now a classic. It is accepted as having shown that, just as Whyte’s “Organization Man” dominated the 1950s, so the “Creative” dominates our time. Thus it shows that creativity is the defining feature of our time.
by Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell is the gold standard. His books are immense bestsellers, and he is in demand as a lecturer. A pleasure to read, but be sure to think about what he is saying.
by Marshall McLuhan
This as one of the major books of the 20th century, and I hope that my book is in the tradition of McLuhan’s. McLuhan shows how media (print, television) act as “extensions” of us, and thereby change us. In the print age, we became linear and logical, living in a world of uniform space and time. In the electronic age, we became holistic as our nervous systems became distributed around the planet.
MORE ON THESE BOOKS
Many of these books are based on two things: First: It is now possible, with fMRIs (brain scans), to see what parts of the brain “light up” when someone engages in various acts. So studies are done in which someone wired up and asked, “how many things can you think of to do with a brick,” and then we look at what parts of the brain light up. Second: All kinds of sociological and psychological studies are being done which attempt to correlate things, for example, depression and “creativity.” Sociologists and psychologists have to produce studies. Many books on creativity are popular presentations of such studies, but these studies present some problems:
• Most studies in the social sciences are very poorly done.
• Few of these studies address creativity. One could wire up a creative person to an fMRI, but that would require knowing some creative people. Apparently, few sociologists or psychologists know many creative people.
• Thinking of things to do with a brick is problem-solving, not creativity. It tells us nothing about what Leonardo, Newton, Beethoven, Picasso, and Einstein did.