Het concept ‘creativiteit’ door de geschiedenis

Het concept creativiteit zoals wij dat nu kennen is vrij jong.

Het concept creativiteit zoals wij dat nu kennen is vrij jong. In ons verleden en in vele andere culturen was het idee dat het vanuit niets iets maken een buitenmenselijke invloed vereiste van goden, geesten, heiligen of andere mediatoren tussen het menselijke en het buitenmenselijke. Bovendien wordt het woord tegenwoordig gebruikt voor van alles dat ‘origineel’ of ‘eigenzinnig’ heet. Het woord moge zijn uitgewerkt, het concept van hetgeen in essentie nodig is om iets te (kunnen) creëren vanzelfsprekend niet. Hieronder geeft Sawyer een overzicht van de veranderingen die het begrip creativiteit in het westen heeft ondergaan in de afgelopen eeuwen. Het is blijkbaar een mooie windvaan van wat er speelt in de samenleving, bijv. de manier waarop over de invloed van het individu wordt gedacht.

How conceptions of creativity have changed over time

Many people who hold to the Western cultural model of creativity (see Chapter 1) believe that creative expression represents inner truth, the spirit of a unique individual. European Enlightenment humanism emphasized the divine nature of humanity; the human being became a sort of god. If creativity represents the purest expression of the spirit of the individual, it might capture the essence of this divinity (Becker, 2000-2001). Robert Weiner has argued that globalization is expanding this Enlightenment individualism beyond Europe, into a “global ideology of creativity” (2000, p. 113).

No past historical period would recognize today s concept of “creativity”; what we mean by that term has evolved through a complex historical and cultural process. The word “creativity” was invented in the late 19th century, when many people began to draw connections between the arts and the sciences. It appeared in an 1875 text History of Dramatic English Literature, by Adolfus William Ward (Weiner, 2000, p. 89), used in such a way as to suggest there is something similar across all disciplines (Weiner, 2000). The word doesn’t appear in French or Italian until 50 years after that, and didn’t appear in standard English dictionaries until after World War II (it’s not in the second edition of the New International Dictionary in 1934, but it is in the Third New International Dictionary of 1961; Kristeller, 1983). The word comes from the English word ‘create,” which derives from a hypothesized Indo-European root, ker, kere (to grow) via the Latin, creatio or creatus (to make or grow). But in the Roman era, this word was used for biological creation; ars and artis were more commonly used for human making (Weiner, 2000, p. 41).

Until the modern era, creativity was attributed to a superhuman force; all novel ideas originated with the gods. After all, how could a person create something that didn’t exist before the divine act of creation? The Latin meaning of the verb “inspire” is “to breath into,” reflecting the belief that creative inspiration was akin to the moment in creation when God first breathed life into man. Plato (427-327 BCE) argued that the poet was possessed by divine inspiration. Plato argued that the works of poets were entirely the invention of the Muses, who possess the poets and inspire them (Weiner, 2000, p. 35).

Plotin (204-270 CE) wrote that art could be beautiful only if it descended from God. The artist’s job was not to imitate nature but rather to reveal the sacred and transcendent qualities of nature. Plato likewise held that all art was an imitation of nature; but for Plato, the nature that we see is an imitation of eternal ideas, so artworks are imitations of imitations (Weiner, 2000, p. 35). Art could be only a pale imitation of the perfection of the world of ideas (Honour & Fleming, 1999). Greek artists didn’t blindly imitate what they saw in reality; instead, they tried to represent the pure, true forms underlying reality, resulting in a sort of compromise between abstraction and accuracy.

Conceptions of the artist

Most people who live in the United States share a common set of beliefs about artists, one that derives from the Western cultural model of creativity. We think that most artists work alone. They’re blessed with a special gift or genius. They have a uniquely valuable message to communicate, and generally have a relatively high social status. We believe that artworks should be signed by their creators; knowing who created a work is important to us. Art buyers seek out the best artists and buy their works. If you’re one of the famous artists, your work will be collected by major museums. Imitations of your paintings aren’t valuable, no matter how skillfully executed they are.

But these beliefs about artists are extremely recent. For example, the idea that an artist works alone is less than 200 years old. In the ancient system of apprenticeship in studios, artists worked in hierarchically structured teams. To learn art, a child—sometimes as young as the age of seven—was apprenticed to a master. All products of the studio were attributed to the master, even though a great portion of the work may have actually been completed by his assistants. The master acted as a sort of artistic director, composing the overall picture and executing only the most difficult portions.

The idea that the artist has high social status is also less than 200 years old. In the non-noble classes of Europe, status was based on economic success, and artists didn’t make a lot of money. Artists were considered lower status than butchers and silversmiths, for example. This began to change during the Italian Renaissance, as artists began to be recognized for their knowledge and their genius. Nobility began to value art, and they competed with one another to take the best artists under their wing.

The idea that artists have a unique message to communicate is also only a few hundred years old. For most of European history, artists were considered primarily craftsmen. When a noble contracted for a work with a painter, the contract specified details like the quantities of gold and blue paint to appear in the work, the deadline, and penalties for delays (Baxandall, 1972). A contract in 1485 between the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and a client specified that Ghirlandaio would “colour the panel at his own expense with good colours and with powdered gold on such ornaments as demand i t . . . and the blue must be ultramarine of the value about four florins the ounce” (quoted in Baxandall, 1972, p. 6). In some contracts, artists were paid by the time worked rather than a fixed price for the completed work. These contract details show us that art was considered to be a trade—a very different conception of the artist than we hold today.

The idea that the artist creates a novel and original work that breaks with convention is only a few hundred years old. Before the Renaissance, creativity was associated with the ability to imitate established masters, and to accurately represent nature (Becker, 2000-2001, p. 46; Weiner, 2000). Although some people, including da Vinci and Vasari, argued that genio should not just be imitative, but should also incorporate originality, this argument did not become widely accepted until the late Renaissance (Lange-Eichbaum, 1930/1932).

During the Renaissance, Western conceptions of creativity began to change more dramatically. In the late 15th century in Florence, the idea became widespread that one could make a distinction between divine inspiration and human making. Art was still thought of as imitation, but as the direct imitation of divine ideas (rather than Plato’s imitation of an imitation), and thus could surpass nature as we observe it (Weiner, 2000, p. 54). But the artist was not valorized; even Leonardo da Vinci didn’t sign his works.

The first use of the word “create” in English was in 1589, by George Puttenham—in comparing poetic creation to divine creation (Weiner, 2000, p. 55). Artists began to differentiate themselves from craftsmen, and intellectuals began to think of what they did as something more than just craft or technique; the difference was that they could claim to “create”—unlike the mechanical arts. In the 18th century, poetry, music, and the visual arts were grouped together for the first time as “fine arts,” and the word “creative” began to be applied to artists (Kristeller, 1983).

It was during Enlightenment humanism that the conception of man as an intentional creator began to flourish. In 1474, the Venetian city-state created the first regularized administrative system for granting patents, giving sole property to the originator for ten years (Merges, 1995). In 1624, Britain introduced patent protection for 14 years, granted to “the true and first inventor and inventors of such manufacturers” (Merges, 1995, p. 106; Weiner, 2000, p. 68).

These historical developments show that our current conception of the artist became widespread only about 200 years ago (Heinich, 1993). Many distinct developments converged in Europe to result in the modern Western conception of the artist. In the 15th century, the art of the portrait was born in Europe, a radical break with the prior tradition of painting only religious icons and scenes. Paintings and sculptures were increasingly signed by the artist in France, Germany, Flanders, and Italy. Consistent with Renaissance thought more generally, this was the beginning of the idea that the artist was a unique individual with his own perceptions and abilities, and that his paintings and his conceptions were unique. By the 16th century, the artist began to be seen as a member of a prestigious minority, working apart from any court or church. This was the beginning of an idea that has continued through the modern era: that artists are independent from society’s normal standards of taste, that artists are inspired innovators, and that the function of art is to communicate the inner insights of the artist to the viewer.

The conception of the artist as internally driven by vision, inspiration, or imagination assumes that the creator doesn’t know who will ultimately consume his creation, and furthermore assumes that it’s not important for the creator to be aware of the ultimate audience. This historical situation was a result of the demise of patronage and the rise of mass audiences. Prior to that time, the artist was always working for a client—whether royalty, the church, or a rich merchant—with the goal of satisfying that client’s demands (Clark, 1997, p. 11). Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) produced the first works designed and published by the artist, not commissioned by a patron, and he was one of the first to sign his works (Weiner, 2000, p. 63).

From the 16th through the 18th centuries, the institutions of the art world were first established throughout Europe: museums, a tradition of art criticism and the study of the history of art, an art market with dealers and patrons. Schools for teaching art—run by the government and apart from apprenticeship in a studio—were founded in Florence in 1563 and in Rome in 1577. These state-run academies allowed aspiring artists to learn without apprenticeship to a master (Fig. 2.3).

And finally, in the Industrial Revolution, economic changes led to the end of the studio system. For centuries, apprentices had to learn how to make their own paints from scratch materials, and also to make their own paintbrushes; but after the 19th-century Industrial Revolution, an artist could purchase pajnts and brushes that were mass produced. The 19th-century French Impressionists are known for their radical new idea of painting outdoors, but this innovation would not have been possible without the invention of tubes of paint, which became available only in the 19th century. The modern concept of the artist—isolated, independent, inspired— could emerge only after all of these social and economic developments.

After several hundred years of broad social changes, during the 19th century Europeans began to see the artist as we conceive of him today: as a figure balancing the tension between the conventions of academic quality and the demand for originality (Heinich, 1993). For example, in the 19th century, anti-academism emerged in France—one of the first artistic movements to explicitly reject academic convention. Delacroix, Corot, and Courbet rejected the conventional hierarchy of subjects that placed historical and heroic scenes at the top, and instead painted realistic, everyday scenes—an important early influence on Impressionism.

Freudian psychoanalysis aligned readily with Romanticist thought. Freud argued that creativity emerged unpredictably from the unconscious mind, resulting from drives and conflicts that the creator is not consciously aware of. Freud’s association between artistic creation and neurosis also aligned with a common strain of thought, in the late 19th century, that creative geniuses were somehow disturbed—similar to the mentally ill, physically sick, or criminals (see Chapter 4, pp. 82-83). Although Freud’s psychodynamic theory has mostly been discarded today, these ideas about creativity remain a part of the Western cultural model.

Ironically, through the 20th century and increasingly after World War II in the United States, artists have been entering art schools in increasingly large numbers to be trained in the conventions of the art world. In the United States today, a greater proportion of working artists have the MFA degree than at any other time in history. Yet few of us are aware of the growing influence of formal schooling in fine art.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, most readers are likely to hold to the modern conception of the artist—a unique and inspired individual who expresses and communicates his or her unique vision through the art work. And of course, this conception is completely consistent with the Western cultural model of creativity. Yet this conception of the artist is no more than 200 years old.

Rationalism and romanticism

Over the centuries, conceptions of creativity have veered between two broad ideas: rationalism and Romanticism. Rationalism is the belief that creativity is generated by the conscious, deliberating, intelligent, rational mind; Romanticism is the belief that creativity bubbles up from an irrational unconscious, and that rational deliberation interferes with the creative process.

Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle’s view of art emphasized rationality and deliberation, and stressed the conscious work required to bring a creative inspiration to completion. Aristotle gave credit not only to the Muses, but also to human skill and inspiration (Weiner, 2000, p. 36). The rationalist conception was dominant through the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, when reason was valued above all. Enlightenment conceptions of creativity emphasized rationality, proportion, and harmony. In 1650, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) called the invocation of the Muses the reasonless imitation of a foolish custom, “by which a man, enabled to speak wisely from the principles of Nature and his own meditation, loves rather to be thought to speak by inspiration, like a Bagpipe” (quoted in Smith, 1961, p. 24). Reason, knowledge, training, and education were considered necessary to create good art. When the term originality was coined, it meant newness and truth of observation, not a radical break with convention. The most original artists were those who best imitated nature (Smith, 1961).

During the 18th century, the term genius was first used to describe creative individuals (Becker, 2000-2001; Tonelli, 1973), and this new concept of genius was primarily associated with rational, conscious processes (Gerard, 1774/1966; Tonelli, 1973). Genius was associated with both scientists and artists, and was thought to be based in imagination, judgment, and memory (Becker, 2000-2001, p. 47).

The idea of the imagination emerged in England and Germany during the late Enlightenment in the 18th century (Engell, 1981; Taylor, 1989). The imagination “became the compelling force in artistic and intellectual life” from 1750 onward (Engell, 1981, p. 4). The imagination was the mental faculty responsible for generating novelty, and this conception would later form the core of the concept of “creativity” (Taylor, 1989). Theories of the imagination were a reaction against, and a rejection of, the abstract and mechanical formalism of the early 1700s, the empiricist idea that “Invention is nothing else but the habit acquired by practices of assembling ideas or truths” (Turnbull, 1740,1, p. 60; quoted in Engell, 1981, p. 70). Theories of the imagination made possible the conception oigenius, which was due to an internal stimulus not explainable in terms of impressions received from the senses (Engell, 1981, pp. 79-80). Gerard’s 1774 An Essay on Genius argued that “It is imagination that produces genius” (1774/1966, p. 26). Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 13th discourse (delivered at the Royal Academy in 1786) was subtitled “Art Not Merely Imitation, But under the Direction of the Imagination” (Engell, 1981, p. 185).

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, writers in the English Romantic movement began to think that art might be created through nonrational processes (Abrams, 1984; Smith, 1961, p. 23). This line of thinking gradually evolved into the Romanticist belief that rational deliberation would kill the creative impulse (Abrams, 1953, p. 205). Instead of thinking rationally and deliberately, the artist should simply listen to the inner muse and create without conscious control.

The Romantics argued that creativity requires temporary escape from the conscious ego and a liberation of instinct and emotion, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” in Wordsworth’s terms (180Ö/1957, p. 116). Shelley called it “unpremeditated art” (Shelley, 1901, p. 381, “To a skylark,” line 5) and wrote: “Poetry is not like reasoning… this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed” (Shelley, 1965, pp. 70-71).

The Romantics were revolutionary; they valued the artist’s imagination more than mastery of the traditions of the past. Romanticism was the birth of contemporary notions of creativity— the idea that the poet or artist has a privileged status as the epitome of the human spirit (Engell, 1981). As these Romantic conceptions spread through Europe, artists began to be thought of as more than craftspeople.

The Romantics believed that creativity required a regression to a state of consciousness characterized by emotion and instinct, a fusion between self and world, and freedom from rationality and convention. These ideas weren’t completely new; for thousands of years, scholars have connected creativity with altered or heightened states of consciousness. Plato used the term enthousiasmos, or “divine madness,” to describe creativity. In ancient Greece, creativity was associated with demonic possession. A demon was a semi-deity and was viewed as a divine gift granted to selected individuals. Socrates, for example, attributed most of his knowledge to his demon (Becker, 2000-2001). Aristotle believed that creative individuals were melancholic; but this didn’t mean he thought they were depressed; the word meant something different back then. In the Hippocratian humoral theory that held sway from ancient Greece through the Middle Ages, melancholic referred to one of four basic personality types, none of them associated with mental illness (Wittkower & Wittkower, 1963, p. 102). Qualities associated with the melancholic temperament included eccentricity, sensitivity, moodiness, and introversion. Emulating melancholia became a fad among young men in 16th-century Europe (Wittkower & Wittkower, 1963, pp. 98-105).

Although both Plato and Aristotle associated creativity with heightened states of consciousness, neither of them actually believed that mental illness contributed to creativity (see Chapter 9, pp. 163-176, for an extended discussion of the creativity-madness link). The belief that mental illness and creativity were related took its modern form during and after the Romantic era; the association of creativity with mental illness doesn’t predate the 1830s (Becker, 2000-2001). The Romantics believed that clinical madness was an unfortunate side effect of extreme creativity. In the same way that melancholia became a trendy affectation in 16th-century Europe, mental illness became so in the 19th century; many of the Romantic poets began to embrace madness, and some claimed to experience mental anguish and madness simply because they thought they were supposed to. This self-fulfilling prophecy continues into our own time: because the Western cultural model suggests that creativity and madness are linked, writers and artists sometimes behave eccentrically, and even voluntarily exaggerate these aspects of their personalities in psychological tests (Becker, 2000-2001). After all, many creative individuals believe that being normal is the same thing as being typical, and they’re eager to distinguish themselves from the average person.

Romanticism dominated the 19th century, but by the end of the century, “anti-Romanticism” was growing. The 20th century saw a rebirth of rationalism known as modernism. Modernism is characterized by isolation, coolness, and detachment (Abrams, 1984, pp. 109-144). The French modernist poets Baudelaire and Mallarmé both emphasized the importance of dispassionate deliberation and conscious craft (Abrams, 1984). In the early 20th century, poets like Ezra Pound formulated a modernist aesthetic that rejected the “mushy emotivism” of “romantic subjectivism” (Sass, 2000-2001, p. 60). Iji the 1920s, Russian futurists and Czech formalists advocated a highly detached, analytic perspective on the world, one that stripped away the normal emotional and cultural associations of objects to instead focus on pure abstracted form (Sass, 1992).

Romanticism had one last burst in the predominantly rationalist 20th century, with 1950s postwar abstract Expressionism. The abstract,Expressionists were said to create spontaneously from pure emotion and inspiration, unconstrained by planning, rational thought, or conscious filtering. However, even during the 1950s knowledgeable art experts were aware that this was a popular fiction. For example, Jackson Pollock’s paintings—which in the popular conception simply involved flinging paint against canvas without forethought—were in fact carefully planned and composed. Pollack worked hard to master different techniques for dripping paint, experimenting with the results, and he composed his works in advance so that they’d give the appearance of maximum spontaneity.

Within only a few years, the avant-garde of art had moved on beyond these neo-Romantic conceptions. The contemporary arts of the 1960s onward—sometimes called “postmodern”— represented a return to rationalism. Postmodern art is critical of our culture’s conceptions of creativity—deconstructing notions of spontaneity, originality, and individual genius (Sass, 2000-2001, p. 61). Minimalism and pop art explicitly rejected Romantic-era beliefs about art; they could not have been more obviously unemotional, carefully planned and executed, and in fact reveled in their own artifice by noting the parallels with advertising, product design, and comic strips. Andy Warhol famously said, “I want to be a machine” (quoted in Hughes, 1984, p. 48). Anti-Romanticism is prominent in postmodern art and theory, which rejects the ideals of authenticity, spontaneity, and personal engagement. This may be why the general public doesn’t like modern art: because the average person still holds to Romanticist conceptions of creativity.

Sawyer, R. K. (2012) Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation. Oxford University Press. [Chapter 5]

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