WHAT CREATIVITY WANTS

The quality of a great sandwich is a function of the ingredients available, the talent of the sandwich maker, and sometimes even those things on the periphery of the plate. 

The quality of a great sandwich is a function of the ingredients available, the talent of the sandwich maker, and sometimes even those things on the periphery of the plate. 

Tech guru Kevin Kelly famously titled a book “What Technology Wants?” The concept behind his book was that technology itself pushed new ideas into existence. While not precisely conscious, he says, technology has a proto-self-awareness that’s a function of its accumulated information and inherent organization. 

Like all accumulated information—like DNA itself—technology “wants” to evolve. Kelly asserts that technology itself pushes ideas forward, that it provokes a sort of evolutionary momentum that’s self perpetuating. Cell phone networks, for example, “reproduce” and spawn the construction of new cell towers precisely because they strengthen the collective whole. We can argue the semantics of whether we believe that added cell towers are helpful to us, and thus something we pursue, but it’s not crazy to squint and see the network cajoling us into making more on behalf of the proto-conscious network. 

That’s why this is a fair, parallel question: what does creativity want?

When I moved away from pen and paper to a primarily keyboard-based form of writing, my wordsmithing changed. Now I generally write only one thing with pen and paper (beyond a dashed-off grocery list, of course) When I write poetry I use a pen. The substance of what I want to say transforms by the way I’m saying it. When I use a keyboard, I find that certain economies of language do not as easily express themselves in the same way they do when I’m forced to go slower with a pen.

This kind of change is true for every discipline. The moment an artist believes he or she is completely immune to the pressures imposed by their medium, that artist has turned down an alley where they shouldn't be traveling.

A recent push by some of Hollywood's top directors to insure a ready supply of old-fashioned celluloid film from the Kodak Corporation is evidence to the point. These are voices who insist that the medium is as much a part of their message as the message itself. They won't go into the deeper parts of the 21st century using digital cinema: they insist on film. They don’t simply “like” it better. They say they need film to achieve their vision. Perhaps what we really should be asking here is if film, in this case, is pushing the directors. It’s natural to see the directors pushing the industry into keeping film, but perhaps this isn’t a sensitive enough perception. Instead, we should regard the effort as more of a dialogue, despite the fact that film is indisputably a dying, antiquated technology.

Work changes by having access to certain tools. In the creative world the ultimate tool, of course, is money.  Money is the facilitator of endless opportunity. It's easy to squander money, just as paint and canvas are easily wasted in an amateur’s hands. Conversely, resources made available to those with focused intention becomes engines of transcendence. That a brick can be a cellular element in both a cathedral and a sidewalk makes me wonder about the aspirations of that brick in the context of its culture. Clearly the brick cannot think, dream, or desire, but as a tiny fragment of a culture that’s just discovered their majestic potential if properly organized, one begins to wonder if the materials of architectural technology  promote it’s own aspirational potential.

Film is practically out of date. There’s really no debate about that any longer. But antiquated technologies and aesthetic styles do not necessarily connote lack of value. Classical music is quite literally centuries old and yet there continue to be audiences, aficionados, and performers, even as their numbers and influence are vastly diluted by newer forms. The question should not be about whether classical has any remaining value, but rather about what it says and what it means, and when, and why.

Whatever may be the particular tools of someone’s creative life shape the kind of work that person can pursue. For a dancer to consider bold choreographic expressions without adequate rehearsal space is challenging. It's not impossible, of course. Plenty of performers have worked out steps in small spaces hoping they will get a break at a real theater. The same could be said for traditional plays, for drama. Certainly it's possible for motivated actors to use makeshift spaces to rehearse grand theatrical works. But access to resources changes the way we think about our creative endeavors. Minuscule budgets force artists to invent solutions, sometimes with spectacular results. The photographer Edward Weston rarely had resources for more than a handful of photographic exposures in a whole day of work, forcing him to think long and hard about each and every exposure. His extraordinary results speak for themselves. But even with the most efficient, imaginative use, a creator’s visionary potential will always be bound by the upward edge of available resources.

Similarly, resource limitations do not automatically force excellence to rise, even at smaller scales. Quite the contrary. Also, the opposite duality always obtains: the great facilitation that money provides does not guarantee success, even though it can help forestall complete catastrophe. A Stradivarius violin in the hands of an ernest amateur does not necessarily impart a higher level musicianship than a decent practice fiddle.

Creativity “wants” to fuse ideas. Creativity “wants” to bring things into being that were unrelated before the process began. A well stocked kitchen is useless without a talented cook. But a talented cook can make magic out of ordinary things. Creativity doesn’t demand top shelf ingredients, but the quality of the ingredients will profoundly influence final work. Celluloid film doesn’t make a great movie, but in the hands of a great moviemaker it can contribute to great work simply because it forces the moviemaker to use it differently than alternative technologies. 

Creativity wants to solve problems. To create something is to make a judgment, that “this” is more desirable than “that”. What raw materials are available will influence the process, just as the level of available talent will also influence the process. Creativity does not speak to everyone the same way, something we know at even the common sense level. Some people are clearly far more inventive than others. But everyone creates sometimes, even if it’s simply building an elaborate sandwich on a Saturday afternoon. Creativity provokes questions and presents challenges, and the material substance of its components—if there’s a good tomato knife available, if there’s spicy mustard in the fridge, if the bread is fresh or frozen—will influence how the sandwich maker handles the opportunity to create. 

While you’re at it, I’d like my sandwich with a pickle on the side.

@michaelstarobin

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