Boundlessly Creative?


We looked at the creative process.  With coloured pens, material, scissors in hand we explored the directive to ‘create something’.  Something that might be to do with disobedience in honour of the ‘disobedient objects’ exhibition.  We explored the activity as a group.  Looked at the notion of the ‘audience’ response or the viewer’s reaction being as important as our own ideas in working collaboratively.

We cast a critical eye over a definition of creativity that has informed much of the recent work in formal and non-formal education over the past decade:

Our starting point is to recognise four characteristics of creative processes. First, they always involve thinking or behaving imaginatively. Second, overall this imaginative activity is purposeful: that is, it is directed to achieving an objective. Third, these processes must generate something original. Fourth, the outcome must be of value in relation to the objective. We therefore define Creativity as: Imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value.   All Our Futures NACCCE report 2000 p. 29

And re-examined notions of value, purposefulness and originality.  And their connection with the economic need for innovation in Western countries who are no longer manufacturing goods.

We noted that creativity as an abstract noun, in reference to artistic activity, only appears from 1875 although the concept of creation and the creator have been around since pre-history.  (See ice age man’s sculptures where the sculpture was clearly given a place within society to ‘create’ artefacts that have no visible purpose except as art)

We wondered why the word “creativity” might have only appeared at this particular point in history (1875)? Why may it have only come into regular use in the 1950s? Asked what we knew of what was happening historically, socially, and artistically at these points in time? Why there might be certain moments in history when thinking about art and the nature of creativity seem to come to the fore? C.f.

  • Ancient Greece
  • Renaissance Europe
  • Romanticism late 18th/19th century Britain
  • Mid 20th/21st century

We considered what they might have in common: asked ourselves why we might be thinking about the nature of creativity/the role of the artist be an important part of the philosophical debate of these times?  We looked at the ‘prevailing paradigm’ of each period.  We started, as we often do, with Plato. and summarised the arguments, comparing and contrasting each of these periods. See below:


  • Plato and Aristotle (Art as an imitation/revealing of Nature)

5th and 6th century BC. (Socrates), Plato and Aristotle – often cited as two different conclusions about the nature of creativity. These opposing views have influenced thought since in the same way that their attitudes to knowledge have influenced philosophy. I.e. super-natural and natural, c.f. a priori and empirical knowledge

Art in Ancient Greece was considered to be concerned with the imitation of nature. There were techniques to acquire, canons of proportion to be learned and rules to be obeyed. The aim of the artist was to represent Nature as closely as possible: Nature had its own rules and Forms that were beyond man, beyond experience, belonging to the Gods. The artist’s role was to uncover these rules and work with them. How might we apply this to art that is non-naturalistic? The exception was poetry (poesis) – where the poet was considered to create original work of his own – through inspiration.

C.f. Plato’s “Ion” in which his teacher Socrates explains that the origin of the skills of the poet are not in art (imitation) but “a poet is never able to compose until he is inspired, beside himself …reason is no longer with him”. Great art/creativity is identified with some sort of possession, almost madness, from some form of divine inspiration (the Muses). i.e. creativity as something that comes from the supernatural.

Aristotle in his Metaphysics explains that everything is in Nature and in what has gone before. But he believes that nothing is made from something that isn’t. Speaks of what he calls matter as something which exists but has potential e.g. an acorn has potential to be an oak tree and through Nature (given the right circumstances) this is realised. In Nature nothing is that isn’t purposeful. But there are also things in the world that are purposeful “makings” e.g. a brass bowl. The brass here is the potential, but the cylindrical bowl is the form – the actuality. In the same way, bricks are part of the potential for a house but the house itself is the form.   Therefore although mankind is making (through art or thought) he is only making from what already exists in nature. With nature the force is within but in art the artisan is the maker/the external force. There is a process of thinking and a process of making, there is matter and there is form. The bowl is the result. i.e. creativity as part of naturalism


  • Renaissance Europe/ (Art and creativity as a consequence of mixture science, technology/art)

Renaissance Europe often seen as a reaction to the Middle Ages and the matrix of order – everyone in their place in commerce as well as in religion. Mid 15th century was a time when everything was moving and changing; trade, commerce, mobile population, and urbanisation. Began to look back to a Golden Age, especially the world of humanism as they saw it in Ancient Greece, not constrained by religion, man as centre of his own universe, man in nature, man living in this world. Science and technology were making great moves forward as well as art.

Walter Pater (1839-1934) in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance, calls it a shared “outbreak of the human spirit”, where “artists and philosophers and those whom the action of the world has elevated and made keen, do not live in isolation, but breathe a common air, and catch the light and heat from each others’ thoughts”.

What Pater also points out is that power of this coming together of creativity and invention was not lost on the Capitalists, Popes and Princes of the Renaissance. They understood the power of art and its value in wealth creation and invested in it e.g. Lorenzo de’ Medici, banker and statesman but also patron of art, technology and scholarship, gathering at his court leading artists such as Botticelli and Michelangelo along with other intellectuals of his day.

Renaissance man is often seen as ideal of cross-fertilisation of ideas; the concept of the polymath comes from this period. C.f. Leonardo da Vinci and his machines – building on what had gone before, seeking better solutions, moving with ease between the arts, sciences and technology in his notebooks: modelling objects such as helicopter, bicycles and tanks, inventing new ways to scale walls or to use an Archimedes’ screw alongside his sketches for portraits and studies of the anatomy of the human body.

We wondered what role the studio of Verrocchio played in his learning, where not only were there other young artists such as Donatello and Botticelli but also goldsmiths, metal smiths, wood carvers, sculptors, designers of armour, and painters of flags. Leonardo himself spending a year in Venice working as an engineer. Noted with interest that the division of the art and the science in his notebooks came about in later centuries; wondered whether this was something to do with a growing lack of ease with the notion of creativity being part of both arts and science?


  • Kant and the Romantics (art as a rejection of the mechanical and a return to individual visionary)

Although the Romantic poets, and musicians, of the 19th century set themselves up in opposition to the focus on reason, empirical thinking and scientific rigour that the Age of Enlightenment had stood for, the concept of the poet, writer, musician as individual genius put forward by Immanuel Kant in his “Critique of Judgement” undeniably influenced their thinking. The concept of Genius as a talent (or natural gift) that enabled creativity but cannot be taught or learned fitted the Romantic notion of the artist as someone guided by his/her feelings rather than by rules: the artist as a visionary and a dreamer. Kant’s emphasis on the spontaneous nature of the creative act is echoed in Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, where he declares poetry to be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”

Although this period was as inventive technologically as the Renaissance had been scientifically the arts, science and technology were viewed separately. Following Kant’s division of the aesthetic from the scientific mind, fine art was seen as something radically separate and “metaphysical”. Artists, in particular poets, rejected the world of the machines and factory workers created by the technology of the Industrial Revolution and allied themselves once more with Nature and the natural. The individual imagination was paramount. The cliché of the artist as a tortured, sensitive, isolated soul, that was to influence thought for the next century, was thus created.

Is there something specific in ‘art’, related to notions of aesthetic effect and taste that separates it from other creative activities? How far has this notion of genius, of the artists as isolated individual influenced all our understanding of creativity? Is creativity something that can be taught? Is it something extra-ordinary? Or is it something that can be encouraged in everyone? How do we deal with the paradox of wanting to see the creative in everyone and having a sense of the genius, the individual who is extra-ordinarily creative?

c.f. Howard Gardner’s Extra-ordinary Minds: portraits of exceptional individuals and an examination of our Extraordinariness 1998


  • Early 20th century (analysis of creative processes)


Much of the debate in 20th century was around learning and education (see next session). The other main influence on thinking about creativity was the growth of psychoanalysis and the notion of the Unconscious; the inspiration of the Gods or Nature now replaced by the internal promptings of the unconscious mind. Freud’s notion of the unconscious brought the concept of creativity much closer to the idea of the individual experience of the world. Jung goes on to identify what he calls the collective unconscious, the archetypes, images and ideas shared by all mankind that might contribute to our creative process.

His thinking about creativity as something that can come from the dialogue between conscious design and unconscious thought begins to open up a new way of looking at the process. Wallas in The Art of Thought 1926 provides us with a model that builds on this. Creativity as a form of problem solving involving a combination of conscious thought and unconscious interventions.

The 4 stages (originally 5) of this process being:

  • Preparation
  • Incubation
  • Illumination
  • Verification

(c.f. Csikszentmihalyi’s five steps (Creativity, 1996) Notion of Flow

  • Preparation – becoming immersed in problematic issues that are interesting and arouses curiosity.
  • Incubation – ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness.
  • Insight – the “Aha!” moment when the puzzle starts to fall together.
  • Evaluation – deciding if the insight is valuable and worth pursuing.
  • Elaboration – translating the insight into its final work. )


  • Later 20th century/21st century (creativity and cultural hegemony)

Three things occur in later 20th century that make important contributions to current thinking:

The growth of cultural studies and cultural thinkers, such as Bourdieu, beginning to challenge Kantian concepts of Beauty in Art being somehow linked to an absolute aesthetic and claim that value in art is inextricably linked to its social, political and economic context.

Creativity is then not only about innate abilities in isolation from everything else; rather,  it is a matter of knowing how to play the game in the field of creativity. It is also about being culturally and socially literate (Bourdieu, 1993).

Creativity beginning to be spoken about in a wider, less art focused way. E.g. Maslow, suggests that “well-cooked soup is more creative than a second rate painting”, distinguishing special talent creativeness from self-actualising creativeness; people’s ability to be “natural” and open.       Deciding that creativity is something inherent in all of us, but gets lost and buried in some people because of their education, social contexts etc.

E.g. Carl Rogers, speaking of the child creating a new game with friends, the housewife devising a new sauce for the meat and Einstein formulating theory of relativity as different aspects of the creative. Also questioning whether creativity in itself is always a good thing – what about creating new weapons, or new forms of torture. Should we always applaud it? Rogers tries to describe the qualities that might lead to a creative person:

  • openness to experience and to ambiguity
  • possessing an internal locus of evaluative judgement as well as sense of the external
  • ability to toy with elements and concepts, follow hunches, explore lots of possibilities
  • Maybe also the desire to communicate ideas etc. with others, not to hide work away

Goes on to argue that we can create circumstances for it to happen through offering psychological safety to experiment, to fail, to try things out. Influences teaching.

and then looked at 

How creativity becomes elided with innovation. Birth of the Creative Industries. Capitalism and Western Democracy need invention and innovation, need us to keep one-step ahead, and creativity needs to be something everyone has access to. In the Demos report The Creative Age Seltzer and Bentley clarify the link in an “information” based economy between creativity and the creation of a flexible workforce. Thinking about creativity is seen as a response to rapidly changing social, economic and technological change. (Is it so different to the other periods we have looked at in this sense?)

Creativity becomes the domain of management, technology, science, marketing, design, IT, advertising, life style….

Creativity is possible in all areas of human activity, including the arts, sciences, at work, at play and in all other areas of daily life. All people have creative abilities and we all have them differently. When individuals find their creative strengths, it can have an enormous impact on self-esteem and on overall achievement. All Our Futures 2000

We noted how, from 1950s on, we also see the rise of self-help management books in the management field in particular that begin to promote the value of creative thinking for managers and for the workforce, especially in terms of creative problem solving, e.g. De Bono ‘s six hat exercises, notions of lateral thinking, thinking outside the box.

Governments in Western democracies begin to focus on exploring ways of teaching that increase creativity, nurture the creative individual. Paradoxically in UK, National Curriculum, SATs and more central control of education introduced at the same stage.


We looked at two Alternative/Additional Explanations of how creativity works

  • Koestler: Art of Creation. Three domains of creativity and three types of creative individual, the jester, the sage and the poet. They work on the principles of two different frames meeting but creating a new sense (bisociation) e.g. in poetry they are metaphor and simile, in humour two things coming together that we don’t expect, in science the Eureka moment of realising the connection between what might have seemed two very disparate things.


Ha-ha Aha Ah…


  • The impact of neuro-science. See Susan Greenfield on youtube or look at Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity. Dietrich Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 2004, 11 (6), 1011-10262004

Four basic types of creative insight, each mediated by a distinctive neural circuit. Creative insights can be the result of two processing modes, deliberate and spontaneous, each of which can guide neural computation in structures that contribute emotional content and in structures that provide cognitive analysis. Crossing the two processing modes with the type of information yields the four basic types of creativity.


  • Deliberate cognitive needs expertise as part of it need to have knowledge of field. e.g. in science where domain knowledge is needed much more – may account for why many can appreciate creative expression whereas scientific innovation/discovery is much more specialised.
  • Deliberate emotional as in say in psychotherapy, more universal as it draws on these kinds of experience we may all have.
  • Spontaneous cognitive often caused by going away from/resting from the problem, the thinking then just happens the penny drops whatever, lots of scientific discovery happens here.
  • Spontaneous emotional – allowing response to something like Picasso’s Guernica and or Coleridge’s (drug-induced?) Kubla Khan not domain specific but both require skill to enable them to come about happen. Creative insights do not require specialised knowledge but their expression does – have to have the skills to do it – Picasso had these skills as well as the spontaneous emotional insight.

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We examined two voices of dissent

  • Roger Scruton in “What is Creativity” 2001 returns to Kantian ideas of high art and absolute aesthetics in opposition to notion of free expression: against people not knowing the “rules”.       In a comparison of Mozart and Tracey Emin – the male genius and the untamed female artist “without skills”, he berates the:

“..liturgy of opposition has developed in the theory of education: sensitivity versus routine, spontaneity versus rules, imagination versus rote-learning, innovation versus conformity… the face of all the evidence educationalists go on telling us that children learn not by conforming to some external standard, but by releasing their inner  potential and expressing themselves.” Rejecting the “myth that we are all creative” he goes on to say that “real originality does not defy convention but depends on it. You can  only ‘make it new’ when the newness is perceivable, which means departing from conventions while at the same time confirming them.”


  • John Tusa

On Creativity: Interviews Exploring the Process (2003): “‘Creative’, ‘creation’ and ‘creativity’ are some of the most overused and ultimately debased words in the language. Stripped of any special significance by a generation of bureaucrats, civil servants, managers and politicians, lazily used as political margarine to spread approvingly and inclusively over any activity with a non-material element to it, the word ‘creative’ has become almost unusable. Politics and the ideology of ordinariness, the wish not to put anyone down, the determination not to exalt the exceptional, the culture of over-sensitivity, of avoiding hurt have seen to that.”


And conducted our daily debate.

Why is there such an emphasis on creativity within learning? Why is everyone from the UNESCO down focused on creative learning? What is driving the need for us to have young people who are creative? What might be the role of the artist in bringing this about? What if the creativity that she/he brings about questions/challenges social, political educational norms?  Who is driving the agenda?




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