A way to talk about creativity

Too many people say they are not creative when what they actually mean is they can’t draw, dance or play a musical instrument. Creativity is not synonymous with artistic skill. This video of a talk by Aza Raskin shows that creativity is about how you operate within a set of constraints.

Don't Stop Believin' by Juhan Sonin CC-BY 2.0
by Juhan Sonin CC-BY 2.0

Too many people say they are not creative when what they actually mean is they can’t draw, dance or play a musical instrument. Is creativity synonymous with artistic skill? That’s not how I understand it. It’s possible to do all those things in a way that’s completely devoid of creative expression.

So what is creativity? I saw this talk by Aza Raskin at Thinking Digital back in 2013. The video is 30 mins long but despite the poor audio quality it’s a good watch.

Aza Raskin – TDC13 – The Creative Power of Constraints from Thinking Digital on Vimeo.

“Constraints create creativity”

The point, as I understand it, is that creativity is about operating within a set of constraints to produce something that transcends those constraints. I like his argument because it scotches the rather intimidating myth that creativity is all about working with absolute freedom, with no constraints. This has always felt really overwhelming to me. Whenever I have tried to make something the worst part has always been staring at a blank page or an empty stave.

Artistic forms are all about constraints, either when it’s to do with the form (the Requiem Mass, Sonnet, tragedy) or the medium (jazz quartet, written word, paint etc).

Thinking about creativity like this means it’s easier to think about creativity as something separate from art. If you can identify the constraints in anything you do, you can begin to find creative solutions. Alternatively, if you are struggling to come up with some way of performing a task, impose some constraints. In this post for example, I’m trying to make my point in 500 words or fewer.

Another thing I have in my mind when I think about creativity is the importance of seeing it as a human expression of something. It excites me when I see someone responding to a situation creatively because you discover as much about them as you do about what they’ve made.

I came across this New Scientist article today about stories created by computers. It will be interesting to see how this algorithmic storytelling develops. I have two questions about it; will stories like this be identifiably different to stories created by humans, a sort of Anti-Turing test, and why would we want computers to tell us stories?

It reminds me of a discussion between two characters in the science fiction novel Look to Windward by Iain M Banks. Why would anyone want to write or listen to a symphony that was composed by a person if it’s indistinguishable in quality from one created by an AI of virtually limitless capability? It’s as much about understanding that creative effort that has gone into making something as it is about “consuming” the product itself. It gives us something to marvel at.

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