Scott Thorp, chair of the Department of Art at Georgia Regents University (soon to be named Augusta University), explains what creativity is and whether it can be taught. Click here for video.
Scott Thorp, chair of the Department of Art at Georgia Regents University (soon to be named Augusta University), explains what creativity is and whether it can be taught. Click here for video.
My latest publication with ArtPulse Magazine is now up. You can find it on their Facebook site. The title is “Don’t Believe Miss Liberty: A Talk with Edgar Heap of Birds.” Click on that link it you’ll see it. Edgar is a fascinating artist questioning many of the cultural roles we play. The intro is below.
In the national conversation on racial inequity, one group is continuously left on the sideline-those who were here first. Given that Native Americans precedently inhabited America, one would think their inalienable rights should at least match those of any settlers. But as history demonstrates, they don’t.
Of the many atrocities against Native Americans, the thousand mile death march known as the Trail of Tears is probably the most recited. But throughout U.S. history Native Americans have suffered numerous injustices, many of which have left our collective memory. Even the Great Emancipator, President Lincoln, isn’t clean. His order to execute Dakota Indians in Minnesota resulted in the largest mass hanging in our country’s history.
Edgar Heap of Birds is a provocative artist bringing attention to the sad irony which is the plight of Indigenous Americans. Cheyenne by blood, his work utilizes contemporary conceptual and postmodern tactics to expose some of the less civil accounts of American history, ones that get little attention in today’s press. From large scale celebratory sculptures like “Wheel” to road-sign-looking text based installations, his work addresses the issues of land ownership, displacement and cultural imperialism still haunting those of Native American descent.
Recently, I spoke with Edgar about his life, his art and his views of contemporary culture. During our conversation, what struck me most was the level of compassion and generosity coming from an artist making such aggressive, politically charged work. As you will see, he embodies the core value by which Cheyenne chiefs are defined, generosity.
Creative acts are not all the same. They vary by magnitude, originality, influence and intention. The following are types of creativity and novelty as described by psychologist Stephen Smith.[i]
Types of Creativity and Novelty
Individual versus Social Definitions of Creativity:
Every quarter students make new discoveries. They have moments of enlightenment that dramatically change their understanding of the world. These breakthroughs don’t change the world, but they do change the person. During my time teaching high school, a student described his discovery in the field of mathematics. While doing his math homework the night before, he had invented a new way of solving his equations. Slump shouldered later in the day, he told me how his math teacher explained it was centuries old. His discovery was creative non-the-less. It didn’t change the domain of mathematics in any way. But it did change his understanding of the subject. This is an example of individual creativity: particular to the individual.
So a particular act “may be novel for all of humanity, for a specific social-cultural unit, or for an individual.”
Deliberate versus non-intentional creations:
Often times, inventors consciously work toward their inventions as lifelong pursuits. However, many times they are not deliberate. Take, for example, party conversations. Informal conversations go in any number of directions that are not premeditated. They just flow. Each participant in the conversation freely and effortlessly adds to the progression of thought. Since the conversation is novel it is creative. In these creative acts, it is not the intention of each participant to be original. Therefore, they are not deliberate. Maybe the best example of non-intentional creativity is the verbal development of a young child. Kids experience an amazing rate of development as they learn to talk.
Being deliberate implies working toward a goal. One sets a goal and then works to achieve it. Problem solving situations are goal oriented and they involve creative acts. Searches for solutions are novel because the problems to be solved are novel. If the problem weren’t’ in some way new, it wouldn’t be a problem. As each incremental discovery is made on the path to solving a problem, the nature of the problem changes and therefore new creative acts emerge. All problem solving situations have some relevance to past experiences and require the transformation of that past knowledge so that it may be applied to the present task.
For example, when Amy Windom was restrained during a home invasion in Atlanta, she needed a novel way to free herself. Her solution was to “toe-type” an instant message call for help. Obviously, this was an unusual experience for her. The perpetrator tied her up and had taken her digital camera, phone, iPad, and car. The thief didn’t take her laptop because she was able to convince him it was outfitted with a tracking device. After several hours, she said in an interview with The TODAY Show, she decide to use her feet to open her bag: “I thought, I’ve got nothing to lose so I’ll give this a shot, and I pulled the laptop over and propped it up on top of the down comforter at such an angle I could see both the keys and the screen.” She gripped the end of the power cord with her feet and started tapping the keys. Eventually, she was able to communicate with her boyfriend to call the police.[ii]
In this situation, creative problem solving led her down a goal- oriented path (to get free) that culminated in a solution that was new to her. Each stage of advancement led to a new problem solving situation. Her laptop was not outfitted with a tracking device; she told him that so he would leave it. Even though the cord is not used for typing, she associated its properties as similar to something that could.
Subjective Sense of Novelty:
The novelty of our acts is not always as apparent as you might think. Going back to the party conversations, each conversation, or more specifically, each phrase, is a creative act. No one in the conversation has experienced that exact situation before, nor will they again. Therefore, each phrase is new—novel. Trying to “get the phrase just right” is more deliberate. By consciously constructing phrases or arguments, we become aware of the process and the novelty of the act. An even more deliberate approach would be to plan a speech or presentation. And the scale goes up from there in intentionality. Frequently, we are more of aware of the novelty produced by others than ourselves.
Degrees of Novelty:
Creativity is mostly associated with “truly novel” acts. But the less revolutionary acts that make up our day to day existence can also be creative. It could be said that in some way, everything we do is novel to a degree. Each day is different and we react to new situations as they arise. Disparities between strikingly creative acts like inventions are easy to differentiate. Differences in more habitual acts like getting ready for work in the morning are more difficult to distinguish. Both big and small creative acts, however, are creative.
Continuous verses Discontinuous Problem Solving:
Some problem solving instances require that a continuous series of problems be solved until the final goal is achieved. The lady toeing her way to freedom on her laptop is an example. She was literally “bound” and determined to get free.
Other times, a period of rest or incubation occurs once or several times before a final solution is found. Epiphanies in the shower relate to ongoing problems we have yet to solve. During the day we take in new information. Having a problem at work or with a girlfriend, or more commonly now, Facebook, that doesn’t seem to have a good solution is considered off-and-on throughout the day. During the relaxing environment of the shower, attention is taken away from the problem. This period of rest allows the subconscious to organize the data and decide on a novel solution.
Creativity is in everything we do. In its smallest form, it helps us get through the day. In larger applications, it makes the world a better place. But the best thing about creativity is that it is teachable. Anyone can do it better. I know, I teach it to students all the time. With the new understanding of creativity that researchers are bringing to light, it is no longer such a mystery. It is a process for improvement.
[i] Smith, Steven M. The Creative Cognition Approach. MIT Press, 1995.
[ii] Rothman, Wilson. “Tied-up woman uses toes to IM for help.” MSNBC.com. MSNBC, August 4, 2010.
Think of a time when someone really pushed your buttons—when some jerk was rude, broke in line or did something totally inappropriate. What was your reaction? Did you treat it as an opportunity?
Going back to the times of Ancient Greece, we find a group of people who did think these moments were opportunities. They were the Stoics. To a Stoic, a time of adversity is an opportunity to practice virtue. To the Stoics, virtue is similar to excellence. And as a good citizen, you practice being virtuous. I lifted a list of these as described by John Stobeaus from UC Davis’ website. They are below.
So what does this have to do with creativity? It’s about seeing opportunity where no one else does. To most of us, we see problems as problems—things to be avoided. But in a pursuit of excellence and practicing virtue, a Stoic engages with problems as a means of practicing virtue.
Let’s take temperance for example. Say, a stranger comes up and says you’re an idiot for blocking the sidewalk while waiting to cross the street. Then, instead of firing back an insulting a jab of your own, you decide to temper your response and counter with a witty comeback humorous in its approach to engage that person in a moment of reflection. You might not change that person’s mind, but you practiced changing people’s attention to a topic of your choice.
That kind of skill might come in handy during a pitch. Often times in pitches, committee members make off the cuff or rude comments. And you should be ready for those situations. Real pitches are not the time to practice skillful retorts, those are the times to capitalize on them. Having practiced temperance in the past can help you skillfully seize on the opportunity to turn an insult into insight.
Next time you run into adversity, practice a virtue.
Do you ever think about how you think? You should; it can help you be more creative.
It’s surprising how we sometimes come to conclusions. Frequently, my conclusions are drawn from mere associations. I’ll witness two events happening in quick succession, like hearing a noise and then seeing a person walk around the corner. And I’ll assume the first caused the second—the person made the noise. You probably do the same. At other times, I overthink situations and get nowhere—the ole paralysis of analysis. I dwell so much on a topic, I never move one. To help us be better thinkers, we should contemplate how our ideas come about.
Thinking about thinking is called metacognition. It’s an empowering higher order of cognition aiding in the learning process. Metacognition is concerned with how we know stuff. By reflecting on how we come about what we know, we gain a better idea of whether or not we really understand our surroundings. Is Johnny a liar, or does he just look like one?
I’m mainly interested in metacognition because it helps with creativity. Creativity starts with a problem. And like many other things, if your starting point isn’t a good one, it’s more difficult to get to a good finishing point. Questioning and revising the initial problem helps to generate a more creative final solution.
Here’s an example:
Back in the year 2001, young people were breaking laws by the thousands. They were sharing MP3 files through an online file sharing service called Napster. Their actions were illegal because they weren’t paying fees to record companies. It was amazing how many people instantly turned criminal. To punish these nefarious people, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began suing them. They even sued a twelve year old girl.
Being a typical corporate organization of the time, the RIAA didn’t reflect much on the larger issues, nor did they look for opportunities within this problem. But someone else did. His name was Steve Jobs.
Jobs thought the whole scenario was messed up, and he saw an opportunity. Instead of thinking those people to be bad, Jobs rethought the problem and decided he could eliminate the wrongdoing by designing a better system. He believed that if people had a better way of doing things, they would stop being criminals. So, instead of saying “how do I catch and punish these thieves.” He decided to improve their listening experience so much they wouldn’t want to steal songs. The first iPod held 1,000 songs and fit in your pocket. It also would easily download songs for 99 cents each. You know the rest of the story. Apple is still making tons of money from Job’s insight.
To solve this problem, Jobs rethought the problem. Therefore, he could create a better solution.
One of the best methods for artists and designers to become better thinkers and build their skills of metacognition is through process books. Process books are idea journals. They show step in the evolution of a project. I urge students to create them in a story-like manner so when they look back on it, it makes sense. They are structured like this.
Process books help students better understand what made the final product possible. Without the documentation of their process, students regularly don’t understand where their ideas came from. But with a process book, it’s very clear that a lot of work took place to bring about a situation where that idea could be generated. Knowledge in this case really is power. It is because once you see what led you to an idea, you can replicate it again and again.
Here’s a true story, kind of. I changed it slightly for confidentiality.
A lotion manufacturer seeks new technology for dispensing hand lotion in the work place. They are doing well in the home market, but they want to expand their business through stores like Staples and Office Depot. The goal is to develop patented technology associating their brand with commercial use.
After noodling it for some time, a friend and I decided dispensers weren’t the issue. We thought it to be a conceptual problem, not a technological one. So, instead of inventing a dispenser, we designed a unique line of office organizers centered around sanitation with the manufacturer’s lotion as the anchor. We submitted the design. The client loved the idea, and we got paid.
How’d we get our idea? We guessed.
Surprisingly, guessing works pretty well for solving complex problems – especially ones less clearly defined. To the dismay of many, guessing is actually a form of logic; one that isn’t talked about much in school though. But it should be. It goes by the term abductive reasoning. You could say it’s reasoning through inference.
All bachelors are single > Sam is a batchelor > Sam is single
Atlanta, GA is the city with the most mosquitoes > Sam lives in Atlanta > Sam has been bitten by a mosquito
While Sam is definitely single, there is a chance he’s never been bit by a mosquito, even though Atlanta has a lot of mosquitoes.
How, you might ask does guessing qualify as reasoning. Well, it gets you get started and helps you arrive at a better hypothesis. It also helps you draw conclusions leading you in a direction. I’ll give you an example.
Sherlock Holmes often used it. For instance, in the case of “Silver Blaze,” he figured out who stole the horse. In this exchange Sherlock, explains to a detective how he solved the mystery of a stolen racehorse which should have been guarded by a dog.
Detective: “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Detective: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
How did that help Holmes?
Holmes: I had grasped the significance of the silence of the dog, for one true inference invariably suggests others… A dog was kept in the stables, and yet, though someone had been in, and had fetched out a horse, he had not barked enough to arouse the two lads in the loft. Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.
There are many reason a dog might not bark. By guessing however, Holmes jumped quickly in a direction from which he could draw better conclusions. Without guessing, Holmes wouldn’t have gotten far. And without it, he also couldn’t do that annoying thing where he told a people their life story by judging the smudge on their collar or a torn piece of luggage.
Abductive reasoning is especially good for artists and designers. Their problems are rarely simple. Usually, they are vague. The studio model in which art and design classes are taught promotes this well. Students are regularly give vague problems like, express your feelings. These problems are are actually structured like real-life situations in that figuring out the question is half the problem.
Have you ever thought about which paintings throughout history are most creative? It’s a tough call, unless you are a computer.
Not long ago, a curious colleague of mine started a similar debate among faculty concerning the best work of art, ever. Shortly after considering the matter, it became obvious my decision would be harder than first presumed. It’s tough separating personal interests from overall quality. In general polls, many of my favored paintings wouldn’t even make a top ten list of Twentieth Century paintings. Cy Twombly and Terry Winters are a couple of artists who connect with me. But stacked up against Matisse and Picasso, they are mere drops in a bucket. It’s interesting how my personal preferences can sway my views.
Eventually, I settled on Marcell Duchamp’s toilet which is referred to as Fountain. Much to the annoyance of my colleague. Duchamp signed it “R. Mutt.” My reasoning was Fountain has influenced the direction of art more than any other single work—at least according to me. However, it’s not even a work that interests me. Also, it was rejected for inclusion in the only exhibition in which it was entered. All works in that show were accepted if the artist paid the application fee, which Duchamp did. And it was still rejected.
Objective questions are tough for us because we humans are human; we have many personal biases. But computers don’t. They do what we tell them. And recently a computer was put to the task of determining the most creative paintings in history. Researchers Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh at Rutgers University developed an algorithm defining creativity as “the originality of the product and its influential value.” They applied their algorithm to databases including tens of thousands of paintings. The X axis is a timeline. the Y axis is the creativity rating. The higher the rating, the more creative the work.
According to the algorithm, Roy Lichtenstein’s Bananas and Grapefruit #1 is extremely creative. See the article by Mark Wilson at Fast Company, History’s Most Creative Paintings, Determined By Algorithm. The actual study is here.
So, did the computer get it right?
Listening is one of the most powerful strategies in your creativity toolbox. And when “active” is put in front of listening, it’s enhanced to the level of superpower. It’s amazing how empowered you become from the understanding active listening gives. The difference between active and just listening, or hearing is that active listening is about being engaged. It’s not passive.
I’ve always known active listening to be helpful, but a recent download from The Great Courses website on Negotiation helped me to understand the full extent of it. The course is called, The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal by Professor Seth Freeman J.D. From the beginning, he discusses the amount of leverage you gain from listening to someone else. It helps you find innovative ways to find solutions to seemingly solutionless problems. And that’s part of what creativity is about.
By using active listening tactics, you are better able to see what another person really wants instead of coming to preconceived notions of what should happen.
Here are some pointers for active listening:
Today marks a time of transition for me. I’m leaving my friends and colleagues at SCAD to become Chair of the Art Department at Georgia Regents University (GRU).
For the past ten years, I’ve had a great ride as a member of the SCAD community. It’s a highly energetic organization filled with wonderfully creative people, from top to bottom. I’ve built some of my fondest memories there. As an entity, I can only think it will continue to rise in recognition and popularity. My friends and mentors at SCAD are too many to mention. And I wish to thank you all for the wonderful times we had.
To the students at SCAD, I can’t say enough. You are extraordinarily inspirational. SCAD students are like no other. You come from all over the globe and are inspired to innovate any field you enter. I’ve never see work ethic like theirs before. To all of you, please keep in touch.
As of July 1, I’ll begin a new adventure at GRU in Augusta, GA. Probably, many of you have never heard of GRU, so I’ll give you a little back story. In 2012, GRU was formed as a merger of Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University. It was part of a larger effort by the state of Georgia to consolidate the colleges and universities within the state. With an overall enrollment of about 8,500 students, it’s one of four public comprehensive public research institutions in the state of Georgia. The overall goal for the university is to become a top tier research institution.
I’ve been charged with developing a creative community known nationally and internationally as being a leader in the fields of art and design. While there is a lot of building to do, the foundation is already in place. The existing faculty and administration are exceptional. We just have to set the right vision and be disciplined in how we grow. I’m really excited to become part of the GRU family. In the coming years, the art department will be building its brand as a leader in 21st century art education.
Look for updates as we chronicle our journey from merger to leader. And if you have any advice or comments, I’m open.
Culture is the underlying mindset determining what we do. Essentially, culture is the sum total of all the belief systems, ways of thinking and patterns of behavior of an individual or group. It’s seemingly invisible and less tangible than concepts like profit/loss. But possibly it’s more important. It is because it establishes our values. And our values determine how we act.
I benefit all the time from the level of diversity among my students. They come from all over the globe. Once, I had nine countries and nine states represented in a room of just twenty students. Only two pairs of students were from the same geographic area. That class also had a range of socioeconomic levels represented. It was amazing. The effect it had on our discussions was that we always had opposing views. And usually, each of the views had validity. That forced us to really think about the generalizations we made. It really hit home that quarter that the more diverse my company, the richer my culture would be.
Culture doesn’t just apply to race or place of origin. It also applies to ways of thinking—conservative or liberal, idealistic or practical. Establishing a corporate culture that is open and transparent means that people are more likely to say what they think. They will come to you with problems. That way you’ll at least know what the problems are. At the end of the day, you don’t have to agree with what other people say or do, you just need to be aware of the fact that their way of thinking may be just as valid as your. From this awareness, you might just find some of the simple concepts related to truth and functionality to be more ambiguous than previously thought. Then you can really start to fix things.