On this "How to be Creative" page:
- how the Ancient Greeks and especially Plato gave creativity a bad name
- where the idea of "genius" came from (hint: they were Roman)
- the Middle Ages and how being artistic was about work and experience, not talent
- the Renaissance to today, and how being artistic gradually turned into an idea of "talent"
- the four stages to the creative process that scientists today have identified
Plato has an idea.
How can we be creative?
It's a question that has haunted mankind since the first Neanderthal with low self-esteem looked at a cave wall, thinking he would like to draw a dinosaur on it.
Let's begin by taking a look at the history of the idea of creativity as it links to drawing and painting.
Curiously enough, the idea of creativity in connection with art has not been around that long in mankind's long history. The Ancient Greeks, probably one of the most influential and artistically flourishing cultures that ever were, certainly didn't put the two together. In fact, when asked if it could be said that a painter makes something, Plato responded succinctly in The Republic: "Certainly not, he merely imitates."
"Diogenes Bringing a Plucked Chicken to Plato", by an unknown 19C painter. Far from infallible, Plato had unwisely defined Man as a "featherless biped". His rival philosophier Diogenese the Cynic then presented him with the hapless bird, saying "Here is Plato's man."
Plato did connect creativity to other realms, speaking of
creative people as either possessed or just plain nuts. How so? Like other Ancient Greeks, he believed that divine inspiration took hold of creative people through the intervention of the Muses. Nine in number, each of these goddesses had her own specialty: history, lyric song, tragedy, dance, sacred song, astronomy and even erotic poetry - in case you're wondering, she's Erato in the pictures below! The tenth figure is Apollo, as they supposedly had the gift of prophecy as well.
The Ancient Romans also didn't have to figure out how to be creative; everyone had guiding spirits called their "genius". Remarkable people were thought to have remarkable geniuses, which is why today "genius" means inspired talent.
The one idea that was common to both cultures, however, was that of creativity coming from the heavens and not from Man. This was a notion that would transfer without a hitch into Judeo-Christian thinking.
In the Middle Ages drawing and painting were still considered mere crafts, that anyone could learn - and most definitely detached from being creative or learning how to be creative. Workers in artist workshops had huge books of models to copy when they needed to create a drawing or painting, and replaced each other and the master craftsman in starting or finishing artworks that often bore no signature. They underwent many years of apprenticeship to learn their technical skills, which were considered just that - technical skills - before reaching the status of craftsman, and then master craftsman.
We have learned much about these skills from one of the medieval master craftsmen: the Italian Cennino Cennini, who wrote a manual called Il libro dell'arte (in English, The Craftman's Handbook). Cennini had this to say about why apprentices wished to become artists:
It is not without the impulse of a lofty spirit that some are moved to enter this profession, attractive to them through natural enthusiasm. Their intellect will take delight in drawing, provided their nature attracts them to it of themselves, without any master's guidance, out of loftiness of spirit. And through this delight, they come to want to find a master; and they bind themselves to him with respect for authority, undergoing an apprenticeship in order to achieve perfection in all this. There are those who pursue it, because of povert and domestic need, for profit and enthusiasm for the profession too; but above all these are to be extolled, the ones who enter the profession through a sense of enthusiasm and exaltation.
Interestingly, he didn't mention "creativity" or "talent" once.
The Renaissance brought a new world view to the West, with Man at the center of the universe, not God. With this came a shift in how master draughtsmen and painters were perceived and perceived themselves. Credit was given increasingly for individual ability and artworks were associated with their creators. By the 18th century Age of Enlightenment it had become common for artists to sign their works. Salons were invented at about this time, creating an art market; paintings began to be given titles. Neo-Classicism followed shortly thereafter, the Ancient Greek and Roman ideas of a private Muse bringing divine inspiration were revived, and artists created because they had talent and genius - not because they had learned how to be creative, and even less because they had simply worked hard.
The 19th century brought Romanticism and the idea of the tormented artist wrestling with his soul to find how to be creative. The period also brought Darwinism and the first serious study of differences between individuals, as well as of creativity.
Today it is understood that in seeking how to be creative or find creative solutions to problems, individuals go through four stages:
Preparation: the individual focuses on the problem and explores it
Incubation: the individual sets aside and apparently forgets the problem, and the unconscious mind takes over
Illumination: this is the "aha" or "eureka" moment when the creative idea breaks into conscious awareness
Verification: the individual consciously checks and elaborates the creative idea before applying it