Sir Ken Robinson says that creativity is "the process of having original ideas that have value."
That's an interesting definition and a debatable one.
His definition is similar to most other definitions of creativity. They all suggest that something new and original is required and that the new thing must have some tangible or practical value, if only as a source of inspiration hung on a wall.
This is far too limiting for me.
Consider the following example.
Suppose a Navy cook is responsible for making breakfast every day for his shipmates. Every Monday he makes scrambled egg tacos. Every Tuesday it's French toast with raspberry syrup. On Wednesday he makes Oatmeal with apricots and raisins. Thursday is waffles with nut butter and banana. And so on until he reaches Monday again and starts over.
Each day the cook carefully follows the same procedure as the week before.
There is nothing new.
Clearly, this work has value for the sailors and they enjoy the quality of the food.
Would we say that his cooking is not creative?
Even though the ideas are not new, something new is created each day. Yes, the something created is identical to what has been created before, but is it not still being created? Is this not creativity just the same?
Most artists, especially early in their careers, learn to imitate their predecessors, sometimes creating identical copies of the works of others. Is this not a creative act?
Would you say that a great forger is less of an artist than the original? Many would say so. Creativity and art have become associated only with something new and original.
So often we think that in order to have value as artists that we must do something new in a way never seen before. However, most experienced writers understand that their contribution to the uniqueness of a work is small compared to all the forms and standards that have laid the groundwork.
The only reason new and original has so much emphasis is the same reason cliches in writing are frowned upon. When something is so familiar as to become boring, it loses its meaning and it ceases to hold the interest of the observer. There is nothing magical about this. It just becomes boring and predictable. Different is what grabs our attention. But isn't the ten millionth copy of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa just as magical for one who has never seen it before?
The Navy cook is just as much an artist on the fifty-second Monday as he was on the first. And even after his shipmates have grown bored of the routine and stopped seeing the cook as the artist he is, the only thing required for the Navy cook to be perceived as an artist again is that he periodically does something to reawaken his shipmates. It could be a blue plate instead of white. It might be a different greeting: "Enjoy your meal, sailor," instead of "Hurry it up, seaman!" Or perhaps a sprig of green parsley in place of a splatter of hot sauce.
Many of us do not think of such things as works of art.
We do not think of bolts pressed in a machine and flying off an assembly line, each individually, as a product of creativity. But they are. The first was seen as a work of art. It was--and it brought value. And though we as observers may struggle to find meaning in each subsequent bolt, it remains an ongoing act of creativity.
Similarly, the art forger joins in the act of creativity spawned by the original painter.
Creativity is valuable to us for solving problems and engages us with the world around us, and the tiniest variation in an otherwise mundane world is a work of art, our own stamp of uniqueness.
Creativity itself cannot be created, only nourished or starved. It is part and parcel of the human experience. We create for survival, but we also create because it's beautiful and because it is a reflection, in the world, of who we are inside.
In a world where the bolts on the assembly line are seen as mere problems to be solved instead of the works of art they are in an ongoing miracle of creation, we may start to see other human beings as mere objects. We end up with assembly line medicine or mass market products engineered to appeal to the most people. The problem with such things is not that they exist, but what people may come to believe about them, that art is unnecessary, that they represent the final solution to the problem.
Is it ironic that so many of the great innovations are rarely seen as such from the start? Scientific discoveries are ridiculed or laughed at, such as Galileo's premise that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system. Many of the biggest blockbuster books were roundly rejected by numerous publishers. In the Harry Potter series, for example, J. K. Rowlings' first book was rejected by twelve publishers before finally being accepted for publication. The rest is history, of course.
I am reminded of the story of an eight year old child of the 1930s who, today, would likely be labeled with ADHD and medicated into normalcy. Lucky for us all, a particularly creative medical doctor saw her differently, in a way no one else had. He saw the beauty in creation instead of an abnormal imperfection. As a result she has filled the world with art and beauty for the past 80+ years of her life.
Her story is told by Sir Ken Robinson in the TED Talk titled "Do Schools Kill Creativity." I include the relevant excerpt in text below: