Creativity is…

For my automation fellowship I am investigating the topic of creativity and automation/AI. Here are a few thoughts about where I’m starting from.

The idea of creativity is a slippery one. In general use it is probably most often identified as a quality or capacity of individuals, and that some are ‘naturally’ blessed with more of it than others. That’s the first thing I have doubts about — even if I agree there are myriad differences between individuals who ‘create’. This idea of a ‘natural’ quantum of creativity you are born with is in need of scrutiny.

As to what this quality is exactly, again the commonsense idea could be labelled as ‘romantic’ — as influenced by the powerful legacy of romantic painters, poets, novelists, composers etc. in the 19th century who were breaking out of strictures and prescriptions of making work that have since been understood  as ‘neo-classical’, i.e. as overly formal, rational, old-fashioned, ‘establishment’, etc. Hence my banner image of Gustave Courbet’s self-portrait from his very ‘romantic’ (if maybe a bit ironic) period in the 1840s. As a friend once said, it looks like the model for 1970s rock album covers.

Creativity in this romantic vein is: deeply personal, wells up from profound depths of the psyche, is spontaneous, intuitive, resistant to analysis, a ‘divine spark’, comes from a mystical ‘muse’, yada yada. Creative art bears the power of the unique individual, liberated from social/institutional constrictions, and expresses individual meaning, feeling, response to the outside world. A book by Catherine Belsey I read as an English lit undergrad in the 1980s called this the ‘expressive-realist’ idea of creativity which I think is a good description (Critical Practice, 1980, 2002).

There was a cultural protest and even political dimension to some romantic artists, and to the philosophers/thinkers supporting this kind of approach to cultural making in the 19thC, so one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater here. You don’t get much of that, however in mainstream ideas about the ‘great’ artists where these romantic ideas often recirculate. Often (too often) the talk is about the individual genius of Picasso, or how Monet’s work is about how he felt about life, or even about the personal anguish and struggles of Michelangelo (centuries before this romantic notion of art-making was even a thing!).

Enough of my ranting. I want to propose (and explore in my project) how creativity might be looked at differently, not to abandon this idea of individual expression altogether but to expand and complicate it a little – or alot 😉 For a couple of reasons:

  1. Partly because creating art and cultural works with AI or automation does not seem to fit easily into this romantic model. Devising algorithms to number crunch data sets into graphics, or automating an interactive participatory experience seem different from making gestures in paint or crafting lines of poetry. Maybe they are very different, BUT also maybe the idea of art and art-making should be revised to show some continuities.
  2. Also because it seems to me that expression — artistic or otherwise — always implies im-pression. Things going in and things going out. Life is lived as a permanent cycling of incoming/outgoing. And the things going in might be ‘pressing’ the individual in ways beyond just being experiences that affected the individual in her life. Maybe they have a bigger say in forming the individual, including forming their ‘creativity’. Instead of the magical muse or genie, gifted by god (or genes) from birth, creativity emerges from the impression-expression cycle. And again this is with all due respect to the biological givens the individual starts out with, before she can actually recognise herself as an ‘individual’ (which always means an individual in this or that group).

More on this next time. And on how/where technology comes into this impression-expression cycle.