Creative Artists: A Different Breed or a Different Creed?

Many people are fascinated by artists, musicians, writers, and inventors, whose lives are occupied by creativity. The general public is content to enjoy the creative output of others as consumers and audience members, without attempting to be creative themselves. They may look at artists and innovators with admiration, and wonder “How do they think this stuff up?”

Perhaps because of this outside-looking-in effect, many have concluded that creative individuals are fundamentally different than everyone else. That is, they have a different makeup. They’ve been endowed with an uncommon gift, or their brains are wired in a special way. Creative artists are a different breed.

There is, however, and alternative explanation. Creative individuals may be unique primarily in their values, goals, and approach to life. Their brains may indeed be different, but perhaps they’ve become that way. Creative people may develop differently as a result of going through their lives with different motivations, and from understanding their experiences with a different perspective.

The endgame: Expertise or exploration?

One of the hallmarks of creativity can be seen in artists’ broadest motivations. After becoming involved in a certain field—say, music, painting, or poetry—some people proceed with the goal of being the best they can be, to be a highly skilled musician, painter or poet. But others approach their activities a bit differently. Their orientation is not toward becoming an expert in their chosen field. They are motivated to more fully explore it or even challenge it.

Many young people fall in love with music and want to become career musicians. Someone like this may envision the kind of musician he or she wants to be, try to learn the requisite skills, and seek opportunities that lead to that destination goal. In contrast, someone traditionally considered “creative” may travel on a different, more exploratory path. They gain musical expertise, but do so as they pursue the larger goals of realizing original ideas and experimenting with new ways of doing music.

Psychologist Howard Gardner has considered the minds of artists and great thinkers for decades. Much of his work has involved in-depth study of the lives of extraordinary people like Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and Albert Einstein. He has cited Mozart and Beethoven as an example of an expert and a creative individual, respectively:

Mozart is the master. Mozart, in my view, wrote the most beautiful music ever. But Mozart was not somebody who was trying to create a new domain. He was not interested in creating new genres. He wrote in the genres of his time, and just did it so beautifully that he forced, in a sense, his successors to become Beethoven, to be Romantics, to overthrow classical music, because nobody could do it as well as Mozart.

Regardless of whether you accept his appraisal of these great composers, his quote describes the difference between a domain acceptor and a domain challenger. Obviously both kinds of artists are important. Perhaps, as Gardner suggests, they even depend on each other.

Failure: To be avoided or to be exploited?

A more specific component of the creative mindset has to do with beliefs about failure. Nobody enjoys failing at something that they care about, or even use to define their identity. But creative people may take a bigger-picture perspective. Not being able to do something (i.e., failure) is a kind of prerequisite to learning and improvement. Creative artists accept failure as merely part of the process, when others may see it as a reason to quit.

In a previous post, “Improvisation: Addition by Subtraction,” I considered how suspending self-consciousness is key in creative thought and performance. “Self-consciousness” can be a misleading term. Often our inner critic simply voices our fears about what other people might say. So self-consciousness can really reflect concern about other’s opinions. Could it be that creative artists just have less regard for the criticisms of others? Here’s what I suspect: They’re not less sensitive (to criticism) than most people, but proportional to their preoccupation with their art, they are less influenced by criticism.

To creative artists, the praise of critics and applause of audiences are not the primary means of defining success. Feedback from others is a source of information, or an opportunity to better understand how their work affects people. A poorly-received performance or product—a “flop,” a “bust,” or even an “epic fail”—is embraced as a lesson learned. In this way, they may ultimately come to define failure differently than others do. They’re not primarily worried about failing to impress an audience. Rather, failure equals not being fully engaged in your art. The amazing cellist Yo-Yo Ma once described a moment of revelation he had:

While sitting there at the concert, playing all the notes correctly, I started to wonder, “Why am I here? I’m doing everything as planned. So what’s at stake? Nothing. Not only is the audience bored but I myself am bored.” Perfection is not very communicative. However, when you subordinate your technique to the musical message you get really involved. Then you can take risks. It doesn’t matter if you fail.

Of course, it’s easy for Yo-Yo Ma to say this…as he’s actually playing all the notes correctly! But I think it applies to us non-virtuosi as well.

People we admire: Role models or inspirators?

As you can tell by the title of this post, I tend to put less stock in the “nature” explanation of creativity and more in the “nurture.” I believe that everyone has the capacity to be highly creative. With the right opportunities and experiences, I think virtually anyone can develop the mindset of a creative artist.

I acknowledge, however, that this doesn’t happen with many people in our society. Even among talented musicians and artists, many do not adopt a creative mindset. I’ve started wondering if a potential hindrance is the use of role models. By definition, a role model is someone who’s an example to be emulated. While imitation is a natural and effective way to learn many skills, primarily aspiring to “be like” or “as good as” an admired artist may not be conducive to the creative spirit. The desire to be “good enough” or “make it” as an artist could override a creative drive to advance your understanding and fully engage in your art.

It may be more constructive for young people to look to admired artists for inspiration…inspiration to develop their own creativity. In fact, like Howard Gardner did in considering the lives of great minds, I think we can all learn from creative artists’ creed, the set of values that guide their activities. There’s inspiration to be had whether we aspire to innovate the field in which we work, or more simply wish to better express ourselves through our art.

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4 responses to “Creative Artists: A Different Breed or a Different Creed?

  1. I’m curious what you think about the preponderance of books flooding the market right now that claim to “explain” creativity. As you might guess, I’m much more on the nurture side of this argument as well, but I’m hesitant to suggest that there is a method or a formula for achieving creativity (though it does apparently sell books to the business crowd). I don’t think Gardner has enough musical training to speak about how innovative Mozart was or wasn’t. I think Kofi Agawu would have a few things to say to him on the subject. As always, I enjoy your posts.

  2. My only criticism of this wonderful article is that it should be in three parts, with each part explained in more detail. I’ve read every one of your posts since you started this blog. Excellent work!

  3. I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head here. I’ve always believed that what determines a person’s creativity profile is perception of value. As you’ve stated, artists who are more creative tend to be motivated primarily by exploration and expression, whereas less creative artists seem to be more motivated by approval, accomplishment, recognition, etc.

    As somebody who has been a professional musician for over 35 years (mostly in jazz and other forms of improvised music), I can tell you without hesitation that some of the least creative people I’ve ever met are musicians. As are some of the most creative people I’ve ever met. To me it has less to do with medium than with imagination. Creative musicians seem to have one thing in common: an insatiable drive to explore for the deeper purpose of authentic self expression. To quote the great Theloniuos Monk, “A man’s a genius just for looking like himself.” And even though I disagree with Mr. Gardner’s assessment of Mozart compared to Beethoven (I think both were highly creative individuals who were able to “look like themselves”), I loved the post. Thanks!

  4. Great post, first time on your blog, and glad I found it. I am a music teacher in an inner city high school in the UK, and I have focused very much on driving creative work through music in my lessons. I am of the belief that if you try and be creative with music, it puts less emphasis on technique, which can turn pupils off classroom music. If they can engage in the creative process, this should in turn develop their techniques on their chosen disciplines.

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