The creative process is more than one giant leap for humankind



Andrys Onsman, University of Melbourne

Despite its ubiquity, creativity remains a contentious and ill-defined concept, with a long history of propositions and contestations.

At best, there is a broad consensus that creativity involves a human process that leads to an innovative product. Much of the contention about defining the creative process results from the central place given to a significant event – the so-called “creative leap”, a sudden insight that is almost immediately recognised as the key to creating something new.

The problem is that for the most part, the recognition is necessarily retrospective and consequently unreliable: even the creator who is aware that a creative act has occurred may be unable to articulate how (or why) it occurred. Keith Richards grabbed the riff to Satisfaction out of thin air, apparently.

Look before you leap

The notion of a leap suggests the crossing of a gap, with an implied corollary of it being a leap into the unknown. More formally, a creative leap refers to an unexpected association that crosses knowledge domains.

There seems to be little doubt that, in the first instance, the creative process is both cognitive and affective.

Initially the idea-forming process involves propositions and responses (“if-then” statements) that draw on existing knowledge. But the creation of something new involves not only creative leaps but also cognition and reasoning, and some level of capacity for expertise.

If you think Picasso’s Cubism is naff, you’ll probably like (and be surprised by) his earlier work, which was much more representational. He refers to that early period as “learning his craft”. The creative work came later.

Pablo Picasso’s Studio with a Plaster Head, 1925.
Wally Gobetz/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Expertise and creativity

Learning the craft generally means mastering the things that artists are expected to be able to – even if they don’t always choose to do them.

Artists are expected to have a level of expertise commensurate with their artistry: even if experts aren’t always expected to be artists.

Experts are adept at seeing the underlying structure of a problem, and easily select appropriate procedures for solving it should the problem falls inside their area of expertise. This expertise is acquired through repetitive practice that establishes neural pathways and/ or muscle memories.

Creativity, on the other hand, involves the access of cross-domain knowledge and previously untried procedural steps. Experts possess, and can readily access, extensive and highly integrated sub-domains in their areas of expertise where the layman will have one larger less sophisticated domain.

Here the scale of creativity becomes apparent: ranging from a creative leap made by an expert that is so small that only other experts will recognise it as such, to watershed epiphanies that change the world forever. Nonetheless, each is a leap and each is creative in that it deviates from a standardised procedure.

Creative thinking

We generally accept that creative thinking involves both an affective or generative aspect and a cognitive or evaluative aspect, which involves the association of seemingly random, disparate ideas as potential solutions, the latter to the likely success of that association.

The affective component is considered intuitive and artistic while the cognitive aspect aligns closely with critical thinking, solving the problem, making decisions, judging and evaluating.

But thinking, as an inclusive neurological function, does not itself distinguish between cognitive and affective aspects. Because creativity is fundamentally product-centric, the creator constantly makes evaluative and selective judgements, and at times compromises.

That process depends on both raising a possibility and evaluating its likely efficacy, and ends with (or without) a product that is usually offered for public critique (in the Hegelian sense).

Is the creative process actually ‘creative’?

At this point creativity runs into an obstacle. How can something be “creative” if, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asserts, creativity is simply a post hoc consensual agreement among those whose judgments are accepted as expert opinion rather than an individual aspiration?

Van Goghs creativity was unappreciated during his lifetime.
jan.tito/Flickr, CC BY

American political analyst Thomas Frank is another who argues that innovation and creativity exist “only when the correctly credentialed hive-mind agrees that it does”.

As such creativity is far from being fixed: dependent on neither the creator nor the creation. Certainly, history is littered with products whose creative worth has risen and fallen apropos changing opinion and zeitgeist.

Vincent van Gogh’s paintings famously failed to win over the critics of his time: a judgment subsequently reversed.

I may not know much about art but if anyone has a Picasso or van Gogh they want to give me, I’m willing to bow to peer pressure and accept that their work is very, very creative.

Read other articles in our Creativity series here.

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