Q&A: What Is Not Creativity?

Many people who speak or write on the subject of creativity refer to standard definitions of the term that are found in many different dictionaries and encyclopedia. The Wikipedia, for instance, states:

Is Nature Creative?

Is Nature Creative?

Creativity refers to the phenomenon whereby a person creates something new (a product, solution, artwork, literary work, joke, etc.) that has some kind of value.

I first saw this definition of creativity in a book by Sir Ken Robinson. At a certain point he seemed to get fed up with the lousy definition and substituted the term “divergent thinking” for the word “creativity” to describe the human creative mental process. This begs the question of understanding creativity itself, as it is possible to be a divergent thinker without actually creating anything. The Wikipedia definition struck me as so shockingly bad that any discussion of creativity would need to start by completely redefining the word. I was also curious as to how a word that has so much importance had degraded so badly. By analyzing the definition we can in fact uncover many of the misconceptions about creativity that prevent us from understanding it.

1. Creativity is a process, not a “phenomenon”.

The phrase, “Creativity is the phenomenon whereby a person creates something new…” uses the word, “create” to define “creativity”. This is like saying that: “Baking refers to the phenomenon whereby a person bakes something.”In addition, the word “phenomenon” does not apply to the verb “to create”. Creating, like baking, is a process not a phenomenon.

2. No objective observer exists to judge the result of a creative process and the result cannot define the process or agent.

The phrase, “ has some kind of value” is also absurd. During Van Gogh’s lifetime he was not able to sell enough paintings to live on the income. After he was dead the paintings became worth millions of dollars. Did Van Gogh become creative after he was dead? In fact, anything that is truly innovative is likely to encounter difficulty in being accepted. For this reason, the word “value” would be applied in retrospect. Other creative actions, such as imaginative play, make no attempt at financial success. The level of creativity that goes into play certainly cannot be judged by remuneration.

3. Creativity is not a specialization.

The phrase: “something new…a product, solution, artwork, literary work, joke, etc…” implies that creativity is useful in a limited, specialized and exceptional area of life and not a universally vital necessity. This narrow definition is in stark contrast to the universal need for creativity in education, business and society that is being proposed today. The term, “something new,” is also problematic. “New to whom?” we may ask.

4. Creativity does not describe a human psychological condition.

The definition indicates that creativity is a purely human enterprise and does not exist anywhere else in the universe. The primary reason for the failure of the definition is rooted in the futile attempt to describe creativity in terms of human psychology. Theodule Armand Ribot in his “Essay on the Creative Imagination”, (1900) attempted to describe imagination at the service of creativity. While imagination is a feature of human psychology, creativity describes a process, not a mental condition.

The current definition of creativity not only fails to shed any light on its nature, but also actively obfuscates the term. Creativity is viewed as a pastime for a small set of individuals sitting off in a corner and tinkering with things in the hope that some mysterious “phenomenon” will yield a marketable product. Such a distorted view makes it impossible to understand or develop creativity within our educational system, corporate environments, or society as a whole. It is necessary to completely rethink our ideas about creativity in order to even begin to insert it into our cultural worldview.

My own definitions of creativity are these:

Creativity in nature is the fourth feature of the physical world.

The physical world has four attributes: time space, energy, and creativity. Creativity is the tendency for the other three attributes, (time, space and energy), to form increasingly complex patterns.

Human Creativity is the process of manifesting an idea in the physical world.

To me, it is absurd to propose that human creativity arose from nothing and is a unique phenomenon in the universe. Human creativity is distinct from nature because all human knowledge is fundamentally symbolic. Humans must translate experience into some form of language, (this includes mathematics, musical notation and design as well as written or spoken languages), before manipulating it into new combinations. These new combinations of symbols are then expressed as actions or artifacts.

By correctly defining creativity, we can better understand our relationship with the universe and with basic reality. We can then begin to redefine other terms such as imagination, intelligence and language. All of these terms are connected to creativity and cannot be understood as separate mental processes.

The Nature of Creativity

Folded Spiral 600Introduction

The world is calling out for more creativity in education, business and society. With so much depending on this fundamental aspect of human intelligence, it’s imperative to understand that our current definition of creativity is so flawed that we are not able to grasp it’s meaning, and are therefore hindered to make effective changes.

Our lack of clarity regarding creativity is caused by historical shifts in the understanding and defining of basic reality. Classical Greek philosophy envisioned the natural world as the physical expression of a greater ideal reality. In order to align their artistic, scientific, and philosophical ideas with the natural world, they sought to understand the formal structure that lay beneath material appearances. The Age of Reason took us on a path of separating observations of the physical world from any abstract notion of form or idea. In our own century, scientists have rediscovered that reality is actually made of pattern and form rather than substance and presents us with relative rather than absolute truths. Given this history, it’s no wonder we are confused as to the meaning of creativity and its role in nature.

Kurt Wenner proposes a profound and all-encompassing insight about the source of creativity and its great power to transform the world and our relationship to it. He will explain how a clear and incisive understanding of the creative process is essential in order to understand our historical misconceptions so that we can construct a new paradigm. Because creativity is what enables ideas to become manifest in the physical world, it is an essential component both of nature and of human experience. Only through understanding the essential structure of creativity can we make meaningful and effective changes in contemporary thought.

Kurt Wenner has spent a lifetime working within the arts and education. His artwork has been seen in more than 30 countries and he travels the globe for exhibits and talks. Wenner received the Kennedy Center Medallion for his work in arts education.


Part 1- Creativity in Nature

Artist Kurt Wenner, will talk about the meaning of creativity, not as an anomalous function of the human brain, but as an all-encompassing feature of the universe. In the same way that we can describe physical entities in terms of finite mathematical relationships between time, space, and energy, we can also describe them in terms of pattern. Predictability, which is the foundation of science, is pattern, and pattern is intelligence. Because any pattern of energy embodies universal creative principles it also has innate creative potential. Patterns of energy accumulate, transform and influence each other.

If we set aside the phrase laws of nature and Euclid’s postulates, then everything in the universe has meaning. The laws of nature should in fact be called the creative principles of nature and geometry should be understood as a diagrammatic expression of energetic relationships. Geometry is what allows us to see nature think.

Creativity is the manifestation of an idea in the physical world and the creative process of the universe is as predictable and rational as any natural law. When atomic elements form molecules or life alters its environment to create a balance, or when life becomes self-aware and creates its own reality, it is all part of the vast creative potential of the universe.

By understanding the creative principles within nature we can align our own works with the formal structure and patterns that are at play in the universe. This releases us from struggling with random and ill-informed designs, products, and structures that strive for novelty, but fight against the greater energetic flow that is all around us.

Part 2- The Structure of Creativity

A leading speaker in the field of arts education, Kurt Wenner, understands creativity like no other. He knows that when creativity is discussed it is treated as an ethereal, intuitive quality, which is impossible to understand. In reality, there are two aspects of creativity, the creative idea and the creative process. The creative idea is not a part of the physical world and therefore defies verbal definition. The creative process, however, is very clear and straightforward. The properties of duality, relationship, proportion and symmetry form the basis for all natural and human creative activity. The musical scale, the proportions of architecture, the attributes of color and sound, along with the structure of seashells and crystals are all defined by the same formal qualities.

It is the formal and organizational qualities in an entity that contain the essence of further creative development. Crystals can grow, organisms can reproduce and humans can think because patterns of energy are ectropic. This means that when energy is patterned, it attains the potential to accumulate and pattern “loose” energy. A pattern of energy can absorb more loose energy than it consumes, which enables growth or transformation. Ultimately it is the recognition of our kinship with other patterns of energy in the natural world that inspires empathy, aesthetics, and even love.

The 21st century has given us amazing new tools with which we can create radically innovative works of art, music, entertainment and architecture. By understanding the structure of creativity itself, we can make better use of computer graphics, digital technology, 3D modeling and printing, as well as a host of other new technologies that are underused because of our limited conceptual abilities.


Part 3- Human Creativity

In this talk, Kurt Wenner will compare the qualities of human creativity to those of the natural world. Human creativity is tied to creativity in the natural world by the formal qualities of duality, relationship, proportion and symmetry. But human creativity also has a distinctive quality not seen in the natural world. This uniqueness is due to the metaphorical nature of human thought. We see the world in terms of symbols and we organize great hierarchies of symbols to develop languages.

Language encompasses not only oral and written conventions, but includes music, drawing, dance, mathematics, and scientific notation. Because symbols have a metaphorical relationship to what they describe, all human thought expressed in any form of language is metaphorical. The symbol cannot be the object described, but only have a conceptual link to it. We can therefore observe reality in a pure state as in meditation, but the moment we describe our experience we are working with symbols and therefore creating a metaphor.

Often a linguistic representation is the most important part of the human creative process. A musical score is not a symphony, a blueprint is not a house, and a written play is not a performance, but all of them are creations. They already belong to the physical world because ideas have been expressed in terms of language. Symbols have an immense power for us, which causes us to forget their origin and thereby confuse our representations with reality.

When we forget the metaphorical nature of our creations, our discoveries become rules and conventions; fixed and static decrees of society that prevent further exploration. When this happens, creativity must reassert itself, awakening the direct connection between humanity, nature, and reality. Creativity can then strip away convention and allow us to regain our roles as protagonists in the drama of existence.