Thursday, 31 January 2013


Human nature remains fundamentally the same for thousands of years. However, culture has an impact intelligence. It is amazing that civilizations that thrived, from classical Persian and Athenian to classical Chinese and Indian civilizations, eventually declined and collapsed in eras of 'dark ages' in  comparison with other world civilizations. This is not because people became less intelligent, but because governments followed policies that accounted for the decline and fall of civilizations, thus sinking the entire population into darkness - regression after periods of immense accomplishments.

France experienced the Enlightenment era (18th century), and while it did not decline in the same manner as classical empires, it is certainly not to be compared today with the 18th century when so much talent manifested itself in all domains. The culture of the era profoundly influences individuals toward creative endeavors or toward nihilism, pessimism and mere survival for its own sake. Despite the vast availability of technology today, it cannot be argued that people are more intelligent because of it. In some respects technology actually inhibits creativity, as the individual is not forced to think and create for her/him self.

Many years ago, when I served as Director of an undergraduate Honors Program, I conducted a seminar entitled CREATIVITY. Needless to say, I went in with specific fields to cover in the course of the semester - from creative writing and art to music and architecture. The most important lesson learned, for the entire class instructor included, was that there is no limit to creativity and that every human being is creative. That human beings have the opportunity to manifest only a small part of their creative potential is a matter of nature environmental and institutional constraints.

1. what is creativity? the ability to unleash a new synthesis from existing models. This does not mean just mere invention of something, anything from a new machine to a new style of music, or wardrobe, but also altering an existing paradigm by viewing it from a perspective never before seen.

2. where does it rest? people are born creative, but education and society also teach as well as constrain creativity.

3. what activates creativity - activating both sides (hemispheres) of the brain is brought on by the environment, DNA, invariably by tragedy or other unusual circumstances.There are stages of the creative process - that is why instinct or innate tendencies, practice, and refinement are all part of the process, whether it is JAZZ, painting, or anything else.

4. Does formal education contribute or hinder creativity? It all depends, but for the most part I must admit the answer is that creativity is only an incidental goal of formal education. I believe that not allowing school to get in the way of one's education (a quote attributed to Mark TWAIN but in reality offered by novelist Grant Allen) may be useful to all who believe that formal education teaches creativity, instead of institutional conformity intended to prepare the pupil for the marketplace.

 Are institutional pressures a motivator or a hindrance in creative endeavors? As a historian who takes the 'long view', I believe that in times of societal crises, like the Black Death, the French Revolution followed by the Napoleonic Wars, WWI, Bolshevik Revolution, Great Depression, WWII, Third World de-colonization movements, all tragedies in many respects unleashed enormous creative energies manifested in art, literature, music and other areas. It is no accident that one of the most creative eras in human history was the Renaissance that coincided with the Black Death. When I would mention to my formed undergraduates the link between tragedy and creativity, they looked at me sort of funny, as though I was advocating tragedy so that people can unleash their creative potential. I only mean to say that tragedy forces human beings, certainly not all be any means to reach deeper within themselves to become more creative and measure up to the realities of the day, while at the same time such creativity is therapeutic.

Let us distinguish, as I tried to indicate before, between commercial creativity, which does indeed fall into the domain of "shallow and abyss of nothingness", and cultural creativity where relativism enters into the picture. For example, a cultural anthropologist would have the scientific training to appreciate arts and crafts of a tribe in central Asia, and not fall into the trap of dismissing it as superficial because the criteria is based on a "Western model of creativity" I want to caution readers here to be very careful about the dangers of looking at creativity in historical and anthropological terms free of a Western-centered prism, something that a critic from the non-Western World would argue is prejudiced if not guilty of cultural imperialism.

 Jean-Paul Sartre may have been right in part, but there is definitely something to be said about the subconscious that cannot be dismissed with the idea that humans fear absolute freedom - here is where I question the concepts of 'absolute' and 'freedom' attributed to human beings that have a finite time span. Sartre like the rest of us lived in a highly structured society and not before civilization, not in the state of nature in collectivist communal or nomadic settings. More to the point regarding the difference between creativity as 'recovery' instead of discovery. If a tribal people in the Amazon jungle that does not know of the existence of a mechanical device 'discovers it', is a recovery or discovery?
And can humans in civilized society today make any discoveries outside the institutional confines that both reward and limit creativity? Is it not true that most people identify discovery with a 'cash-value' mindset and not independently from it?  If there is an incentive to discover a new video game, a new cancer drug, a 'creative' of way of trading securities to maximize profits, etc., people will be operating within that framework. On the other hand, creativity that is as infinite as the universe will remain an option, not because people fear absolute freedom as Sartre argued because he too was immersed in a bourgeois mindset, but because the environment, society, the world provides no incentives, guidance or even a hint in the direction of the infinite universe.

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