Exploring Creativity

Reminder for those just joining us: We don’t underline links. Anything in bold italics is probably something you can click for more information. Usually.

My version of Adobe® Creative Cloud updated last week. Creative Cloud is the bundle of applications photographers and designers and directors and videographers and artists and everyone else use for everything from video editing to product design to the photographs you see here. Central to my interests, this means Photoshop updated. To say that Photoshop is a behemoth of an application is an understatement. One could take classes for years and still not be proficient in everything Photoshop does. Very few pieces of software dominate an industry to the extent Photoshop does the whole of creative arts.

Of course, when Photoshop updates the emphasis is typically on all the new features that have been added because for all the program can do, we want it to do more and we want it to do everything faster. The problem is that in order to achieve that goal, developers are at a point now where they have to leave some older functionality out. This aspect doesn’t get as much attention and unless one wants to go through all the fine print of the production notes one isn’t likely to discover what has been omitted until they need to use something that is no longer there. 

This time around, Photoshop seems to have dropped support for the older (free) version of a set of plugins I have used extensively [late note: a colleague says it’s still supported, but with extra work. I haven’t had time to explore that possibility yet.] From a development perspective, the omission is reasonable. The plugins are several years old and a newer standalone version is available that doesn’t leach off Photoshop’s resources. The problem from a practical perspective is that the new version is no longer free. The new version is $150, which is more than I had planned to spend on software upgrades this month. Or any month. 

Ah, the beauty is that the plugins didn’t do anything that wasn’t already available in the main application. The attraction is that they do it much more efficiently than one would do on their own. You’ll find the images that fueled this entire line of thought by clicking here.

All this turmoil has me thinking about what it means to be creative, how the reality is far more complicated than the end result would make it out to be, how being creative requires flirting with insanity, and the degree to which no one cares about the process, just the end result. Come take a walk with me through my world for a bit. This can get scary. Bring your own alcohol.

What Does It Mean To Be Creative?

What does it mean to be creative

We are constantly asking ourselves whether something is or is not art. That argument has gone to its furthest extreme of “if someone says its art, it is,” and puts any conversation about quality or talent on the defensive. I’m not sure we’re doing society nor artists any favors by being too accepting.

What we’re less likely to discuss is what it means to be creative. Being creative doesn’t just apply to what we might traditionally consider art. Creativity is involved in all manner of science and engineering as well. Where a new discovery comes as the result of a person trying something different or approaching a question from a unique direction, creativity was involved. That means that being creative does not make one artistic. Perhaps, just maybe, the inverse is true as well. Is being artistic always creative? Does writing an essay or taking a picture or finding a new algorithm for calculating the density of peanut butter mean that one is gifted or have we simply learned how to manipulate the elements from which new things are composed or composited?

In his article Being Special Isn’t So Special, Mark Manson attempts to make the argument that if you’re not setting the world on fire with awe-inspiring art or world-changing inventions, that one shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. After examining the progression and complications of contemporary Western society, Manson comes to the following conclusion:

As they say, wherever you go, there you are. Being special isn’t so special. You will still feel frustrated. You will still feel lonely. You will still feel like you could have done more.

Don’t sell yourself out for the sake of attention and false glory. Not that attention and glory are wrong, but they should not be prime motivators that drive your life.


Instead, focus on simplicity. On nuance. Slow down. Breathe. Smile. You don’t need to prove anything to anybody. Including yourself. Think about that for a minute and let it sink in:

You don’t have to prove anything to anybody, including yourself.

I’ll admit, there are days, weeks, months, even years where that “it’s okay, you don’t have to be Da Vinci” attitude has gotten me through some low points. However, as I get older, that attitude, especially over prolonged periods, risks being too defeatist to entertain. Okay, so not every picture I take has to be wonderful. Shouldn’t I at least try to make every photograph eye-popping? Trying and not succeeding is one thing. Not trying at all, however, is quite another. I’m hard-pressed to consider as creative the person for whom hum-drum and ordinary is the goal. 

There is an ad campaign that uses the tag, “for when being ‘okay’ isn’t okay.”  “Okay” meets only the most basic goals; it ticks the fewest boxes possible to be considered complete. “Okay” is life’s C-; sure it’s passing, but it’s a meaningless high school diploma that hangs alone on a wall where nothing else of note was ever accomplished.

I think part of what has to be separated is the act of creativity from the act of performance or presentation. For example, as I’m writing this paragraph (painfully struggling over everything except participles) I’m listening to a portion of Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata (It Came To Pass if you’re really that interested). Where is the greater creativity: in the act of composing by Schnittke or the interpretation by Maestro James DePriest performed by the Malmö Symphony Chorus? There’s no question that there’s immense talent on the part of everyone involved, but where, exactly is the greater creativity demonstrated? Are the soloists as creative as the conductor? Is the maestro any less creative than the composer? Can degrees of creativity even be adequately measured?

Into this stream of steaming consciousness is a new study that suggests there are two types of creativity. Experimental creatives build off their experience, bringing years of trial and error to bear before delivering a seminal, perhaps final work that defines the whole of their career. Conceptual thinkers work from abstract principals, chasing raw thought and following it through to its creative outcome. What’s interesting about this study is that is generally age definitive. Conceptual creatives tend to be younger, primarily people in their 20s who don’t have the life experience that might hold them back from chasing new ideas. Experimental thinkers are more likely to be over 50, have experienced some disappointments in their careers, maybe even changed careers multiple times, before reaching an intricately formed and detailed result. 

There’s something to be said for both approaches and it is entirely possible for a person to fall into both categories at different points in their lives. I look at musicians, especially. LadyGaga raised a bit of a ruckus with her “little monsters” when she tweeted that she doesn’t remember her album ARTPOP. Looking at the quality of the music on that album, comparing it to what came before and what was created after, it’s reasonable that the album falls between the conceptual success of “Born This Way” and the more introspective and perhaps experimental sounds of “Joanne,” but the artist is still quite young and may yet develop a different sound as her voice matures.

Comparatively, not everyone who is successful at an early age tops that first big explosion. Consider T. S. Elliot and Pablo Picasso whose best works (arguably, of course) came when they were young. By contrast, Virginia Wolf and Charles Darwin had a whole lifetime of experience behind the works for which they are best known. One of my favorite examples is Matisse, whose early works are exceptional on their own but have absolutely no relation to the work from his later life that demands to be a topic in every art history course ever taught. 

That doesn’t define, though, what it means to be creative, so let’s toss something even more convoluted into the mix. Adobe, the massive software company whose products directly target creatives, teamed up with the creative agency Anyways and writer/researcher Carolyn Gregoire to create the eight distinctive creative personalities: ‘The Artist’; ‘The Thinker’; ‘The Adventurer’; ‘The Maker’; ‘The Producer’; ‘The Dreamer’; ‘The Innovator’; ‘The Visionary’. The test is based on the Miers-Briggs personality exam which almost everyone on the planet has taken. Using their relatively short testing process, I’m apparently the Dreamer, which lists its strengths as being connected to emotions and imagination, empathy and sensitivity. If you want to take the test for yourself, you can do so here. However, at the end of the exercise, I don’t see the test as definitive of creativity any more than I find the Miers-Briggs anything more than a personality snapshot, a definitive point on an extended timeline. One can fit any of the artistic personality types and still be perfectly satisfied with their life sitting on a couch doing nothing. Personality is a filter that colors our actions, not necessarily a motivator that leads one to act.

Perhaps the end result is that what it means to be creative is as undefinable as attempting to determine what is or is not art. If that is the case, how do we begin quantifying our creative lives? If there is no “this is, that isn’t” determination, then on what basis do we justify people investing in, paying attention to, or distantly regarding our work? Volume? Quality? External perception by peers or “critics?” If some people like the work of Sibelius or Gustav Klimt, why are they enthused by those works while others consider both trash? 

As hard as I look at the topic, I keep finding more questions than I do answers.

What Is The Source Of Creativity, Anyway?

Creative Sources

Ask a thousand people a question, get a thousand answers to fuel a thousand frustrations. I’m half-tempted to ask why we need to ask this question in the first place? Does it really matter what the source of creativity is as long as there is creativity? Creativity isn’t a shared resource where one has to worry about their idea being polluted by someone or something further upstream. Or is it? And there’s the answer to the question of why we need to ask the question. Understanding the source of creativity does not make the ideas come any faster or make them any better, but helps us understand the shared space that creatives occupy, that portion of the universe that plants seeds in our brains and waits for them to grow.

Right from the start, however, one runs into a problem determining the source of creativity in that there is no consensus. There are those who look at creativity as an abstract that “lies deep within the soul of man,” (really, someone wrote that). Then, there are those who look at creativity as a role of brain function or, at least, keep making that attempt. Each of those approaches carries with them a lot of evidence based on the observation of what happens when someone is in the act of being creative. What was someone doing/thinking/eating/experiencing when engaged in a creative activity? Based on one’s perspective, the answers can be rather diverse and, at times, even contradictory, leading one to the conclusion that, no, we really don’t understand the source of creativity.

First, let’s get out of the way the concept that creativity is linked to intelligence. Yeah, sure, you may have read that somewhere, and it may be that most the creatives you know are also intelligent people. However, one does not necessarily infer the other. Dr. Rex Jung, assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, said in an APA interview,

“ … some people have found correlations between creativity and intelligence. They’re usually pretty low, this association. And some people make a lot of that, this low association. But usually, because this association between creativity and intelligence is low, it means that you don’t necessarily have to be intelligent to be creative (source).”

Okay, that’s not the hard break some might have liked. Anecdotally, it often appears that intelligence and creativity are linked, especially if we are looking at scientific forms of creativity, where knowledge of a specific area of study precludes being creative in that field at all. Someone like me, who despite all my efforts still does not understand Algebra, is not likely to have a seminal moment where I solve some math problem that five minutes ago I didn’t realize existed. However, there remain plenty of areas where pre-existing expertise is not requisite to the creative process and, at times, an overabundance of knowledge in certain areas, or even the access to excessive information in an area, can stand in the way of creativity.

Point of fact: following the rabbit trails of research on a topic can cause me to spend a lot of time reading rather than actually writing the article. However, in that case, the intelligence getting in the way is not mine, is it? One can hardly blame the author of an article if they’ve done well enough that I find the words compelling. 

One of those rabbit trails, however, led me to a 1965 article in a now-defunct scholarly magazine called Social Science. In the article, (source registration required) Alfred W. Monk, who was at the time Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Department at Albion College, postures that there are three primary sources of creativity. He alleges that,

“Nature, by virtue of its vastness, its order, its beauty, and its challenges to man, constitutes a source of creativity. Man himself, however, in terms of his higher capacities, represents a higher source of creativity. Yet, if man is to develop and to become creative, he needs the kind of society which is most conducive to the development of his potentialities.”

American poet Walt Whitman would have underscored the influence of Nature. A decade after the Civil War had ended, Whitman mused in his diaries, later published as the collection Specimen Days, of the importance of communicating with trees.

One lesson from affiliating a tree — perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse — what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude toward each other, (even toward ourselves,) than a morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane, slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage — humanity’s invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great-sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.)

No, it’s not an easy read more than a century and a half out from its creation, but Whitman was channeling a communion with nature that was itself introduced by English author Ralph Austen all the way back in 1653 (source). In fact, the period between the late 19th century and early 20th, prior to World War I, saw a global movement in naturism and contemplating gardens and trees and lying about naked among them. This is the atmosphere that raised great photographers such as Horst P. Horst. 

Neither does the concept that humanity itself, one’s own existence and experience, breeds creativity within oneself. The entire rationale of Mindfulness and its related practices such as many forms of yoga underscores and supports the concept that the answers and creativity lie within the self and flow forth most freely as one becomes “in tune” with the self. This is part of ancient traditions going back at least as far as the 15th century.

Where Munk may be unique, and tragically unheard, however, is in the premise that society has an obligation and need to foster creativity. He repeats the philosophical question of whether Newton would have been equally as creative in the Stone Age, in a society where he might have been seen as a magician rather than a man of science. After fussing around the history of philosophical ponderings, Munk makes a final charge.

“Although it is impossible to predict clearly and precisely the basic characteristics of the kind of society most conducive to the production of geniuses, at least three things are possible. First, from a negative standpoint, it is clear that not less than four types tend to stifle creativity: primitive societies; modern totalitarian states; stagnant, traditionalistic and archaic cultures; and any society that is unstable to the point of chaos. The second is simply the fact that any society that aims at maximum creativity must find its way between totalitarianism and authoritarianism, on the one hand, and instability and chaos on the other. The third is the fact that the creative society must be engaged in creative interaction with other societies. There is no instance of any great nation or civilization in isolation.

Remember, Munk is speaking from the perspective of a society that is still attempting but not yet succeeded in landing a human on the moon when he writes, “… it is well to point to the hope that, while we are on the brink of chaos and disaster, we may also be on the verge of the greatest period of creativity that mankind has ever known.” Given all that has happened over the past 50-plus years, Munk seems to have nailed that prediction on the head. 

As I read and ponder all these things I’m still not satisfied that we, collectively, especially from a societal perspective, understand creativity in its purest form or even recognize it when it occurs either within ourselves or, most especially, within others. I worry that far too much of the creative element is only recognized in hindsight, which leads me to the next section of the discussion.

How Are We Defining Creativity?

Go ahead, define creativity

Over the course of this week, when not chasing down the infinite distractions of this topic, or preparing meals for children who are perpetually hungry, or trying to make a dent in the ever-growing mountain of laundry [seriously, how do we have so many clothes?], or troubleshooting an uncooperative computer program, I’ve been processing a set of erotic images with the intention of submitting at least one of them for inclusion in next year’s art shows. The work has been at times tedious and enjoyable and on some emotional level, both exhausting and exhilarating as the production of these ten images has dominated my focus for the week. 

What bothers me about investing so much creative capital into a set of pictures is the constant concern that, short of me standing right next to the observer explaining to them what they are seeing, they will neither understand nor appreciate what they are viewing. I know that I’m not alone in harboring that fear, either. We have all been pelted with stories of artists and scientists and creatives of various kinds whose work was completely ignored until after their deaths. At times during the educational process, there seemed to be a subliminal messaging that to be creative is to doom oneself to obscurity in this lifetime and fame after our name has been forgotten.

One prime example that has received a fair amount of attention only in the past few years is the fact that it was women, specifically black women such as Katherine Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn, Miriam Mann, Christine Darden, and Annie Easly whose work, largely unheralded before the release of a movie about their contributions, who are responsible for many of the creative advances in both science and art through the latter part of the 20th century and into the beginning of this one (source). What if the movie Hidden Figures had never been made? Would anyone outside their most immediate family have recognized their creativity before their deaths? 

I am thoroughly convinced that a lot of people sit on creative thoughts and ideas, never sharing them or pursuing them to any degree, for fear of being ridiculed, told their ideas are silly, or being told they’re wasting their time. The problem starts when we’re young. Parents and preschool teachers who have a lot on their minds find it too easy to push aside a child whose creative bantering is disruptive. As children enter school, they’re told to sit down, be quiet, let someone else do the talking. By the time they’re teenagers, even those with immense talent in specific public areas of art and entertainment are they shouldn’t hum while reading, or drum their fingers on the desk, or doodle on their test papers. It is the rare individual who survives this system into adulthood with their creativity fully intact. 

Yet, I am fully aware that there is a perfectly legitimate and authoritative argument that knowledge within a particular standardized framework is necessary to develop creativity in more rigid areas of study, such as math, economics, and physics. Economist Tim Leunig argues that creativity is born of skills that are developed in the classroom and sites the manner in which Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine as evidence. As mentioned previously, there are certain forms of creativity that can only come with a specific amount of knowledge already in place. Leunig and others refer to it as a creative form of literacy that, when absent, creativity has difficulty establishing a foothold (source).

Part of the challenge is that creativity in a field such as mathematics is not the same as creativity in the arts. A painter might come up with an elegant manner of expressing a math problem, be completely and utterly wrong about the math problem, and it still is art. If a mathematician were to express the same incorrect problem within the language common to that field, they would be ridiculed, scorned, and possibly driven out of business. 

Julian Astle, the former director of Creative and Learning Development for the RSA, has written that “Creativity is not a single thing, but in fact a whole collection of similar, but different, processes.” Hence, we have difficulty recognizing creativity at different levels and in different fields because we’re looking in too narrow a zone. 

For example, if we’re looking at an Ansel Adams photograph of the American desert, the tendency is likely to appreciate it for its framing, for the way in which Adams captures light at just the right angle to make the image aesthetically astonishing. What we often miss, however, is Adams’ genius in calculating when that light was going to appear, the precise time at which it would appear, and the conditions that had to exist for the light to appear at all. What is often praised for its aesthetic creativity is perhaps more astonishing for its scientific creativity and use of knowledge to create something visually pleasing. While there is no question that the photographer had a creative vision, he also had a creative application of knowledge that facilitated that vision. To fully appreciate the photograph, then, we have to consider not only what was captured but how it was captured and even the manner in which the photograph was processed. 

Inversely, the presence of artistic skill does not predicate creative ability. The Suzuki Method of teaching music, for example, is often criticized for producing musical automatons. Yes, the four-year-old knows how to play Mozart with technical precision, but the aesthetic value is lacking. Music requires more than just an iteration of notes and sounds in a specific order. A digital machine can just as easily reproduce the pure sound as can the four-year-old. However, there is still a noticeable difference between the child’s performance and that of a master such as Yoyo Ma The child is reciting notes on an instrument much as they might recite “Mary had a little lamb.” Ma is creating something new, something different, every time he picks up his cello, even if the notes on the page are exactly the same.

At this point, I have to insert the existence of composer John Cage (1912-1992). Cage was to contemporary Western music what Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was to contemporary art. The fact that the two avant-garde artists were friends set up one of the greatest events of public art in the 20th century [you’ll have to read more about that here.]. As a composer, however, Cage’s perspective on creativity and music and sound was unique, influenced not only by Dadaism and his fascination with music theory but by Zen Buddhism and the concept of silence. 

When in the 1940s the Muzak Corporation began piping music into offices everywhere as well as subway platforms and department store elevators, Cage led the revolt by composing the piece 4’33”. Asserting that silence was as important to music as sound, the premiere performance of that piece in 1952 went something like this:

  • Pianist David Tudor walked on to the stage at a chamber music hall in Woodstock, New York (yes, that Woodstock).
  • Tudor sat at the piano and propped up six black pieces of paper.
  • He shut the lid to the piano.
  • He clicked a stopwatch.
  • At the 30 second mark, Tudor opens the piano lid, pauses, then shuts it again.
  • Rain begins to fall (Cage had nothing to do with that … I think).
  • Tudor repeated his actions after two minutes and 23 seconds.
  • Audience members began to leave.
  • One minute and 40 seconds later, Tudor opened the piano lid, stood up, and bowed. The performance was over.

The audience was livid to the point that some wanted to run Tudor and Cage out of town. The response from every “respectable” music critic in the country ferociously declared that 4’33” was insulting to audiences and to the music community. Even Cage’s own mother told him the work was trash. 

Not everyone saw it as a waste, however. Musicians such as John Lennon and Frank Zappa would later hail it as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (source). 

Abstract painter Willem de Keunig was once (perhaps apocryphally) debating art with Cage when he made a rectangle with his fingers and placed them around a scattering of bread crumbs on the table. “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs, that isn’t art,” De Kooning said. 

Cage disagreed. “The frame is everything,” he said. 

Out of context, everything is just noise. The sound of wind rustling through the leaves. The whir of a finely tuned car engine. A violin playing a lone melody. All nothing more than irritants until they are provided a frame, a context that reveals the genius of creativity. Suddenly, we see and hear and understand things in a different light, we appreciate their beauty, we place value on their existence.

With that understanding, or at least from that perspective, perhaps it makes sense to say that creativity on its own is just noise. If I write a song, something I did once upon a time, but no one ever hears it, or the people for whom it is played are unable to understand it, what was created holds little value. Sure, I might like it (I rarely do) but is it enough to create for our own understanding or our own pleasure? If we do not create to the benefit of someone or something outside ourselves, is there value to creativity at all? The answer seems to depend on whom one asks.

Who Owns Creative Property?

Who owns this mess

If there is value to creativity, and let’s assume for the moment that there is if for no other reason than the deepened depression that comes with the alternative is debilitating, then there is an inevitability to the question of who owns that value. Normally, I would reference some piece of law at this point, but when it comes to the overall survey of creativity, the law only serves to confuse and discourage us even more. This topic is a real-world nightmare that does nothing more than make millionaires of lawyers who spend years arguing without end. We have constructed a nightmare by attempting to hold the value of creativity to something that can be bought, sold, traded, franchised, and licensed. None of it makes a damn lick of sense and it only serves those whose understanding of creativity is completely self-serving.

A significant portion of the week has had the perils of Taylor Swift filling my Twitter feed. The country-turned-pop diva left the label, Big Machine, because of alleged improprieties on the part of Scooter Braun, one of the company’s big wigs. No, it’s not because it’s impossible to take seriously anyone named Scooter. This runs deep and has its own legal issues taking place somewhere else. This week’s particular challenge is that, in exchange for spending millions of dollars building Ms. Swift’s career, Big Machine owns the rights to all the songs she recorded during that period, even if she wrote them herself, which applies to a large portion of her back catalog. Scooter was not part of Big Machine while Ms. Swift was under contract there. He bought the label after Ms. Swift had left. Because of their previous legal difficulties, everyone knew it was just a matter of time before this became nasty.

This week, Ms. Swift claimed that Big Machine was refusing to allow her to perform any of her old songs at the upcoming American Music Awards. Their alleged justification was that doing so amounted to re-recoding the songs (because the show is taped) and Swift isn’t allowed to do that until next year. 

Scooter says, “Did not, she’s just trying to get me in trouble.” Okay, those weren’t the exact words, but reading the explanation issued on Friday, it reminded me far too much of the arguments between children when a parent was not present to witness the alleged grievance. The whole mess is missing any substantial evidence on the part of either party and, quite honestly, the best response might be to send all parties to their room without any dinner. 

What the on-going argument does, however, is to highlight the perils and, often, the futility creatives face when attempting to monetize their creations. Every form of copyright and patent law upholds the rights of the creator to claim ownership of the created—sort of. If one discovers something or creates something of value while in the employment of another entity who might benefit from that discovery or creation, then the employer may own the rights to what was created. Check the small print of your employment contract. This is just the tip of a very big iceberg where the matter of creative rights depends on the specific circumstances around the how, where, when and why of creation complicated by whether it was sold, how it was sold, and whether the person doing the selling had the rights to sell in the first place. Yes, the whole mess is muddy and discouraging.

There are basically three general areas of protection: patent, copyright, and license. The most simple breakdown goes something like this:

  • Patents apply to physical objects or processes involving physical objects or the plan/concept for physical objects.
  • Copyright applies to any item created through the general artistic process, regardless of medium nor the manner in which the item might be presented. 
  • License is the means through which a patent or copyright holder allows someone else to utilize, perform, display, or otherwise make use of that protected property.

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But, of course, nothing ever is as easy as we’d like and there are more crooks and crevices within intellectual property law than one could adequately cover in a dozen books. 

One of the most significant problems comes when one tries to sell something they’ve created. For centuries, especially within the field of the arts, once something was sold, whether a song or a photo or a sculpture, ownership moved from the creator to the buyer. The buyer was then free to do whatever they wish with the object, even to the point of destroying it. Creatives often felt left out when the buyer would then go on to make a fortune re-selling their creation. I cannot help but think of this every time I see a painting selling at auction for millions of dollars. Be sure, the artist isn’t making a freaking dime from that resale. 

Licensing was developed as a way for creatives to continue making money off their creation as the value of that creation grows. For example, if the Associated Press called me up and asked to use one of my photos of the Vice President, I would likely sell them a limited use license that allows for a specific manner of distribution while maintaining the copyright in my own possession. I could then enter into a similar agreement with another media entity if someone else asked to use the same photo. 

The problem with licensing is that it may work too well. When the concept was developed in the 1920s, it centered primarily on intangible assets. However, with the advent of computers, software companies such as Microsoft utilized the concept of selling licenses so that they could re-sell and simultaneously limit the use of their software, creating different rules, and pricing, to apply to differing circumstances. As more and more of the creative world has moved to the use of digital tools, we’re finding that many of those tools require individual licensing.

For example, not only do I have to license Photoshop in order to process my photographs, but I have to also license fonts for various type, brushes and patterns for various effects, and even some specific color palettes. This drives up the cost of every image I process. I have the choice, then, to either absorb the license fees as a cost of doing business, or I can attempt to reclaim those by adding them on to the price of images that are sold. 

I don’t especially like the licensing system, though. Imagine if the same philosophy was applied to building a house. I might license the lumber from Home Depot, my hammer from Stanley, my saws from Stihl, and my nails from someone else. Obviously, I would factor the cost of those licenses into the price of the house, but what happens if, in the middle of the project, Stanley decides that they are discontinuing the license for the hammer I’m using. I’m supposed to return the hammer and obtain a new model which, big surprise, costs twice as much. This impacts the cost of building the house, but the person buying the house is likely to be quite upset and may even cancel the contract if I go back mid-project and try to raise the price.

Another sore spot in the area of digital licensing is that many products are licensed based on a subscription. Maintain the subscription and the license is in force. Drop the subscription and one can no longer use the product. Never mind that the real value of the product is considerably less than the accumulated subscription cost, to continue using them is a copyright violation.

Yet, the people who created those tools deserve to be justly compensated, do they not? And being that digital product is intangible, it is subject to licensing where products such as lumber and hammers and saws are not. The situation exists because so many of the creatives involved are freelance, part of a gig economy that leaves fair payment for one’s creativity up to an ungrateful end user who thinks they should get everything for free, including end product. Instead of being supportive by buying products and services outright, the society that should be supportive of creativity in all forms instead starves it to death with inappropriate payment systems that keep us all on proverbial street corners looking for handouts.

And that leads us to the final thought.

Are Creatives Crazy Or Are Crazy People Creative?

who are you calling crazy

Honestly, I don’t know creative people in any field that haven’t had their bouts with mental illness of one form or another. I sit here almost every Saturday questioning my value, wondering if I’m the only one who thinks my work has value, and questioning my worth as a person. Plenty of others have it worse, fighting with suicidal thoughts on a regular basis and dealing with urges of self-harm. We may make jokes about van Gogh cutting off his ear, but the number of creatives across every field who hide scars with long sleeves or, more recently, heavily inked tattoos, is higher than anyone can accurately measure. Not only do we suffer, but most also suffer in complete silence.

I have found it interesting as I’ve looked at this subject in sometimes painful detail the number of psychopathological challenges that have been found common among creatives.

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Manic ideations
  • Suicide

Every study seems to have their favorite malady and plenty of famous anecdotal subjects who conveniently fit the diagnosis that particular psychopathology despite not being available to participate in an actual study, usually due to having been dead for a hundred years or so. 

On the surface, it’s easy enough to accept such studies because of our own need to explain the mood swings, the sudden outburst of anger followed by uncontrollable crying, hearing voices when no one else is in the room, and the persistent urge to drive one’s head into a wall, among other symptoms. 

The fly in this seemingly obvious ointment is Alan Rothenberg’s book Flight from Wonder: An Investigation of Scientific Creativity. In preparation for this book, Dr. Rothenberg interviewed 45 Nobel Laureates and failed to find a single instance of a psychiatric disorder. None. Zero. Some of the most creative people in the world and they don’t exhibit any of the plagues that seem to haunt the minds of others. That kind of puts a pin in all the other studies who looked at more “average” creatives.

Maybe part of the problem is that we’re not reaching our creative potential and that is making us crazy? There’s certainly an argument for that, but there is no hard scientific evidence in support of the theory. 

What does seem almost certain is that Cognitive Disinhibition plays a roll in what is at the very least considered artistic eccentricity. Cognitive Disinhibition is the inability to ignore the things we would be better off ignoring. You know, like constantly chasing rabbit trails instead of sticking to the research one needs to do. For anyone who has Cognitive Disinhibition, the Internet and especially social media are like death traps. The overabundance of information constantly changing and being updated feeds that inability to filter out information we don’t really need to know (source).

Where does that leave us? A 2013 study says this:

Reduced cognitive filtering could explain the tendency of highly creative people to focus intensely on the content of their inner world at the expense of social or even self-care needs. (Beethoven, for example, had difficulty tending to his own cleanliness.) When conscious awareness is overpopulated with unusual and unfiltered stimuli, it is difficult not to focus attention on that inner universe.”

That might explain how many creative people end up seeming antisocial or having difficulty participating in social events. The same researcher says in a similar study:

In all of our studies and analyses, high IQ, when combined with low LI, was associated with increased creative achievement. These results are particularly stunning in the analysis of eminent achievers and high-functioning controls. High IQ clearly appeared to augment the tendency toward high creative achievement characteristic of low-LI individuals.

These results lend support to the theory that there may be qualitative (e.g., failure to filter out irrelevant stimuli) as well as quantitative (e.g., high IQ) differences in the processes underlying creative versus normal cognition.”

Just for clarity, LI in this instance stands for latent inhibition, “the varying capacity of the brain to screen from current attentional focus stimuli previously experienced as irrelevant.” So, to summarize, intelligent people who are easily distracted are also more likely to be more creative. That’s nice to know, I suppose, but it doesn’t explain why so many creatives are happy taking a handful of sleeping pills and never waking up.

Hold on, Dr. Carson isn’t done. In yet another article she and her colleagues write:

“…These results also support the theory that highly creative individuals and psychotic-prone individuals may possess neurobiological similarities, perhaps genetically determined, that present either as psychotic predisposition on the one hand or as unusual creative potential on the other on the basis of the presence of moderating cognitive factors such as high IQ (e.g., Berenbaum & Fujita, 1994; Dykes & McGhie, 1976; Eysenck, 1995). These moderating factors may allow an individual to override a “deficit” in early selective attentional processing with a high-functioning mechanism at a later, more controlled level of selective processing. The highly creative individual may be privileged to access a greater inventory of unfiltered stimuli during early processing, thereby increasing the odds of original recombinant ideation. Thus, a deficit that is generally associated with pathology may well impart a creative advantage in the presence of other cognitive strengths such as high IQ.”

Translation: The whole matter may be one of genetics. The same genes that result in mental incapacities in some people may create “unusual creative potential” in others, with the possibility that a person and shift back and forth between the two. In short: we’re born this way, baby.

Oh, but this gets way crazier. If we recognize that there’s a problem we have to try and solve it, right? Famously, Timothy Leary and others tried using LSD and other drugs and while it might have made them more creative for a period it also made any mental issues worse. So, we’ve all been told to stay away from psychedelic drugs.

Until a couple of years ago. Microdosing. Are you familiar with the term? It’s when a drug is administered at levels significantly lower than the norm. One of its most common uses is in hormone therapy where it’s shown significant promise. Now, apply that to psychedelic drugs, specifically LSD.

A 2018 study showed that people who microdose LSD and mushrooms score higher on wisdom, creativity, and open-mindedness while scoring lower on dysfunctional attitudes and negative emotionality. While this is far from being any kind of a cure, it is some sign that there are at least options that might momentarily mute some of the more negative symptoms that creatives regularly endure.

Pardon Me While I Soak My Head

I'm done

Seriously, my head is throbbing. It’s now late Saturday night, stress has created a pain at the base of my skull, and I’m trying to find a way to wrap up this bitch of an article so I can take a hit of scotch and go to bed. I’m not convinced that all this research this week has actually solved anything except that I have a lot more information in my head now to contribute to all the Cognitive Disinhibition. 

Here’s where my brain is at for the moment.

  1. Those of us who are genuinely creative are damn lucky. There are a lot of people who work in creative-related areas that can’t actually produce a damn thing but have been led to believe that they are creatives. Their frustration is significantly higher than the rest of us and many end up in mental institutions … doing art therapy.
  2. Creativity has a mind of its own and shows up whenever, wherever, and for whatever reason it wants. There are a thousand ways to stimulate the creative mind and no, not all of them are healthy, but when every molecule in your brain is telling you that you have to create something then consequences be damned, we’re going to create. Something.
  3. Creativity can be the answer to a math problem no one else can figure out or a smattering of bread crumbs on a table or the cacophony of a dozen ring tones smashed together and punctuated with rhythmic silence. What matters is the frame, the context, how one allows others to experience their work. If you think you’ve made a freaking masterpiece then show it off like a freaking masterpiece, not in your mother’s garage.
  4. What you create is always a part of you even if it is no longer with you. Possession is an illusion. If you create something, it is yours. If someone else can rif off what you created, let them because in doing so you celebrate the creativity you both share. Nothing worthwhile deserves to be locked away by any means physical, contractual, or digital. Sing your songs. Make your art. Discover new worlds. Let no one tell you no.
  5. It’s not being creative that presents mental illness, it’s the pressure, whether internal or external, to create that drives us right smack over the edge. Creatives are under constant pressure to produce more and as we do it is supposed to be different and better and more astonishing than what we did last time. Feel free to call bullshit on that whole scenario. 
  6. Someone needs to be taking care of creatives because, for the most part, we do a lousy job taking care of ourselves. We’re a mess, ya’ll. And while we should embrace the mess that we are, let’s get real and appreciate that there are probably days/weeks/months that we shouldn’t be left alone in a room where there are sharp objects. We need people to check on us and not believe us when we say that we’re fine. We’re creatives. We’re not “fine.”
  7. We all need more sleep.

There is a long-haired orange tabby kitten peering over the edge of my laptop most likely wondering if I’m going to get anything to eat and if I do whether he can mooch some if it. He gets his balls lopped off on Monday. We are removing an element of creativity from him. 

Too many days I feel as though I’ve had my creative balls lopped off.  I go back over the questions I’ve asked here and despite all the research, I can’t answer any of them. Then, a poem comes to mind from the pen of Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose depression and exhaustion drove him into a manner of solitude. He wrote, in part,

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,   
Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
   Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
   Left of six hundred.


When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

My creative friends, we are the six hundred. Charge on.

Leave a Reply