Creativity—Then and Forever Part One

“Creativity” is a word often associated with the beautiful in form and function, something precious to human beings, who tend to think they invented it.

The statue of Prometheus in Rockefeller Center, New York. Image credit: zhukovsky / 123RF
Beauty? If we’re so aware of that, why do we uglify the places where we live? Why do we do so much watching and listening to the uglier aspects of life, as if the important thing is for a camera to linger on a particularly messy corpse? For that matter, why do we uglify the past in movies, making actors wear dun-colored (I am being polite) clothes when our ancestors actually took pains to create whatever beauty they could manage? The Romans and their ancestors were creative in their use of dyes, especially the “royal” purple extracted from shellfish or from lichens boiled in urine. My Viking ancestors, who didn’t wash much and undoubtedly smelled bad, nevertheless had some brilliant red garments dyed with juice from the madder plant. And yet, in most of our films, including some recent treatments of poor Shakespeare, the common people and the military are noticeably dirt-colored (again, I am being polite). Let’s forget for a moment about the creativity that produces beauty, and simply define the word. The trouble is, creativity sounds so magical. It is, of course. Yet it is only a word, and like many words, it comes loaded with the baggage that we humans tend to bring to it. I strongly object to the way the word “creativity” gets mixed up with certain other words, like “creator” and “creation,”  or “Creator” and “Creation,” depending on who you’re talking to.  It always astonishes me how putting words in capitals makes them seem so important.  Those capitals show, again, that human beings have always had problems explaining the phenomenon of creativity. To many ancient peoples, creativity seemed like a gift from the gods. Prometheus, “teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.” That quote from Aeschylus is on the granite wall behind the statue of Prometheus in New York’s Rockefeller Center. When I look at it I don’t think of the fire, although of course the taming of fire was a vital part of the development of hominids. I think of Prometheus as a teacher “in every art”—perhaps a teacher of creativity. My Great Big Dictionary, which I lugged to my desk because I thought I’d better use it instead of you-know-what on the internet, defines creativity as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.” This definition requires defining the word create: “to cause to come into being, as something unique that would not naturally evolve or that is not made by ordinary processes. . .to evolve from one’s own thought or imagination, as a work of art or an invention. . . .” Before I start quarreling with the words “not naturally evolve,” I ask: why do religiously fundamentalist people insist that their god created everything once and for all? I suppose it makes them feel safe, in a universe obviously teeming with uncertainty. Great literary creations go beyond the fundamentalists of every time. In the play “Green Pastures” by Marc Connelly, de Lawd grows, uses his imagination, and changes—thanks to sacrifice, but the process brings a god entity closer to us and our own dilemmas about uncertainty. I don’t see how creativity can exist without the ability to accept, anticipate, and use the everlasting uncertainty of Change (my capital). It was convenient to blame the gods for what seems like uncertainty or, for that matter, the often unsettling ability of the creative person to go beyond conventional ways. Before we get to creativity in life itself (next time) I want to step on the toes of whoever put that definition in my dictionary, and especially on the toes of religious fundamentalists who foam at the mouth when Darwin is mentioned. I think that “creativity” is a natural aspect of the universe, and not put there by a “creator.” To step a little harder on the various toes, I will say that evolution is a form of creativity not restricted to human beings nor, for that matter, to life. In a sense, evolution is ultimate creativity. Please don’t ask me what that means. It’s only words. Choose your own meanings and run with them. The emphasis I am struggling to make is that evolution is not merely the creativity of life as it changes.  The universe itself had a beginning and evolved. It did not start with a wave of some god’s magic wand—it started in a Big Bang. If you want to call that creation, go ahead, but remember that even cosmologists are not absolutely sure that the Big Bang came from nothing or from something. I also think that our universe (there may be many others) is the way it is—with us around to make up stories about it and use science to check on the facts—because it is not beautiful in one sense of the word. As I implied before, “beauty” is a word fraught with meanings that often conflict, which is why we say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That’s nothing to worry about. It makes life so interesting. Beauty, however, is often associated with another word: symmetry. Research on humans and many other animals has demonstrated the connection. Female finches, for instance, prefer males whose legs are adorned (by scientists) with symmetrically colored bands. Swallows prefer mates with symmetrical tails, and female elks go for males that have symmetrical antlers. Even bumblebees prefer flowers with symmetrical displays of petals. We humans also tend to select as beautiful photographs of symmetrical faces, but the truth is that primates in general don’t seem overcome by physical beauty.  Some awfully ugly apes have been clearly loved. Tests show that human females (I am not answering for human males) tend to prefer mates who are more interesting and smart than beautiful but stupid. Perhaps this non-addiction to symmetry is due to the fact that primate brains function more asymmetrically than anyone else’s. Communicative sounds, especially those of human language, are processed mainly by the left cortex of the brain. There are other neurological asymmetries, but perhaps the point is that in us and in our ancestors, asymmetry led to creativity. A logically artistic god would not have created our universe but instead a very different entity that was a paragon of beautiful symmetry, consisting of, say, a smooth, featureless soup, without stars and planets and people. This certainly dull universe did not happen here because, right at the beginning, the results of the Big Bang were not beautifully symmetrical. We’ve got a lot of evidence for it, including the fact that we exist. In the beginning of our universe, asymmetry was there. This made it possible for the first elements of the periodic table to be (here comes that loaded word again) created. Everything in our universe went on from there, with the first stars making elements and exploding, their remains becoming the start of new stars that created more complex matter. It’s a good thing this result of early asymmetry happened, because you can’t have the creation and evolution of life without the elements that combine to make possible biochemistry. So, I will say again—creativity is a natural aspect of our universe.

This is the first installment in a multi-part series on creativity by Janet Asimov. Check back soon for part 2!