Everybody loathes the word "creativity" because it is ugly, long, fancy, and I have gone man and boy through life avoiding it.
Still, it's hard to avoid the word if you comment on "Creativity -- the Human Resource," which is an exhibit with lots of playthings now going on at the Kennedy Center.
Push that button. See that screen light up. Take a square divided into equal parts by 25 dots forming 16 little squares. NOW, divide the square into four equal areas by joining the dots all the different ways you can think of.
There are 103 ways, I think they said, to divide the square into equal fourths. Only four of them obvious.
There are plenty of such games you can play on machines that inspire you to do unobvious things that will, most likely, stretch your mind and pass three hours of your time.
I'm about to let 'em have it in a minute, but to get on with the straight news first, they have numerous exhibits about creative folk: Charles Darwin, Judy Chicago, people like that. Furthermore you can activate Miss Chicago and hear her whine about things.
One wonderful little exhibit, however, deals with Roman Vishniac who makes microphotographs (among other things) and who had his first triumph photographing the muscles of a cockroach's leg. Ever since Archie and the invention of Georgetown, cockroaches have been rising in the American consciousness. Vishniac does not use laboratory specimens, by the way: "Dead matter does not teach about life. The colors fade, there is no movement."
Supppose you wanted more Judy Chicagos, how would you get them? The obvious way is to get more Judy Chicago moms and dads. It occurs to me suddenly you may not know who Judy Chicago is. She is the creator of "Dinner Party" in which there are plates setting on a table, each plate a sculpture celebrating one dandy woman. The one honoring Susan B. Anthony is displayed. It looks like several cabbage leaves rampant.
One of the things creative people do is design plates you cannot eat off. Another thing they do is make music avoiding harmony, and graphics with type you cannot read. They take risks.
As the film points out. There is a film about the environment, the conditions for creativity. Mobility is one thing. People move all over the world and encounter other people who inspire them with new ideas, new approaches.
Another thing excellent for creativity is tools. You need tools. Another thing is surplus. You need a society with enough surplus (food, money, leisure) to permit creativity in the first place. And so on.
None of which I believe. Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, for example, were among the least mobile, yet most creative.
As for tools, they had none to build Karnak, yet it is better architecture than the Rayburn Building for which they had every tool known to man except brains.
As for surplus, Roman society had tremendous surpluses, yet the society was less creative than that of Greece, which had little. Or, to be brutal, America is a land of nothing but surpluses, yet our art and letters are relatively trifling and commonly asinine.
The truth of the business is that we are a society adrift, unmoored, slothful, cynical, greedy and ill-educated. Naturally our creativity reflects this and springs from it. Or, rather, anything that seems rather oddball and unbeheld heretofore is deemed a probable masterpiece.
This is called freedom.
I think we are supposed to be ready to die for it at all times, as we gladly would for Handel, Vanbrugh, Palladio.
The reason writers are not included in this exhibit is simple:
Writers learn before any other creators that creativity does not exist in itself, but consists merely of futzing about within the limits of iron keys. Other artists have greater freedom -- you can use anything for paint, you can paint with your elbows, you can make any shape, you can ignore any material. In writing, you have merely 25,000 common words and while you can go soaring off, if you like, the result is commonly gibberish. And while risk-taking is all very well, it works better (I would guess) if you are a champion skier than if you have strolled out on the slope fresh one Tuesday from a sedentary job.
Furthermore, the most dazzling heights of creativity do not always involve novelty, or new ways of looking at anything, or any surplus of any kind, nor any mobility, nor any tools.
"Unarm, Eros, the long day's task is done and we must sleep." They guy is saying the fight's done, time for beddy-bye. Only the guy who says it is a master.
Why is it that words any little boy knows by the age of 8 become, when properly futzed with by the great writers, glory unparalleled?
"Man shall find grace, and shall grace not find means? . . . Mee for him, life for life I offer; account mee Man." (To quote the other master).
The way it works, nowadays, is that we notice these are simple words any kid may use, and we conclude, through one of the logical errors common to the stupid, that any kid, therefore, is like Shakespeare or Milton.
Furthermore, the neglect of the two great writers in schools, when combined with the hyped thunder of a trillion amateur paperwasters, results in a general lessening of awe before the supremely great artists and an exaltation of comparative hacks. From which all we current writers benefit, needless to say, and yet it is wrong.
What we really would like to know is why Shakespeare was able -- and is able -- to take common particles and open doors we never even knew were there. Look, no keys. The big doors open, though, and all the sheep trot in and graze about.
Of course if we assume the work of language is to point the way to the yard sale and not much more, then the particular odd magic by which simian grunts transform to music is scarcely known and rarely valued.
Except that there's this: no matter what any yo-yo thinks, it will last forever, and when nobody can recall the name of even on American writer -- not even Emily Dickinson -- some guy will still by pawing through "Job" or "Lear," still dropping his Martian teeth out in something approaching antique awe.
Practice, alas, does not make perfect. Tools do not help. We imagine the creator should be comfortable -- at least not in screaming pain -- but maybe not totally comfortable. We reckon there should be tension, not too much and not too little, and we suspect the proper mix may vary: Grief that would wreck one creator may be too little to get another creator off his butt.
We have only to look at the great ones to see we know nothing about it. There have been God's own plenty of boys wandering the meadows of Warwickshire, attending relatively mediocre schools, learning the local names for rabbits and chicks, but few of them have turned into Shakespeares.
I understand the business as well as anybody, if I may say so modestly: God does it and the artist doesn't. God, obviously, and not a Warwickshire youth, wrote the sonnets and the rest of it. Why God wrote through Shakespeare with a fire unknown in, say, Eliot or the other minor ones, nobody knows.
The chief demonstration of divine power operating through animals is, beyond argument, the existence of our English literature.
We do not know how to train God or harness him or turn him on or turn him off.Merely that here and there is the presence is overwhelming.
Without it books can be sold. But without it no man creates.
And what curls my teeth a bit at the Kennedy Center display of games and toys is twofold: first, any little purveyor of novelties is treated as seriously as the great Darwin himself, and, second, there is an insolent and ignorant hint that if we just get a little cash ahead and a new fancy typewriter and fling the iron realities and limits to the winds and go buzzing off any wich way (looking at things a new way; taking risks; matching unlike things; dreaming up new combinations) we too are creators or can be.
Little of nothing is said of mastery, of drudgery, of anxiety, of pain, of bravery, of playfulness. The things of art.
Nor of mystery or awe or miracles or grace.
An idiot might think, when he finished the exhibit and played all the games, he knew something at last about creativity, and so he would in a sense, as a chiggar in a pilgram's waistband might be said to know something of pilgrimage. But not much.