The word “art” can seem pretentious: When people hear it, they worry someone will force them to read a novel, or go to a museum, or see a movie without any explosions in it.
To me, art simply refers to those aspects of our lives that can be suffused and transformed by creativity. And having creativity in our lives is important. Without it we’re just going through the motions, stuck in the past. With it we feel alive, even joyous.
But if I say that art is simply life imbued with creativity, isn’t that just a case of obscurum per obscurius — of explaining the murky with the even murkier? After all, what exactly is creativity?
To help unravel this puzzle, here are five theses on creativity:
Thesis No. 1: Creativity makes something new. A different way of talking can suddenly make our world seem new. Here’s an example: In the Middle Ages, a road was something people walked on, the ocean a terrifying expanse of blue. But when the anonymous author of the Old English epic poem “Beowulf” called the ocean a “whale-road,” he made his readers experience the ocean afresh. The ocean may be an obstacle for us land-bound humans, but for whales it’s a road.
Thesis No. 2: Creativity hides itself. Creativity is shy. It’s easy to miss that creativity is about making something new, because, as soon as we succeed, the new thing we’ve created appears obvious, as if it had always been there. “Whale” and “road” were just there hanging around when someone said “whale-road.” And then people said, “Of course! The ocean may be a barrier for us, but it’s not for whales. They swim in it.” All that one person did was say what there was to be said — except it wasn’t there to be said, until he or she said it.
Creativity can seem like a tool for solving problems: We need a new word for the ocean! But creativity doesn’t just solve problems; it also makes or discovers new problems to solve. Hundreds of years ago, nobody knew the old words for ocean weren’t cutting it, until someone said “whale-road.” And everyone was like, “Wow! It is a whale-road!” Creativity always hides itself — it makes itself disappear.
That’s a helpful point to keep in mind when thinking about science, because creativity is fundamental there, too. We tend to think of science as a series of nonoptional statements about how the world works — as a collection of things we must believe. But if that’s true, how can scientists be creative? They can’t really say anything new; they just have to passively express things as they are.
But, of course, that isn’t how science works at all. We actually have to create it. When Newton came up with his second law of motion (force equals mass times acceleration) he was being just as creative as the person who came up with “whale-road.” And as with “whale-road,” Newton’s creativity was concealed by the success of his creative act: His formulation pointed toward something that already existed, but also didn’t. The more successful we are, the more it will seem like the things we created didn’t need to be created. Creativity hides.
Thesis No. 3: Creativity permeates life. Creativity fills our lives like ocean water fills the grains of a sand castle — saturating the spaces between this moment and the next, this action and the next, this word and the next. As a consequence, you can be creative when you’re doing pretty much anything: You can be creative in the way you walk to work, respond to grief, make a friend, move your body when you wake up in the morning, or hum a tune on a sunny day.
We are constantly remaking our lives through acts of creativity. In fact, creativity makes life possible — just like water makes a sand castle possible. Without water a sand castle falls apart, and a life that is completely routinized and uncreative is no life at all.
Thesis No. 4: Creativity can break your heart. It’s inherently risky. You might say, “Creativity seems so joyous and fun — why isn’t everybody creative all the time? Why do people steal and plagiarize instead? Why do they follow rules when they’re trying to be creative? Why do they always make the hero a handsome man, or always make song lyrics rhyme? Why do they copy what’s worked before?”
Because creativity can fail. If you knew ahead of time that the thing you were making would work, you wouldn’t be engaged in creativity. And when it doesn’t work, it breaks your heart. You look like a fool; what’s worse, you feel like a fool. It’s very embarrassing. But you can’t get the joy of creativity without risking pain and failure — which is also true of love.
Thesis No. 5: Creativity is a kind of love. That’s why it can break your heart, and why, at the same time, it can make the world come alive. When you’re creative, you make things fresh and new; when you love someone or something, you do the same.
That’s also why creativity is shy, why it hides. We don’t want the way we love to be captured by someone else’s loveless formulation. We don’t want someone to say, “Oh, he loves everybody with blond hair” or “He loves everybody who reminds him of his mother.” We don’t like it when people think they can manipulate us by figuring out whom or what we love — it’s an insult to those we love, to us, to love itself. So we’re a bit guarded when we talk about love; we don’t want people using the way we love to take advantage of us.
Corruptio optimi pessima — the corruption of the best is the worst: Love is the best part of our lives and can permeate our entire being, but it’s the most terrible thing when it’s misused or misunderstood. It’s the same with creativity.
Eric Kaplan is an Emmy Award-winning television producer and writer who has worked on The Big Bang Theory and Futurama, among other shows. He is the author of Does Santa Exist: A Philosophical Investigation.