From the Introduction to:
Visionary Creativity: How New Worlds are Born
by John Lobell
Published in 2015 by JXJ Productions, Inc.
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley, English Romantic poet
An Urgent Call
This book is an urgent call for creativity in our Selves, our economy, our society, and our culture.
Western culture is built on creative freedom, but today that freedom has diminished in Europe and is under attack in the United States. As we will see in the course of this book, the loss of that creativity would pose threats to us on many levels: individually, we can be either passive consumers or active creators; economically, we can compete by lowering the cost of labor, or by creating new technologies, goods, and services; socially, we can live in the past or create the future; and most importantly, culturally we can keep alive in the West a moral and creative center in the heart of each individual, or we can surrender that role—that responsibility—that resides in each of us.
You might wonder, why would creativity be under attack? Isn’t creativity an unquestioned good? But as we will see in this book, a particular form of creativity that I am calling Visionary Creativity can be a serious challenge to the status quo; it has the potential to bring forth new worlds, but in doing so it can also destroy old worlds. Those who remain attached to old worlds are not interested in seeing them destroyed.
Visionary Creativity is a particular type of creativity that is paradigm shifting in its essence. It changes the rules of the game and in this sense it is very different from ordinary, everyday creativity. It is the type of creativity that we associate with figures like Vincent van Gogh, Igor Stravinsky, Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley, J. K. Rowling, and Steve Jobs. It not only created the great works of art, science, technology, and industry of the past, it is at work at this very moment creating our emerging world as we move deeper into the twenty-first century.
Why is Creativity Important?
Let’s start by asking two questions and seeing how the answers to them merge: What do we admire in others and aspire to in ourselves? And what do we wish for our society? We might at first be tempted to answer that we admire in others and aspire to in ourselves health, wealth, power, beauty. Perhaps. But what about going beyond these things for a truly fulfilling life? Then we might say that we want engagement with the world, influence over it, and recognition for our accomplishments. In other words, we want a life of creativity.
And for our society? These are times of social, technological, and economic turmoil. Our old institutions are in distress and new ones to replace them are struggling to be born. We are cut adrift in almost every aspect of our lives, shorn of frames of reference, decentered in a world of change. But times of change can also provide opportunities for creativity, and we are becoming aware of new possibilities in our arts, sciences, technologies, institutions, and industries.
So looking at our own lives as well as our social problems, we see that both call out for creativity. We are creative creatures who flourish best in the pursuit of our creativity, and it is precisely in creativity that we will find not only fulfillment for ourselves, but also the visions that our world needs. Hence the title of this book: Visionary Creativity. What exactly, then, do we mean by Visionary Creativity?
Visionary Creativity: Creating New Worlds
Although creativity is vital to ourselves and our society, and although there is an outpouring of books on the subject, creativity remains poorly understood. There are in fact two kinds of creativity: Ordinary creativity, for example preparing a wellconceived meal, drafting a legal brief, or writing an episode of a sitcom; and the kind of creativity that we see in Albert Einstein’s formulation of his theory of relativity or Salvador Dalí’s painting of his melting watches. We have a tendency to say that the creativity of Einstein and Dalí is like ordinary creativity, only more, but this is not correct. Einstein’s relativity and Dalí’s melting watches are examples of Visionary Creativity, a creativity that shatters old worlds and gives birth to new ones.
Let’s look very briefly at Einstein and Dalí. For Isaac Newton, space and time were absolute, uniform, and continuous, as though space were marked by a uniform grid and time by a universal clock. This was, of course, a notion in physics, but it was pervasive; space and time represented the stage on which all human action unfolded. We see this Newtonian stage in perspective painting with its implied grid converging at a vanishing point, and its figures captured in a moment frozen out of the continuous flow of time. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, that space and time were gone. In Einstein’s relativity, space is dynamic, collapsing in on itself, and time is elastic, as conveyed by Dalí’s melting watches.
The importance of this? Visionary Creatives like Einstein and Dalí respond to the culture of their day, and at the same time they advance it into an emerging world, creating for us an entirely new stage on which we live our lives. This stage, as we call it in this book, presents us with the nature of our cosmos and our place in it, our newly formed circumstances, the possibilities of our relationships, and the means by which we might fulfill our potentials. It establishes the ways in which we can move about in our world—both figuratively and literally.
Today we no longer live in Newton’s world. But we also no longer live in the world of Einstein and Dalí—that world was born a hundred years ago. Today we live in a newly emerging world being built right now by our Visionary Creatives, a world of interconnected fractal networks that computationally generate themselves. Visionary Creatives, then, sweep away old worlds as they create new ones, and there is no guarantee we will prefer the new to the old. Visionary Creativity can be discomforting, even dangerous.
We might think of people as generally falling into several groups or combinations thereof in terms of temperament and ability: leaders, who organize, motivate, and command; nurturers, who care for others; producers, who make things; actives, who seek physical challenges; scholars who contemplate ideas; mystics, who experience transcendence; and somnambulists, who are content with feelings of wellbeing. And Visionary Creatives, bringers of the new, destroyers of the old. All are worthy. All can lead rich lives. But this is a book about Visionary Creatives and for those who seek to encourage them, or perhaps just admire them.
Visionary Creatives swim in the culture of their day and manifest in their work the spirit of their age. The things they create—in art, design, science, technology, business—embody that spirit, and at the same time are a little off center for us, somehow not what we anticipated, thus pulling us into the future.
In the introduction to his highly influential book, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes that his editor was dismayed that seventy-five percent of his material was new. The editor said that a book cannot be successful if more than ten percent of its material is new. In this book you will find an ocean of new material—ideas about our world, ourselves, and our future, but as you read, unities will appear that will help you form your own approach to this material, your own creative narrative.
This book is divided into three parts. Part One: What is Creativity describes Visionary Creativity, Part Two: Becoming a Visionary Creative addresses how we must challenge established wisdom, and Part Three: Creating the Future looks at the stage on which Visionary Creatives are working today.
Part One begins by differentiating Visionary Creativity from mastery, innovation, and ordinary creativity, and then looks at some examples of how Visionary Creativity is expressive of its culture. It is difficult for us to see our own culture, or even to recognize the concept of culture itself—we tend to see our world as “real,” and not one of many possible symbolic constructs, which we must do if we are going to understand Visionary Creativity.
There is a continual interplay between culture and individual processes of cognition—that is to say, structures of consciousness—as they make and remake each other. We can see this particularly in art, which, through discontinuities—differences between what we anticipate and what we encounter—restructures our consciousness; reorganizes our minds. We go to an art gallery expecting the drip paintings of Jackson Pollack and instead encounter the Campbell soup cans of Andy Warhol. We go to a science fiction movie expecting the visual mythology of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and instead encounter the sword and ray gun hero journey of Star Wars. Later we will look at the basis for such discontinuities in neuroscience.
We will also see that science plays a role similar to art in this respect. We usually think of art and science as two separate things, with art functioning as the product of the individual imagination and science as an objective investigation of the world. But in this book we will see them both as expressions of their cultures, both constituting the vocabularies of Visionary Creatives in their task of building new worlds. For example, if we attempt to understand the world in Newtonian terms and instead find that it reveals itself in quantum terms, we are not only engaging in scientific investigations, we are also experiencing a type of cultural discontinuity, an act of remaking our consciousness and our world. In this book, science does not just provide examples of Visionary Creativity, it also gives us excellent descriptions of the various stages on which we have lived—and today are living—our lives.
In Part Two we discuss becoming a Visionary Creative and see that there is no exclusive path. Psychologists have attempted to describe how we can become more creative and perhaps some of their exercises might help with creativity, but for Visionary Creativity we turn to a philosopher. In “The Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit” from his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche presents his parable of the camel, the lion, and the child. First, as a camel you take on the load of your culture and the traditions and techniques of your discipline. Once loaded, the camel runs out into the desert where it becomes a lion. Your job as a lion is to slay a dragon named “Thou Shalt,” thus destroying what you have mastered and overthrowing the established culture. Finally you become a child. As a child, a wheel rolling out of its own center, it is your task to build the new, which you can do only by projecting your own, self-generated vision.
You may have heard that the Harry Potter stories sprang fully formed into the head of their author, J. K. Rowling, while she was waiting for a delayed train. She states: “I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a functioning pen with me, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one. I think, now, that this was probably a good thing, because I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”
Rowling had absorbed the stories of Merlin, including those in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, in which Merlin, who could not be killed, was buried in a cave, to come back when England needed him. And she had read T. H. White’s description of the education of young King Arthur in The Once and Future King, titled after the inscription on Arthur’s tomb, “Here lies Arthur, king once, and king to be.” Rowling’s years of reading prepared her for what became for both her and the world a great creation and a great adventure. (We mention Rowling here not just because of the phenomenal success of her Harry Potter books, but, as we will see later, for her role as a Visionary Creative—the way in which her work internalizes mythological archetypes.)
For the first twenty-five years of her life, Rowling did not know that she was going to write her Harry Potter novels, so she could not have known what material would be important for her future creativity. The late cofounder and CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, in his Stanford address, said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” Jobs could not have anticipated that the calligraphy course he sat in on after dropping out of Reed College would lead to his designing the Mac computer with elegant typefaces, thus not only creating a more pleasing visual experience, but also contributing to the growth of visual thinking, something we will discuss later. So perhaps your preparation should be rather broad.
In Part Three we describe the world in which Visionary Creatives are working today and the world they will create in the future. We have a tendency to see ourselves and our world as stable. The commonplace view is that new technologies bring new circumstances and opportunities, but who we are fundamentally, and what our world is fundamentally, remain constant. In this book we challenge that view. From the Renaissance until the mid-nineteenth century, we were discrete individuals, private psychological Selves, existing in a culture—on a stage—of uniform space, time and causality. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a new environment of electric media—the telegraph, telephone, radio, television— brought about a new Self in continual self-creating flux living on a stage with no fixed frames of reference, a flow of relativistic space-time, intermingled with our consciousness, a world that was more a great thought than a great machine.
And today’s emerging digital world is creating yet again a new Self, one constituted of interconnected fractal networks computationally generating themselves and the world. Okay, that’s a lot of jargon, but we will make sense of it as we go along.
Your Own Work
Few of us can aspire in our creativity to be like Einstein, Dalí, Nietzsche, Rowling, Jobs, or the other creative figures we will discuss, so at first we might think that this book would not pertain to our own creativity. But there are in fact many lessons we can all learn from these figures. And a few of the figures we will encounter were exceptional not in their talents, but in their accomplishments. Let’s look at Gregor Mendel, who, next to Charles Darwin, is one of the most important people in the development of the theory of evolution. Mendel, a monk who twice flunked his exam to become a teacher, was nevertheless both curious and observant. In simplified terms, he asked what would happen if you crossbred peas that have red flowers with peas that have white flowers. Everybody assumed you would get pink flowers, but nobody had ever tried it and actually paid attention to the results. It turns out that three quarters of the offspring have red flowers and one quarter have white flowers. None have pink flowers. From this Mendel was able to work out the basic principles of genetics, not by having a soaring IQ, but by having the simple curiosity to ask a question to which everyone else thought they knew the answer.
Here is another example of a “What if?” scenario: Of course Einstein was brilliant. But so were the physicist Hendrik Lorentz and the mathematician Henri Poincaré, both of whom were also working on the problem of the Michelson-Morley experiment (which we will discuss later). What differentiated Einstein from these other two was that he made the leap to ask, “What if I assume that there is no absolute reference against which to measure the motion of an observer, and that is why the speed of light is constant for all observers, no matter how they are moving relative to a light source?” The result was the theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics. (The other is quantum theory. More on both later.)
We see this positing of “What if…?” everywhere in Visionary Creativity. Here are just a few examples in music: Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, produced by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, was enthusiastically received in Paris. Stravinsky then asked, “What if I use the eroticism of primitive drums driving a human sacrifice in a musical composition?” The audience rioted at the premier of The Rite of Spring and Stravinsky’s reputation was made. Elvis asked, “What if I take county music classics like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” speed them up, intensify the beat, and back them with an aggressive guitar?” He got Rock and Roll. Johnny Cash asked, “What if I take ‘Ring of Fire,’ which my future sister-in-law has recorded, and add mariachi-style Mexican horns?” He got the biggest hit of his career. The Beatles asked, “What if we use a symphony orchestra in a rock album?” The result was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, now referred to as the most important Rock and Roll album ever made. And Bob Dylan, whose audience had decided he was a folk singer, asked, “What if I put down my acoustic guitar and pick up an electric guitar?” He did at the Newport Folk Festival, where he was booed by his folk music fans. He incorporated the electric guitar in his album Bringing It All Back Home, the first cut of which, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” owes more to the “lowbrow commercial” genre Rock and Roll than to folk music, deriving from Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.” But he found a broader audience and became one of the twentieth century’s most important cultural figures.
So one of the lessons of this book is to question the obvious, test your ideas, and pay attention to the results. Ask yourself what in your field is obvious to everyone else but seems somehow not right to you, and then ask, “What if?” Doing so just might open productive lines of exploration.
Why are we so interested in creativity? Let’s go back to the question we asked earlier about the qualities to which we aspire. We first suggested that these qualities were things like wealth, power, and beauty, and, then we considered creativity. Could it be that even when we aspire to or admire qualities such as wealth, it is often creativity that we really have in mind?
Think of some of the wealthy people now on our radar screens: the late Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Richard Fuld. Notice that we have placed this small selection not in the order of their wealth, but in the order of how much we admire them. We admire Steve Jobs of Apple for his role in bringing computers and other digital devices to “the rest of us” that are easy to use, elegantly designed, and that enrich us. We admire Sergey Brin and Larry Page for creating Google, which is organizing all of the world’s information to make it accessible and useful. (Although we are perhaps getting a bit nervous as we realize that all of the world’s information includes everything about each of us, but more on that later when we discuss the end of privacy.) Bill Gates is further down the list because while we admire his philanthropy, and while the company he founded, Microsoft, has brought us useful software, it was not always focused on the elegance and ease of use of its products. Steve Jobs was asked some years ago what he disliked about Microsoft, at the time Apple’s archrival, and after a pause he replied that Microsoft had “no taste—and I mean that in the big sense.” Donald Trump is on our list for starting his career by building in New York during bad economic times when others had abandoned the city, but further down because he has also created a brand of crass pseudo sophistication.
Last on our brief list, and least admired, is Richard Fuld, former CEO of the now bankrupt Wall Street banking firm, Lehman Brothers. Banking firms have traditionally been financers of new business, often creating entire industries in the process. For example, Mellon Bank was the driving force behind Alcoa, Gulf Oil, Westinghouse, U.S. Steel, Heinz, General Motors, Standard Oil, and other companies that defined an earlier age of American industrial might. Lehman itself had helped create Radio Corporation of America, a broadcast pioneer; DuMont, one of the first television manufacturers; and Digital Equipment Corporation, a computer pioneer. More recently, venture capital firms have played similar roles in financing the digital technology companies that define Silicon Valley. But most Wall Street banks today, as exemplified by Fuld’s Lehman corporation, no longer make their money by backing new businesses, but by trading for their own accounts. Put simply, they gamble. Fuld and other bankers had doubled down their companies’ bets until their losses threatened to bring down the entire world financial system.
While many would probably agree with this ranking of the admirability of these wealthy people, they might not realize why they gravitate to some and away from others. I suggest that it has to do with creativity. We admire those who create great things and we are indifferent to those who create things that are not well conceived, while we do not admire at all those who do not create but leach off of those who do.
And power? Of course we remember villains, but we also remember leaders who are associated with periods of creativity: Pericles, who ruled Athens during its golden age; Catherine the Great, who brought the Enlightenment to Russia; and Franklin Roosevelt, who imagined modern America. But more often we remember a period for its creative figures, not its political leaders. For example, we remember Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos, because of his tempestuous relationship with his artist, but do we remember Leonardo da Vinci’s patron in Milan or the clergyman who commissioned Palladio to build the Villa Rotunda? Do we remember the French nobleman who had Voltaire imprisoned on a personal writ or the rulers of Austria when Mozart and Beethoven composed their music? Do we remember the rulers of France when Pasteur was researching microorganisms and Monet was painting his poplar trees; or when Cézanne was painting his The Bathers; or when members of the Lost Generation, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and Cole Porter, were meeting in Parisian salons? Do we remember who the governors of California were when Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Apple, and Google were launched? For the most part, we do not, but we do remember the leading creative figures of many eras, beginning with Imhotep, the architect of the first Egyptian pyramid. We could go on and look at beauty. We admired Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s not just for her beauty, but for the way she created a vulnerable femininity both onscreen and off that captured and also helped create her time; Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960s for her tempestuous emotionality also both on-screen and off that captured and also helped create her time; and we admire Angelina Jolie today for the way she plays her asexual onscreen action heroes against her off-screen mothering, philanthropy, advocacy, movie producing and directing, and for her courage dealing with her health problems in a search for a new femininity for our time. And before these stars, we admired Jean Harlow for the way she reflected changing social and economic circumstances in one of America’s most tumultuous periods when she moved from blonde bombshell to more serious roles that paralleled her real life problems as the Great Depression wore on, all transpiring in just seven years from 1930 until her death from kidney failure at the age of twenty-six. We admire creativity, and when we admire wealth, political power, or beauty, we are often still admiring creativity.
What distinguishes the figures we have mentioned so far? Of course they are exceptional and they bring us pleasure and illumination. But there is more to it than that. All of these Visionary Creatives felt that our world was no longer what we had thought it to be and that a new world was struggling to be born. They wondered what was wrong with others that they did not also feel this, and they were driven to produce works that would help others experience what they experienced. Their audiences, on encountering them were changed and they entered new worlds.