And... the art book I'll be reviewing for June is...
'Imagine - How Creativity Works' by Jonah Lehrer
Although I did not mention it by name I did very briefly refer to this book in last weeks’ post. I had only read the introduction at that point but it was already having a profound effect in my thinking about creativity especially in relation to my own experiences (but more of that later). The book is aiming to answer and demystify the kind of myths that surround creativity, what it is, where it comes from and how it works. When I say, 'myths' I mean the kind of preconceptions that 'creativity is something that only creatives do'. But who are these 'creatives'?! The very idea that there is such a thing as creativity that is separate and bestowed only on certain people who are then deemed to be creative, is rubbish and most people know better, that anyone who has ever made a cake, potted a plant, created a joke, sang a song, written a letter, solved a crossword, or demonstrated any kind of problem solving is creative. In fact sleeping, something which everyone does, is one example mentioned in the book where the act of dreaming is both very creative and highly imaginative. Imagine then what you could do when you’re awake! Lehrer refers to Kirkegarrd who says, ‘Sleeping is the height of genius.’ Zzzzz.....So, anyway, by no means is this book a patronising look into the stereotype of creativity, in fact if anything it almost read more like a self-help book on the highs and lows of trying to force or use creative thinking to solve a problem,
‘Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We’ve worked hard, but we’ve hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next. When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit...instead we skip straight to the breakthroughs. We tell the happy endings first.’
That does sound very familiar (and is therefore also very reassuring) and I am sure I am not alone in thinking that either, but it does explain why creativity is often hidden in the ‘eureka’ moments throughout history, where the big ideas and solutions seem to literally just fall from the sky out of nowhere, like a light bulb being switched on so that as if by magic, suddenly, the answer is revealed. That’s not to say that anyone doesn’t have spontaneous ideas, but usually even the seemingly spontaneous idea has actually come from something else, something you may have experienced/heard/said that has eventually led you to coming up with the ‘eureka’ moment. What Lehrer argues is that the brain may be doing all of this subconsciously so that the ‘insight experience’ follows a revelation. John Lehrer is a popular science writer, so I initially expected this book present an overall very neurological approach which might forensically examine what 'creativity' is. Whilst Lehrer does include this kind of scientific content early on in the book, in relation to dopamine in the synapses and how it can cause a kind of 'quick-fire' set of responses in neurons helping the brain to solve problems and process information quicker, it is always presented in context of a particular case study or anecdote which makes it all a lot easier to understand. In the first chapter, for example, creativity is discussed in relation to Bob Dylan, his process of song writing and how it was affected during the height of his career, at his most famous in 1965 when he had to stop creating, song writing and playing music in order to reinvent himself again later. In the first half of his book, Lehrer talks about creativity in individuals, so Auden’s poetry, Milton Glaser’s typography, Dick Drew’s invention of masking tape and many more are used as examples of how individual people have used creativity. In the second half of the book, Lehrer looks at how creativity is used in group situations and group thinking and how it can be used to solve problems and is an essential asset in any business or industry. I think that’s where it starts to get really interesting for me because it has a resonance to my own current circumstances. I am soon to be completing an MA in Fine Art, but I do not necessarily think I want to become an ‘artist’ as a full-time occupation, but see the potential skills that having an arts degree has taught me being important in any number of working environments or occupations, as the second half of this book goes on to prove, citing examples such as Pixar Studios, Apple, Google and even the group Talking Heads (you’d have to read it in context to know what I mean). In reference to a school in New Orleans, ‘The New Orleans Centre for the Creative Arts’ (NOCCA) the debate for a creative form of education is presented and Lehrer argues how ‘working/thinking/problem-solving by doing’ can have arguably more benefits than the current educational system.
‘Most NOCCA graduates won’t become professional artists. Nevertheless, these students will still leave the school with an essential talent, which is the ability to develop his or her own talent. Because they spend five hours a day working on their own creations, they learn what it takes to get good at something, to struggle and fail and try again. They figure out how to dissect difficult problems and cope with criticism. The students will learn how to manage their own time and persevere in the face of difficulty.’
I know that is referring to the specific example of the NOCCA, but it could equally apply to any arts degree. Without dwelling too much on my personal feelings towards this book, I find that very reaffirming and true to my own beliefs about the positive benefits of an art education. Or arts degree aside, if you put any group of people together to solve a problem then creative success is more likely and quicker than sometimes what can be done alone. That’s a bit tricky to explain without the specific examples in the book, but hopefully you get the idea none-the-less. Lehrer presents the case why cities are created, how that the creation of a city is often the result of group creative thinking and then in turn that city lends itself to more creative thinking and the process gets bigger and bigger. All of a sudden the book has shifted from science to human geography and sociology! That is why it is such a rewarding read, as it does cover a lot of ground. I found that in some places the anecdotes and stories took up a bit too much of the writing and as a result the structure of the book became a little bit formulaic and predictable in places. However, that was only a minor detail in what was a very accessible, reassuring and enlightening read. By the end I wasn’t sure if Lehrer was any surer of what creativity was (and he never really did get into the subject of imagination much/or point out the differences between the two) but creativity has always been an elusive thing. This book presents some great ideas as to where it may come from, but as is often the case the wondering is more important than the answer.