Say “history” to a checked-out middle schooler and you might get a mumble about something that, sadly, has not been presented with more gusto. But say “history” to an actor or a dancer and you’re just as likely to get a nod of understanding. The performer knows what you mean: actions in the present need to come from somewhere. That’s history for you.
This concept is something that sinks in gradually, whether in the conscious or unconscious mind of creators. History can be multiple things at once. To crib a metaphor from nuclear physics, it’s like the strong and weak forces: one holds atoms together, while the other releases explosive energy when those atoms fly apart.
One kind of history is when artists draw from family and culture, experience and dreams as historical reference. Every day we walk through the world we do so with a string values and experiences trailing behind us. Our family, for good or ill; our community, such as that may be; our life-long dreams and hopes and fears and efforts all contribute to new acts of invention. We are all accumulations of what’s come before.
Another kind of history has to do with a conscious process designed to create an artificial past for the sole purpose of giving context to choices in the here and now. This second type of history is more technical than the first. When an actor walk onto stage for the first time in a scene, he or she needs to know where that character is coming from, how they got to that moment, what feelings they had a moment before they appeared. It’s not that there were actual lines of script a moment before they appeared. It’s that the craft of creating a performance requires a performer to understand that the character has a “before”. That sense of time, of history, is what makes the present real. It’s invisible to the audience in a literal sense, but a character without a past is a character without a present.
There’s a third kind of history for creators, and it has to do with being present and involved day after day, year after year. When Ludwig van Beethoven began to experiment with more romantic sounds late in his life, he had license to explore because he had already deeply integrated the classical oeuvre into his music. The sound of his transformation, of his arrival into a new, nascent present was only possible because he deeply understood the musical world that came before. Because of that expertise he could innovate. The more any creative person understands the literature and language of his or her craft, the more they’re able to access when working out something new. References to things that came before—a working historical knowledge of a field of expertise, in other words—empowers invention in the present.
Notice that none of these three concepts about history, taken by themselves, entirely enable creative people to make new things. At different times we all draw on different tools to invent something new in the ever changing present. That’s why history matters. The more a creative person understands that nothing comes into being without coming from somewhere, the more he or she can connect new inventions to deeper themes and resonances.
Therefore, if we agree that history can be a powerful amplifier in a formal, artistic sense, imagine how a solid working knowledge of history might influence civic and political forces. Suddenly we begin to see how creativity is a concept that defies traditional structures, and can extend into how we approach the process of living with other people in all sorts of contexts, for all sorts of purposes.