Monday, February 27, 2012

Creativity . . . (Considered a second time)

Creativity is a productive effort that combines novelty and utility.  In my last post, I attempted to raise some issues about Psychology's attempt to give a working definition for creativity.  The main ideas were that novelty and utility need to be firmly contextualized.  Without context, both attributes can be useful guideposts at best and boring empty words at worst.  Furthermore, context allows for a deeper analysis.  I type before you now, making the bold claim: Creativity must be evaluated using some form of emotional and aesthetic criteria.  Creative things have that strange ability to make humanity feel something and remark on beauty.  To be sure, not all things created find themselves being evaluated positively.  In addition, some things are very beautiful (aesthetic) while not being particularly emotional.  Here are some examples.  The rugged design and gas blow back system of the AK47 rifle make this an extremely useful weapon.  At the time, Kalashnikov created a novel weapon platform that was more useful than any other automatic battle rifle.  I would argue that this weapon is creative, by our psychological definition, yet it lacks in positive emotional valence and aesthetics.  AK47s are not pretty.  They look like clunky machine guns.  Also, I find it rather hard to make any positive emotional connections to a tool that allows for such a great deal of destruction in such a small space.  True, connections of firearms to senses of personal freedom and liberty could be made, but, this is not a course on psychopathology.  A second example, concerning something beautiful but low on emotional valence, is the proof for infinite prime numbers.  I won't bore you with the actual proof.  It takes only seven or eight lines to demonstrate with absolute certainty that the number of primes is infinite.  Think about that.  A few sentences and one can prove a universal law about numbers.  The sheer elegance of this proof is a thing of beauty.  The precision of the thought and axiomatic application is absolutely amazing in the most unemotional way possible.  I urge you to look up this proof for yourself.  In the end you will be a smarter human being.  You will also be rather underwhelmed. (Note to reader: Do not bring this proof out at parties.  Downer. Trust me.)

So what are some things out there that are new, useful, emotionally fun, and beautiful?  What contexts do they need?  What are the components that make them up?  All of these questions defy any simple answer.  The specter of relativity looms near, forcing any examples and analysis to be somewhat subjective.  What I present may bore you.  On the other hand, the following two creative acts may really hit the nail on the head.  These examples are more in the middle of the spectrum of novelty and utility.  That said, these examples strike me as ways in which creativity exemplifies positive emotion and aesthetic beauty.

Anyone who has taken a world music class knows about the postal workers from Ghana.  If you have not heard these men go about processing mail, then you are in for a treat.

This is a recording made in 1975 of several postal workers cancelling stamps.  Basically, they were checking if the stamps were affixed to the envelopes and then marking the envelopes as ready to be delivered.  Imagine that, stamping mail for eight hours a day.  That would be some of the most mind numbing work possible.  Yet, stamping is percussive.  The sliding of letters creates a certain swish sound.  As Bacall said, "Just put your lips together and blow."  Creativity rears its head here by doing several things.  Putting boring work to song makes for happier workers (utility).  The use of stamps and letters as musical instruments is a wonderful example of analogical reasoning being done on everyday objects (novelty).  The song is catchy at the least.  The mixing of contemporary filing with traditional rhythms lightens the mood, both for listener and worker (emotional).  Finally, the simple and elegant combination of musical production with clerical work is beautiful.  As listener, we are given an example of the human mind needing more than just simple survival (aesthetic).  Work is necessary, but let's make it fun and pleasant sounding.  This example strikes me as being somewhere in the middle of the continuum of useful/boring and useless/high art.  I would argue that this act of creativity is best appreciated as an example of creativity being a necessary part of the day.  The creative product is neat but ultimately only somewhat useful.  The act of creation and coordination by these workers/musicians demonstrates the need of the human mind for something more than what is provided.  Creativity is used in such a way so that one can become a greater master of one's environment.

As a kid, I had a Star Wars lunch box.  I thought it was awesome.  There was Han and Luke doing adventuresome things.  Invariably, I had a piece of fruit, sandwich, some cookies, and a thermos of milk.  Lunch was always very similar.  Eventually, my box was scuffed and scratched.  Han blasted away evil with what looked like a small broom handle.  At around this time, I stopped thinking my lunch box was awesome.  Basically, it would have been really great if some part of my lunch kept me connected to my fantasies and was somehow replenished everyday.  Well, the Japanese figured out how to do this, the answer is kyaraben.  In Japanese culture, kids to business workers bring a box of lunch to school or work.  These lunch boxes (Bento boxes) are usually a base of rice with some vegetables and proteins.  So where is the creativity?  Please follow this next link and take a moment or two looking at these lunch boxes.  Each one is made by a mom or dad somewhere in Japan who just couldn't stand sending a kid or spouse to work with boring lunch.

Every single bento is made with popular lunchtime foods.  Ham, cheese, seaweed, rice, vegetables, and sausage are re-purposed as art supplies.  Some boxes are popular kids cartoons, while others are inside jokes amongst adults.  Also, these are made five days a week minimum.  Again, we have some amazing analogical thought here.  Food becomes representational media.  Seaweed becomes hair or eyeball.  The detail is limited only by technique and time spent.
So how is this creative?  Think about getting children to eat a balanced diet.  These boxes generally have over 10 ingredients in them.  The child is being given a diverse diet in such a manner as to be fun to eat.  Salad as salad is boring.  Salad as super popular cartoon monster is cool.  The restructuring of food is creative.  The added nutrition is useful.  Also, these make life fun.  Seeing your favorite character or seeing your favorite joke is a sign that someone understands you.  Finally, some of these are really pretty.  I may not be comfortable saying that food Pikachu is beautiful, but it is much more aesthetically pleasing than the Hot Pockets I often have.  Once again, context is very helpful in seeing these whimsy boxes as truly creative.  These lunches illustrate how families or even just lovers feel the need to communicate in fun and creative ways.  By adding just a few more steps, people creatively communicate very important feelings like care and love. 

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