Wednesday, 6 November 2013

“Creativity is subjective” and other copouts that keep you from being remarkable

Picture the most creative behavior possible. Is an isolated or eccentric individual part of your mental image?—Perhaps an artist covered in paint frantically attacking a canvas? Or maybe a writer like Lewis Carroll, who must have been in some trippy state, in order to concoct something like Alice in Wonderland?
It is too often that we equate the uniqueness behind all creative work with an eccentric way of life that enables it. When we use the term subjective, however, we are not simply highlighting the originality of the work or of the artist, but we are also putting creativity inside a very small box. Why? Because we transform it into an impenetrable process, into a black-box, whose constitutive elements are simply out of our reach—the term subjective becomes in fact a copout for what we prefer not to understand.

The words subjective and objective have a classic (although maybe stereotypical is a better word) scientific tint to them: the objective/subjective divide is used, or so we are told, to separate reality from dream, fact from opinion, and order from chaos. It is this underlying separation what makes of a statement such as creativity is subjective a particularly troubling one. I will spare you the philosophical conversation behind the use of the subjective/objective opposition, and will instead try to present several reasons why we should view creativity under a completely different light: as an essentially cooperative and social event.

Let’s take, for instance, two well known artists: Édouard Manet and Pablo Picasso. Both, Manet and Picasso are today regarded not only as masters of the visual arts, but also as true revolutionaries and innovators, who changed the history of western art forever. Manet is considered the father of impressionism and with it Modern art, while Picasso is the father of Cubism. Both painters struggled immensely to get their work shown. The critics of their time were implacable about their lack of talent, which isolated them from well known artists and galleries of the time—let alone museums. The creative spirit that we assume of them today was in their time, and by any measure, completely dismissed. It took them time, perseverance, and some luck (for the cultural changes proper to their time to gain momentum) before they were able to become respected artists. Theirs is to a great extent a story of success, because they were in the end recognized as amazingly creative artists—many others, like Van Gogh, who never received any formal recognition during his lifetime, are not half as lucky. The story of Manet and Picasso is a telling story about the importance that industry influencers have, but that is not the interesting aspect of their story. Theirs is a story with a clear lesson: no matter how creative you think you are, you will always need of a community that agrees on your work being creative. You need a Tribe—to use Godin’s term—before the broader public will actually appreciate your creative work.

Now, if you believe that you have come up with something creative, but you find yourself alone in this belief, don’t be surprised or discouraged—that is certainly not the point. It is true that without a community standing behind your creative work, you simply cannot expect any recognition or reward for the uniqueness or originality of your ideas—but this is only one aspect of this truth, although it can be a harsh one. Bear in mind that what I mean with community is not simply—or at all—a fan club or a group of admirers. A community is much more than that, inasmuch as what is at stake is cooperation and shared interests, not superficial devotion. Building a community begins by identifying and pursuing shared interests—this is another reason why creativity should not be reduced to the individual, because by doing so you truly miss the forest for the trees.

A creative community may function very much like those in social media, but they require a commitment that most of those do not have. A creative community requires the commitment and conviction of militant political groups, with the vein for experimentation and cooperation of an Art collective. Commitment and conviction are crucial, because they are powerful motivators that allow for group rather than individual goals to be set, which is precisely what is needed for shared interests to rise to the surface. Shared interests are seldom transparent or obvious, but most often come as the result of negotiations between individual perspectives—as a result of the critical discussion about what should be shared and pursued.

A community acts as a propeller: it allows for a shared vision to gain momentum. However the role of the community does not end there. By sharing a vision communities become relevant conversations or think tanks of their own: if, for instance, you want to innovate on user experience and web-design, your creative ideas will be best served if critically assessed by others who have a say in the same business, for example web-designers, product developers, programmers, etc., but also by others who have a relevant say, but who come from a different industry or discipline, for example visual artists, gamers, and experience creators at large. It is actually the opinion of the latter what can result in a criticism that will prove to be much more invigorating, for it will allow you to identify blind spots, to relate to other audiences, and, in this case, to learn from other types of user experiences—which is fundamental in this particular case.

The type of community I refer to has the connectivity and communication character of a network—I know this is an overused term, but once you forget about its use on ‘networking events’ it is actually a powerful image. This is because a network is a structure that gathers differences rather than simply ignoring them. A networks is made up of knots, through which information is not only relayed, but also transformed—that is precisely what occurs in the process of criticism and diffusion that I refer to above. In a network knots may vary in importance—in the amount of information they gather as well as in the number of connections possessed by each one individually—yet even the smallest knot must remain active and engaged for the network community to function properly.

So, once we leave the myth behind, what we find is that Creativity is a social process, and it is produced today through networks! I will come back to the subject of networks. Remember to subscribe to the factish and let’s continue harnessing the power of creative networks. 

Written by Daniel Vargas Gómez

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