A Systems Approach to Creativity
Or what we get wrong about genius.
For those with an interest in creativity and creative thinking, there is a wealth of misinformation and misunderstanding to contend with. Some of these can be found in in the three most influential myths regarding creativity; the art myth, the eureka myth, and the genius myth. This article looks at the genius myth and how researchers have come to understand the phenomena of genius from a much more engaged and systems-based approach.
The genius myth maintains that true creativity is a mysterious, and unknowable, power, available only to the select few. Such people are seen as standing apart from the rest of us, and like Prometheus, 'steal fire from the gods' for the benefit of mankind. Popular culture is replete with stories about such individuals, often presented in the Romantic model of the irascible, eccentric, and misunderstood outsider with a special, visionary talent or gift.
Current research, however, is slowly starting to reveal a very different picture. Systems theory and a socio-cultural approach to creativity, based as they are on the concepts of interconnectedness and interdependence, call into question the extent to which creative work can be considered truly original or the result of purely individual efforts. Though there is a lot that we still don’t understand about the creative process, we do know that the basic strategies of creative thinking and creative development are not the result of supernatural forces or superhuman abilities, but rather a confluence of various cognitive, environmental, and psychological factors that we are only now beginning to understand. No doubt there are, and have been, many people with seemingly genius-like creative abilities, but the reality behind them and their discoveries is often more mundane than posterity (or Hollywood) would have us believe.
To take a couple of examples, the Renaissance artist, Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) is no doubt a giant amongst giants in terms of his creative legacy. For many, he is the very embodiment of genius itself, not just for his art but also for his wealth of scientific ideas, inventions, and discoveries found in his notebooks. Researchers and historians, however, have come to better understand the creative milieu within which he lived and worked, and their findings are beginning to paint a very different picture (pun intended). For example, several of the inventions he sketched in his famous notebooks were ideas and contraptions that were already in circulation during his lifetime. The idea of the artist-scientist, sketching and designing mechanical devices and engineering puzzles, was not unusual in his time. Leonardo's famous notebooks are essentially a disorganized collection of images and notes, and making sense of these has taken time. But scholars now recognize that they contain not only Leonardo’s original ideas, but also the ideas and inventions of others that he either heard about, saw, or wanted to improve upon (Truesdell, Reti). Any attempt to parse them out has proved to be difficult, as our knowledge of the history and development of Renaissance technology and engineering is scarce. But we do know that some of his ideas and inventions have been positively attributed to other artist-scientists at the time, such as Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1501) and Giacomo Andrea (d.1499). Even Leonardo’s iconic drawing, the Vitruvian Man, comparing the proportions of the ideal man to the circle and the square, which is often seen as emblematic of his artistic and scientific genius, was presaged by di Giorgio some twenty years earlier (fig.1).
Similarly, in the case of Shakespeare, researchers have established that many of the Bard’s works have been inventively assembled from the countless narratives, poems, plays, and prose of other writers of the time (Kerrigan, Taylor, et al.). Shakespeare did not pull his work out of thin air - instead, he copied, adapted, and improved upon the materials of his contemporaries. He just did it better than the rest! Again, this is not meant to belittle the brilliance of Leonardo or Shakespeare, they were in a league of their own in many respects, but it does provide a valuable context for better understanding not only their creativity but the very concept of creativity and originality in general. All artists, writers, inventors, and scientists, are influenced by, and draw inspiration from the work of others - and this has always been the case. The concept of sampling or remix, so ubiquitous in today's artistic climate, is nothing new. It is only later, through cultural narratives, myths, and legends, that great works get uprooted from their historical and creative context, and appear, as if by some mysterious force, through the hand and mind of a non-human genius.
This emphasis on the socio-cultural aspect of creativity has become increasingly important as we come to understand how genius actually works. The feminist art historian Linda Nochlin addressed this very issue in her seminal paper, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists (1971) in which she claimed that there have in fact not been any great women artists of the caliber of Michelangelo or Shakespeare. What is most enlightening about her essay however is her explanation and analysis of what constitutes genius. She maintains that there have not been any great women artists for the very same reason there have not been any “great Eskimo [sic] tennis players” - not because they lack talent or ability, but because they simply lack access - access to training, practice, education, patronage, and support. Why? Because they don’t do tennis in the circumpolar regions of the arctic! Her analysis of creativity does not deny the unique talents of individuals, it merely states that without the proper conditions and the social networks of support and development, such individuals will never reach their true potential. An acorn might be destined to become an oak, rather than a poplar, but without the right environment (soil, light, nutrients, etc.) it simply withers and dies. According to Nochlin, a woman’s ability to be great was as much about access as it was about any gifts or innate talents. Women had, quite simply, been excluded from those circles of power, patronage, and education that would have allowed women in the past to reach their full potential. Nochlin was not the first to make this point, writers like Virginia Wolff, in A Room of One's Own, had made similar cases earlier in the century. Their work has forced a reassessment not only of genius but also of what constitutes creativity. Our current model, as embodied in the examples of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, for example, is steeped in an interpretation and definition of creativity that is highly gendered. The heroic and Romantic image of genius, so prevalent in the Western Cultural Model of creativity (Sawyer) is a very masculine one that prizes difference, individualism, and competition. But there are alternate ways of conceiving of creativity, ones that rely more on things like relationship, community, and cooperation.
Creativity and genius, are now seen more in terms of how people and complex systems work and interact, than as an isolated event that falls from the sky for the benefit of humanity. Ideas about what creativity, or originality, or genius is, are being re-examined and re-framed, with society and culture playing a larger role than previously imagined.
This socio-cultural understanding of creativity is brilliantly captured by the British artist and musician, Brian Eno (fig. 2), in his concept of Scenius, as opposed to genius. As Eno described:
“I was an art student and, like all art students, I was encouraged to believe that there were a few great figures like Picasso and Kandinsky, Rembrandt and Giotto and so on who sort-of appeared out of nowhere and produced an artistic revolution.
As I looked at art more and more, I discovered that that wasn’t really a true picture.
What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people — some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were — all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work.”
What Eno is describing is a shift, not in how creativity works, but in how we view the mechanism of creativity. It’s not that creativity has suddenly become more socio-cultural, but rather (again) that it has always been a socio-cultural event. The ecology that Eno mentions, stresses the systemic interrelatedness of all the parts including the people, institutions, events, and processes that give rise to new and creative ideas. Individuals of great talent and ability don’t exist in a vacuum, they are intimately bound to the ideas and affordances of their culture and their time.