Saturday 17 March 2018

The Creative Process

Of the stages of artistic creation, beginning something appears not as difficult as continuing something. I think continuing is generally more difficult than finishing, but at each stage, the artist has to make choices, and the choices at the beginning shape the choices made when continuing and when finishing.

In the beginning, a distinction must be made. "Let there be light" is a distinction. The world begins with distinctions. The context of this initial distinction is an undifferentiated totality - it is something drawn up from Freud's "primary process". How this decision is made is quite mysterious. Something is required to attenuate the possibilities to make the first distinction. For Leonardo, when preparing a fresco, it was the "cracks in the plaster". There'll be some observed constraint in the material which makes that first moment of making a reality. Gombrich talks about the way that Picasso tears a piece of paper: the form of the tear, the fibres hanging out in the initial moment then give him a way forwards. The first distinction creates constraints for subsequent distinctions. 

Any first distinction is taken with a view to how subsequent distinctions might be made. Everything has possibilities, creates expectations. There's something about a first distinction which resonates with possibilities, with the ideas expressed in the culture, with other aspects of the material or form. The criteria for selecting an appropriate first distinction is symmetry. When Stravinsky talks of conceiving works as wholes (he's not the only one to say this), he is referring to the discovery of a symmetry which connects a first moment of creation with the completed artifact. David Bohm would call this the perception of "implicate order": an awareness or consciousness of totality - not just totality in the moment of creation, but totality through history. It's a symmetry of diachronic and synchronic dimensions.

"Continuing" is then an unfolding of the first distinction. That makes "continuing" sound easy - which, of course, it isn't. What typically happens in "continuing" is that we decide that the first distinction was no good, and so we make another one.  Like Amédée the playwrite in Ionesco's absurd drama of the same name, it's not unusual to have a creative process which continually writes beginnings, crosses them out, and writes a new one. For most people, this becomes exhausting, and whatever impulse there was to create something new dissipates in the frustration of abortive beginnings.

When it works, beginning and continuing are connected by something deeper. The first distinction isn't simply a mark on the paper or a crack in the plaster. It is the identification of a generative principle. The creative process is one of discovering a deep generative principle which connects the first moment of creation with the unfolded form. Every person engaged in an attempt at creativity experiences the frustration of abortive attempts at beginnings. Not every person understands what they are in, or that to understand the form of the process one is in is to understand the deeper nature of the search and purpose that they are engaged in. Disorientation kills the creative process. Successful creation results from having a compass.

All of this interests me partly because I am frustrated by my own creativity. After 8 years, I really am now finishing my book. It's taken so much longer than I anticipated. But I had to go through the process of identifying what it was about, what's its generative principle was, what the first distinction should be. But a book is easy compared to writing music, which is what I always wanted to do. When I was a teenager, music flowed out of me much more easily than it does now. When we are young we are much more attuned to the implicate order and its generative principles than when we get older. Academic knowledge hides the implicate order. My experience of university was that it stultified creativity: where there was energy, curiosity and passion, it created concepts and discourse. That was the death of creativity for me - particularly on a music degree! (I was fortunate that my professor, Ian Kemp, who was head of department at Manchester, knew this all too well: "You'll never learn anything in a place like this," he said. I admired his courage for saying it at the time, without considering exactly how right he was)

Getting the book done is a big deal. But it is an academic book - it's about concepts and discourse. When we talk about human creativity however, whether in art or science, this is not where the action is. The problem is that the way we are taught to think in University is fundamentally synthetic: we are taught to aggregate and synthesise different presentations of phenomena and different theories. We're taught to say "x says this, and y says that", and we taught to see that "a can be explained by x and b can be explained by y". Stephen Hawking is a good example of a synthetic thinker - a product of the university system. He sought to unify quantum theory with relativity. But really, he failed, just as everyone else has. It's not that they're stupid. It's because they are starting from the wrong place. Artists know this more clearly than scientists.

The opposite of a synthetic approach is an analytic approach. My colleague Peter Rowlands argues that this lay at the heart of Newton's scientific approach (see Chapter 2 of . I'm convinced he's right. Newton was able to identify deep generative principles; he didn't seek to synthesise available theories and phenomena. This is ironic, because the Universities modelled themselves on what they believed to be "Newtonian" science. And the artists - like William Blake, who was Newton's antagonist - knew this was wrong. Peter argues that Blake got Newton wrong, and that had he understood how Newton worked, he would have recognised a kindred spirit. It was the institutions that screwed it up.

The issue at the heart of this has to do with how we think about "selecting" a course of action from a set of possibilities. It is about how we think about "information". We tend to think that selecting something involves consideration of the synchronic context: the options available at a particular moment. Technology encourages us to think like this.  But it doesn't work like this. Selecting involves identifying the symmetry between synchronic and diachronic dimensions. This, I think, has profound implications for the way we think about information and technology. We need ways of thinking about diachronic and synchronic symmetry. The generative principle is the source of an unfolding symmetry.

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