The Problem of Creativity

Today is Thursday, Thor’s day, I suppose, according to the old beliefs of the Norse gods. There was a time, really not that long ago in terms of the Universe’s perspective, when quite a lot of people believed that Thor and his kinsfolk existed, bumbling about here on earth, as well as quarreling in Valhalla and out among the stars. Something like that. Someone created that story, long ago. That original storyteller could never have imagined Thor turning up in a movie in the 21st century. Creativity, after all, can only go so far.

Creativity is an odd, elusive thing. It can’t be measured or quantified in any way. It can’t be bought or sold or traded. It can’t be given and it can’t be stolen. If I’m in a grumpy enough mood, I’d even argue that creativity also cannot be learned.

Creativity is not the same as craft. Craft can be learned, and it should be learned well. Craft is the mechanics of doing something. You hold the brush in such and such a way, dip it into black paint, and then draw a vertical line two inches long, a second one parallel two inches away, and then connect the two at top and bottom with two other lines of black. Voila, a square. That’s craft.

Craft, in writing, is knowing your grammar, understanding how to compose an honest paragraph, knowing how to develop tension, draw a character, delve in themes and philosophy. None of that is creativity itself. Craft is very worthwhile, don’t lose sight of that, but it is not creativity.

Creativity is the extra spark. The unidentifiable spark. It is the infusion of spirit that brings the lifeless, clay golem to its feet. Creativity is the ability to tilt one’s head back, look at the blank ceiling, and imagine God touching Man’s fingertip.

What exactly happened on that ceiling when God touched Man’s fingertip?

It is at this point that the question of creativity has the choice of two roads, and only two roads. The world can be seen through very few points of view when it comes down to it, regardless of all the modern chatter of diversity. Two points of view, actually, two roads, two answers to the question of creativity’s origin.

One point of view is naturalism. The second point of view is supernaturalism. For sake of simplicity, I’ll bundle quite a lot into the latter category, everything from Hinduism, Islam, tribal animism, etcetera, all the way to Christianity (there’s a whole other argument about creativity to be made within the context of the different strains of supernaturalism, but that’s for another day).

Naturalism, of course, is the scientific prism, that matter is everything, and that nothing exists that is not matter, that it is all contained within the box of the Universe. Evolution of life is contained within that box, both macro and micro, beginning with a big bang, or, perhaps, a series of big bangs, depending on who you’re talking with. Creativity, however, does not rest comfortably in that box. Naturalism presupposes that choices, intellect, taste, impulses, and emotions are merely the result of chemical reactions. Dvorak’s New World Symphony? The notes and the interpretation of the notes, both on the musician’s side and on the listener’s side, are simply an interplay of chemicals. Van Gogh’s Starry Night, again, is the result of chemicals reacting, and not just in the paints. The child’s awe and delight in a flowery burst of fireworks against the night sky (not unlike Van Gogh’s painting) is, once again, all chemical.

How does naturalism answer the question of creativity? It cannot, other than by theorizing that it is merely the result of chemicals. It’s a dreary answer for a vibrant question and, as soon as it is voiced, it begs another equally important question. If creativity is simply the result of natural, chemical processes, of what value is the painting, the symphony, or the book? The only honest answer is nothing. A story that is only the result of chemical reactions is a story without meaning. If everything exists and continues existing because of chemicals combining and recombining, is there really any meaning in Anna Karenina’s choices? If she is a tragic character in the context of naturalism, wouldn’t she just as well be a character of comedy? Tragedy has no meaning when defined by the periodic table. Comedy as well is equally tragic or equally dull. Likewise, the writer who exists solely because he is only the result of chemical reactions is a writer without meaning.

Why then would an artist who subscribes to naturalism spend time creating? I suspect there is an answer, but I cannot state it definitively, as I do not believe in naturalism as the be-all and end-all of the Universe. However, if everything that is and will be is merely the result of hydrogen atoms and their kin melding and mixing and exploding and generally behaving as elements do, then the Universe suddenly becomes a cold and lonely place. And, in such a place, I would imagine there’s a painful need to gather around the fire at night and tell some stories. Stories, after all, attempt to make sense of things. They assign meaning, and there’s a great deal of meaning missing from the picture if life is solely defined by naturalism. Stories, I suspect, also occupy one’s mind and prevent it from thinking about the deep, dark cold places between the stars and why they’re there, and where are we going, and what is that uneasy feeling in my soul that sometimes stirs during a sleepless night?

The second possible answer to the question of creativity’s origin is supernaturalism. That brings us back to the Sistine Chapel and God reaching his finger down toward Man. That’s the second answer, spoken quite ably by Michelangelo without words. I cannot improve upon his thesis, so I’ll leave the argument as he left it, standing below that ceiling and gazing up.

2 thoughts on “The Problem of Creativity”

    1. Thanks. I could go on and on about this topic. Seems like there are layers and layers of issues to discuss that revolve around the question of what creativity is, and what it means. I love stuff like this. If I could find a university that offers graduate work in this direction, I’d be off in a shot.

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