The subject of creativity isn’t confined to photography, but it’s certainly a part of it. In January 2002 lecturer Paul Kleiman of Lancaster University described a ‘spectrum of creativity’ at a conference in Liverpool, which I attended. The four stages he suggested are as follows:
A craft like ceramics relies on replication. If we understand it as a combination of mechanical skill and creative design, the former concerns the visual, sensory and motor skills necessary to sculpt a lump of clay on the revolving wheel. As anyone who has tried this knows, it is not as easy as Demi Moore made it look in the film Ghost. When we first attempt it, our efforts are more like Patrick Swayze’s interference. Or perhaps we’ve seen amateurs attempt it on a television game show, and understand this on the basis of distant observation. I’ve tried it myself, and simply couldn’t do it. Other people find it less difficult so the conclusion is we all have different innate abilities, and we can map those according to a theory of ‘multiple intelligences’ developed by someone by the name of Howard Gardner. A pottery artist might struggle and feel rejected in a school classroom learning English or Maths, but they are skilled at making beautiful ceramics with their hands. The education system has traditionally been biassed towards book learning, with an implicit notion that it leads to Further and Higher education.
Replication is about facts, copying, and it’s characteristic of the industrial economy. It is, sadly, also characteristic of a large proportion of schooling. For this reason the ‘rebel in the classroom’ is sometimes the more interesting person, but will usually find that they are censured and marginalised although we should not get romantic about this, because some rebels need discipline and restraint. Education – like so many other organisations – is a system based on operational procedures. We inherit the accumulated thoughts, ideas and practice of our predecessors. There is nothing wrong with this per se; in a wider sense it’s the basis for what J. Bronowski called The Ascent of Man (1980) – the development of culture and civilisation. But equally, we must avoid unquestioning acceptance, assuming that we already have the best way. The enormous social problems in the education system point to this fact: not only the large number of disaffected young people, but the large number of teachers who have had enough and abandoned ship, and the inadequate number of people electing for the vocation of teaching. During my PGCE training, every person I knew was disillusioned.
Musical studies require countless hours of replication training, learning precise mechanical skills. You can’t avoid this, because of the nature of playing musical instruments. Some are more complicated than others; a saxophonist once said to me you can start to produce simple but satisfying sound within a few weeks. That’s probably not be true for the piano where you have to negotiate the complexities of the keyboard spectrum and its potential musical patterns, and the mechanical sensitivity of striking the keys.
A few years ago I did some massage training and as we practised with each other, I concluded that some people were naturally and inherently ‘better’ than others. It is a particularly sensitive form of touch/mechanical skill because the recipient feels it in an immediate and emotional way. Some people’s touch was decidedly better than others, and I realised that the mechanical techniques we were being taught – the ‘strokes’ – could not possibly address this fact in terms of correction or training. It was inherent, and related to the person’s emotional sensitivity, which is itself based on a person’s wider experience of and learning in life. You cannot teach that by showing people how to mechanically move their hands up and down in a particular way. In other words, replication is only the base level skill. I had a few very unpleasant experiences on the massage course. Conversely, I remember the touch of one person was delightful. She had a way of blending her hands onto my back beginning with a gentle contact with the fingertips, allowing the rest of the fingers to touch, and then the full hand. It felt like the lapping of a wave as opposed to the emptying of a glass of water. It had a rhythm that was harmonious and soothing. She was not conscious of doing this, but I recognised its value and adopted it myself. In terms of piano playing, it would parallel the soft depression of a key rather than a sharp blow.
Pottery, music, massage need mechanical skill that is based on replication. The same principle applies to intellectual subjects like mathematics: you have to learn the rules. Education tends to emphasise this level of the creative spectrum, and it is perhaps unavoidable given the numbers involved, that you have a classroom of 20, 25 or 30 children or young people with just one teacher facilitating all of them. As with Henry Ford’s production line, so with education. In Hard Times, Charles Dickens described the misery of this “facts, facts, facts” approach. Higher and further levels of learning and understanding transcend mechanical and intellectual replication. If you are a musician, at some point you will begin to improvise. To use another analogy/example: replication is like repeating “To be or not to be, To be or not to be, To be or not to be”. At higher stages you will transcend that and flow into wider rhythmic patterns and develop a personal and more encompassing response:
To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil?
This is where the rules are clear, but there is room for flexibility and interpretation. Hamlet’s mournful but beautiful soliloquy does not have one meaning only. Indeed, one meaning might be that he needs to get out more and have some fun. Joking aside, literary criticism revolves around this fact: that a text is open to interpretation. I was struck by a recent scene in the television series The Sopranos, featuring a conversation between the gangster’s adolescent children. The daughter was helping the son understand his English studies and write an essay. He had to analyse a poem and said “I thought snow was supposed to mean death?” At his age, I had the same attitude: I thought there was a prescribed symbolic code that I was supposed to understand, replicate and refer to. I began my two-year ‘A’ level in that fashion, but learned to understand that what mattered was my personal response. My teachers told us this, but initially we did not have a personal response, because we did not understand the process. We had to replicate, like Tony Soprano’s son.Some of us transcended this level, and some of us did not. Ultimately it could not be taught because it depended on emotional sensitivity and experience of life, and how this can be expressed in a literary form.
In a professional orchestra, each person already has high levels of mechanical skill. The task is not to learn and deliver this, but to blend those skills into a cohesive and symphonic whole in relation to the score, the other musicians, and the interpretation of the conductor. You are no longer playing in isolation but in relation to others, and this is a higher level which requires having ‘an ear’ which is seamlessly (and probably unconsciously) linked with rhythmic sensitivity and sensory-mechanical skill. I suspect that this can be taught only up to a point.
I used to be interested in the martial arts, and the fascination was always, for me, the more internal and mystical dimension as suggested in the 1970s TV series Kung Fu. If you remember the opening sequence of the programme: the Shaolin priest is finally tested by walking down a corridor on rice paper and leaving no mark, and has to lift a heated urn with his forearms, branding a dragon and a tiger onto him with its searing heat. Rousing stuff for a teenage boy. However, the next stage was when he left the Shaolin monastery. In its protected environment, he had to learn the physical movements and learn how to apply them in sparring. Yet it was a co-operative environment because the monks had shared objectives. When Kwai Chang Caine wandered around the American West, his adversaries had entirely different values and motivations.
Creativity, art and learning have different levels and different stages. In the martial arts, philosophically this is defined with three Japanese concepts called sho, ha and ri. The first stage is concerned with mechanical technique. The second stage is where the practitioner begins to understand the hidden meanings within the physical patterns. And the third stage is where he transcends and frees himself from his chosen system. At that point his art is no longer ‘trying to get the moves right’, but a direct expression of his personality, unencumbered by any rules.
The martial artist/actor Bruce Lee is renowned for his films, which are being reconsidered as part of the current retrospective fashion. In the last few years the 1970s and 1980s become fashionable again, with an ironic enjoyment of their naive aesthetic. Yet if you study the martial arts, you discover that Bruce Lee developed his own style of ‘kung fu’ which he called, paradoxically, a style which is not any style. He argued against what he called the ‘classical mess’, by which he meant the traditional, unquestioned and mass production training methods. He developed a series of aphorisms that could be applied to any creative practice, which can be construed as philosophical principles with application to wider life. These remarks are taken from his book The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. The term Jeet Kune Do is what he called his ‘style that was not a style’.
There is no fixed teaching. All I can provide is an appropriate medicine for a particular ailment (9).
Set patterns, incapable of adaptability, of pliability, only offer a better cage. Truth is outside of all patterns (15).
From the ‘old’ you derive security. From the new you gain the flow (16).
When one is not expressing himself, he is not free. Thus, he begins to struggle and the struggle breed methodical routine. Soon, he is doing his methodical routine as response rather than responding to what is (17).
If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow – you are not understanding yourself (17).
In classical styles, system becomes more important than the man (18).
Thinking is not freedom – all thought is partial; it can never be total. Thought is the response of memory and memory is always partial, because memory is the result of experience. So, thought is the reaction of a mind conditioned by experience (20).
A so-called martial artist is the result of three thousand years of propaganda and conditioning (22).
The second-hand martial artist blindly following his teacher accepts his pattern. As a result, his action and, more importantly, his thinking become mechanical. His responses become automatic, according to set patterns, making him narrow and limited (22).
Expression is not developed through the practice of form, yet form is part of expression. The greater (expression) is not found in the lesser (expression) but the lesser is found within the greater. Having ‘no form’, then, does not mean having no ‘form’. Having ‘no form’ evolves from having form. ‘No form’ is the higher, individual expression (25).
The martial arts tend to be extremely conservative, and the word ‘tradition’ is mostly used as an expression of authenticity and quality. Bruce Lee seems to have recognised all of this, that the different martial arts ‘styles’ were like cults or religions, each one arguing that they had the superior ‘way’ and demanding that you adhere to it, in the process imprisoning rather than freeing people. Lee was influenced by the teachings of Zen, Krishnamurti and others, and adopted an innovative approach to learning that is consistent with contemporary creativity theory. He demonstrated that you have to go beyond developing the ‘tools’ or techniques – punch, kick, analysis of metaphor or playing cords on a piano. The different martial arts – whether based on the movements of a tiger, snake, crane etc. or the formulations of western boxing – are all composed of a definable number of common attributes, like speed, power, rhythm etc. This was effectively a meta-model because it was based on a logical level that encompassed all kinds of practice. It was used to understand all the different martial arts and empower the individual learner.
3 & 4) Innovation and Origination
These are the high-end area of the creative spectrum. Innovation works within established conventions and is easier to recognise. Bruce Lee attracted many people wanting to learn his methods; he was also strongly criticised by some teachers for failing to honour traditional ways. Origination is the radically new and frequently ignored, maligned and misunderstood work. One of Lee’s aphorisms was “absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own”. He spent many years studying widely different martial art styles, i.e. training himself at the replication stage. He then distilled the essential content of those methods according to his own personal needs (formulation stage), and developed or re-configured a philosophical method that other people could adopt (innovation); they thus became the creative source for their own learning (origination).
Bruce Lee encouraged innovation and origination, and to do this you need to have personal responsibility for your learning and regard yourself as the creative source. Within established educational and arts institutions, a person like this is likely to challenge, disrupt and threaten traditional ways. From Kleiman’s model, we can understand that the arts are not inherently or automatically creative or original. He said “Arts activities, like many other activities, conform to the Replication-Formulation-Innovation-Origination model. And not everything has to be operating at the high end”.
Most of the time, we begin to practice an art at the replication stage and the education system emphasises this. When people have an immediate grasp of this stage or quickly transcend it, we call them geniuses; Mozart is an example. The higher stages of creativity can be taught only to a limited degree; they are a personal response which is largely inherent (although possibly latent), and this applies to different practices according to different kinds of intelligence – Howard Gardner’s delineation of multiple intelligences, which recognises that intellectual thinking is not the universal epitome of evolution you might think it is, considering the educational and cultural emphasis it has.