#@$% Creativity — Let’s Hear It For Execution!
The Irish painter Francis Bacon once complained that “Everybody likes Vermeer, except me. He doesn’t mean anything. He has no significance.” Bacon is obviously being combative, but artists and critics do that — it’s a thing — and he’s not wrong that Vermeer was unknown until centuries too late to influence anyone other than filmmakers. But did he really mean that he truly doesn’t like Vermeer?
Not exactly. He meant something stronger than that, actually. It’s such an amazing thing for a painter to say that it can go right past you. He’s not really talking about Vermeer — he’s saying that he does not like paintings. “Nothing personal, Johannes, but a painting has no value except insofar as it is on the path to something else.” If you heard someone say “Oh, I’d never date X because X has no hot friends” would you have any doubt that the person not only doesn’t care much for X but also isn’t that into X’s entire gender?
If you know Bacon’s work, the quote is not all that incredible, but it would surprise a lot of people to learn that it’s a good summary of the default stance of critics of contemporary art for the last four generations. Bacon’s remark is the 20th Century’s aesthetic of originality distilled to its purest essence.
The Origin of Originality
We’ve all been raised to think of originality as the sine qua non of art, but that notion only took flight within the lifetime of the oldest people who are still with us. As a popular notion it arose in the aftermath of the First World War, which once and for all broke the immemorial power of the European aristocracies, destroyed four of the five empires that had dominated Europe, and left the fifth (The British Empire) an invalid. In those bloody four years, the influence of the Academies, which had been the aesthetic arm of the ruling class, vanished in a puff of high-explosives smoke, leaving an artistic vacuum that has still not been completely filled a century later.
By 1918 the old structures were laid waste and the revolutionary spirit was spreading across Europe, with Russia already in flames. It was a time of both hope and rage; in art as in life, there was little for the young person of spirit between the reactionary and the revolutionary.
Modernism at that moment was not exactly new — it had been around, known mostly to insiders, for a generation, but it caught fire in that instant when art became as much about revolution as about paint. To be sure, there were some very fine modernist painters, but Modern Art’s greater purpose was simply to not be that old thing, to be a bridge to the new world. The newness of Modernism was not incidental; it was it was its essential nature.
We no longer appreciate today how revolutionary this was. Prior to the collapse of the Academies, artists, both inside and outside of the academy, came in schools, like fish. Until the great collapse, originality had always been a grace note in art — something artists wanted a dash of. It was not the essence. Mastery rather than originality, was the dominant concern. Young artists, even artists of the avant-garde, had always consciously adopted and mastered a style, typically that of an admired older artist. It was the younger artist’s goal to exceed rather than to supplant the master.
That abruptly changed after WW1. “Derivative,” critic-speak meaning art deriving from the work of another, suddenly became the most damning word in art criticism. To continue in the tradition of another was suddenly career poison.
The most obvious problem with the elevation of originality to primary status is that novelty and mastery are inherently incompatible. Making newness a legitimizing principle also puts artists in a practical bind. Each generation in turn must up the ante without severing the chain of styles from which their cultural legitimacy derives. The style must be new, yet connected organically to what went before. This is where Bacon’s quote is coming from, an intellectual milieu where not to be new was to be part of the dying world that was being left behind, to be a nobody.
Above is the Google N-gram for the word “creativity.” It’s as if the word was coined at the Armistice. It’s entirely a post-WW1 concept. That simply wasn’t how people thought about art before the empires fell.
Art was warfare in those heady days and originality the bullets, but after four generations, originality has suffered an ignominious fate. Once the proud clarion call of political and cultural revolution, originality and creativity are now ossified cultural dogma preached by Sesame Street, the subject of the professional educator’s relentless platitudes, the hoariest cliche of corporate-backed mass culture, an empty meme left over from a century-old political conflict that is now as close in time to the Napoleonic Wars as to our own day. Decade after decade it remains stuck in everyone’s head that originality is the cardinal cultural virtue and it slops over into a culture-wide reflex that “creative” is good and everything else is just working for a living.
Ah, The Irony
The irony is that in a mathematical sense, despite decades of relentless emphasis on creativity, the proportion of creativity and originality in culture has never been lower. Sure, there’s a certain amount of new culture around every year but however much there is, the part that individual creativity plays is the total newness divided by largest number of people who have ever lived, multiplied by the unprecedented increase in the proportion of the population who are rich enough to be able to enter non-remunerative professions. Some new art culture is practically unavoidable on a planet where Brooklyn alone probably holds more artists than existed in the entire European Renaissance but given the number of artists in the world, this is clearly not a fertile moment for art. It’s not even a fertile moment compared to more recent eras like the half century bounded by the PreRaphaelites in 1848 and the dawn of Modernism at the turn of the century.
Creativity is a red herring. We obsess over it, but the true genius of our age is not creativity, but execution, primarily engineering but also management, and design. Engineering either underlies or enables virtually everything in the modern world that is worth having, playing with, or looking at, yet if engineering is about one thing, it is about reducing creativity to the bare minimum required to solve a given problem, ideally, to zero. Creative engineering solutions are expensive, poorly understood, half-baked, and risky. A true engineer never invents anything that can be taken off the shelf, and never computes anything that can be looked up because the known solutions have been proven and refined ad nauseum. An engineer can think as creatively as any artist but has the discipline not to noodle around when a solution to the problem has already been found and tested.
Engineering rigor, not creativity, has driven the price of almost everything to crazy lows while boosting the quality of the artifacts we produce to unprecedented highs and simultaneously boosting productivity, i.e., the amount of stuff and services we jointly generate and share, to levels that were science fiction a generation ago. After 40 years of inflation, a TV now not only costs less in absolute, non-inflation-adjusted dollars than a TV did in 1980 but is now seven feet wide and two inches thick, with invisibly fine resolution. It also gets an uncountable number of channels and every video source known to the Internet. You can play with your computer on it — you know, the computer that is 10,000 times more powerful and costs 2% as much as the one you bought in 1980. They don’t make cars like they used to? Thank God. Cars used to get 5 miles per gallon and were junk after 80,000 miles. For the first time in history, it’s rare to die young, yet almost within living memory, it was rare to die old. Why? A little of it is medicine but the other 90% is sewer systems, clean water and the ability to farm, refrigerate and transport adequate wholesome food. That would be engineering, engineering, and engineering, respectively. Without the perfection of nitrogen fixing technology just before WW1, the food-growing capacity of the earth would have topped out at enough for about 1.5 billion people before declining rapidly. 1.5 billion is about one fifth of today’s mostly overfed world population.
So accustomed are we to admiring creativity in theory that we mentally impose it on everything that we admire, even though originality, per se, is almost never what impresses. For example: We all admire the slashing Expressionist brushstroke seemingly tossed off without a thought in a rage of creation. Yet those brushstrokes may well be the attribute of modern painting that is most opposite of spontaneity, in that they only becomes possible through repeating the gesture so often that it is virtually automatic.
Originality Isn’t Even a Real Thing
The irony of it all can make you cry. Creativity and originality are to art what ether was to 19th C. physics, an abstraction devised to account for phenomena that did not quite fit into the accepted framework for understanding the world. The very concept is defective but we’ve abused it so thoroughly that to leave the word out of praise is damning.
If creativity and originality are real, please show me something important that exhibits them. I won’t wait. Originality disappears when you look close like the image in a Pointillist painting. I love art. I’m an artist myself but when you drop the sentimentality, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of the works of even the most “original” artists cannot be possibly be regarded as original in the sense of presenting something new. It’s not a criticism, just a fact. The bulk of any artist’s lifetime production of work consists of repetitions or minor elaborations and improvements upon earlier works. Maybe at the beginning there is a kernel of something undeniably original in a body of work, or maybe there isn’t, but we recognize the work of significant artists precisely because the works imitate themselves again and again through the years. It’s not a bad thing! A single “original” painting never makes a career, nor should it. The originality is typically repeated hundreds or thousands of time to develop something meaningful, and the gathered meaning works backwards through time to legitimize its origins. Somewhere in the process the apparent originality pops out of nothing. Moreover, the roots of even that tiny kernel of potential originality are often dubious. Consider Jackson Pollock, who was about as kick-ass original as any painter of the last century. There had never been anyone quite like him. Really? Flip through the works of his teacher, the Regionalist realist painter Thomas Hart Benton and tell me if you still think Pollock’s compositions or use of color were original.
This is not a bad thing; indeed, it cannot possibly be any other way. If any measurable fraction of the worlds creative output were actually new, life would be an intolerable torrent of the incomprehensible.
The inappropriateness of the concept is especially true in the performing arts, which are the arts that by far enjoy the widest and most cultivated fan base. It’s hard to say this without sounding disparaging because we’ve so over-freighted the idea of creativity, but performance is execution by definition — musicians and actors are overwhelmingly executors, not creators. When musicians are creative, they are called composers, not musicians. If acting were creative it would be extemporaneous play-writing. It’s not — it’s performing. Even musical forms that involve jamming aren’t truly creative for the most part. Jamming, like design, is a matter of fluency, not originality. It’s about dynamic selection from a finite set of options. It’s beautiful, but creative is the wrong word. It’s the aural equivalent of the bravura brushstroke; totally spontaneous if you forget the 10,000 hours of practice it took to make it look easy and natural. To call it “creative” is to miss its essence. Yet we are pushed to think of excellence in execution as creative because to imply that something is not creative is to disparage it.
Why Encourage It?
None of this is to say that creativity is bad — it has its place — but why encourage it, let alone make a fetish of it? Creativity doesn’t need encouragement, in fact, encouragement doesn’t help. Few things will suppress the creativity of a talented young person more effectively than the enthusiasm of the representatives of a trillion-dollar educational and media establishment. Originality can only stay in front of the hydra-headed the trans-national media machine for a blink.
For the ordinary rest of us, creative thinking is often a sign of bad planning and lack of knowledge or skill. This is overwhelmingly true in business and engineering, where there is a well-studied best practice for almost every problem. Nevertheless, a century of cultural indoctrination has led to a state of affairs in which the highest praise in business is that someone “thinks outside the box” even though the need to think outside the box is usually provoked by someone’s failure to think inside the box.
The educational/media establishment with its Sesame Street political platitudes from Great Great Grandma’s day has now trained four generations to think that creativity is what it’s all about; that mere excellence is for grunts. We’ve built a vast bureaucracy and a vested cultural establishment to pound the lesson into young heads. Yet it should be obvious that an alliance of public servants and giant media companies can’t raise revolutionaries — they’re revolutionaries, duh. Not doing what they were raised to do is their defining trait. What you get instead is legions of regular people trained to think that mastery is always second fiddle.
Why don’t we teach the boys and girls some real values for a change? Instead of reflexively glorifying creativity, teach them to take pride in mastering hard skills. Make the competent the heroes for a change. It’s not as if you’ll thereby be injuring the potentially creative; mastery of skills is the mother of creativity. In the unusual event that creativity ever is called for, those who have it in them won’t need encouragement; they’ll just do it. We should celebrate the people who make things and make things happen for a change. Reward mastery and let creativity fend for itself.