ThinkingIs creativity a “discovery” process or a “construction” process?

Is creativity a “discovery” process or a “construction” process?

When I create something new, do I construct it myself, or was it “out there” already and I just happened to be the one to discover it?

This may seem like impractical philosophy, but it does have impacts on how you go about creative work. For example, this paper from 2007, by A Alvarez and JB Barney, asks the question: “Do entrepreneurial opportunities exist, independent of the perceptions of entrepreneurs, just waiting to be discovered? Or, are these opportunities created by the actions of entrepreneurs?”

“Do entrepreneurial opportunities exist, independent of the perceptions of entrepreneurs, just waiting to be discovered? Or, are these opportunities created by the actions of entrepreneurs?”

Their paper outlines implications for pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities depending on which of these possibilities holds: discovery or construction.

In this post I want to look at examples of creativity being a “discovery” process. In a forthcoming post I’ll look at those who think creativity is a “construction” process.

Tolstoy on creativity

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy introduces a minor character, Mikhailov, a painter. There’s a sequence of a few pages where he seems to use Mikhailov to muse on the creative process. It’s clear Tolstoy understands that creativity is hard, skilled, work: Mikhailov works hard; and his work is emotionally draining; and he also has great technical skill. Nonetheless, some of the language Tolstoy uses implies that the discovery of something that was already “out there” plays a role in creativity as well.

For example, Mikhailov muses on his painting of Christ before Pilate: “The dearest face of all, the face of Christ, the focus of the picture, which had delighted him so when he discovered it…” (italics mine). It’s as if this face already existed somewhere else, and Mikhailov discovers it by painting it. Elsewhere Mikhailov is drawing a figure and it’s “as if he removed the wrappings that kept it from being fully seen.”

“…as if he removed the wrappings that kept it from being fully seen.”

The metaphor implies that it’s a pre-existing figure he is uncovering, rather than a figure he is drawing from nothing. This metaphor of removing the wrappings from something, as if it were there and just needed to be uncovered, is used a number of times in this sequence by Tolstoy. Most sadly here, where on one of his finished paintings, Mikhailov “still saw on almost all the figures and faces the remains of wrappings not yet completely removed, which marred the painting.”

For Tolstoy, painting is more about removing wrappings to reveal a pre-existing figure that you have discovered, than a process of construction on a blank canvas.

(By the way, I’m quoting here from Pevear and Volokhonsky’s, 2000 Penguin translation, pp469 ff. If you haven’t read Anna Karenina in this translation, do yourself a favour! Also, if you’re not watching the modern retelling of Anna Karenina, “The Beautiful Lie“, on ABC 1, catch up on iView – it’s fantastic).

Michelangelo on sculpture

Michelangelo speaks of sculpture this way:

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

It’s almost the same metaphor as Tolstoy is using. The figure is there already, in the marble. Michelangelo just needs to “unwrap” it – to remove the excess marble that “imprisons” it.

You can see this most wonderfully in Michelangelo’s unfinished pieces in the Accademia Gallery in Florence – “the prisoners”. These forms are only half “unwrapped” from their marble – forever staying imprisoned – not yet free:

michelangelo prisoners

Image from the Accademia Gallery, Florence, website.

Michelangelo seems to be discovering these figures in the marble, not constructing them.

Ruth Stone on poetry

Elizabeth Gilbert gives a great TED talk on creativity where she tells of a meeting she had with the American poet Ruth Stone, then in her 90s (this quote is at 10:20 in the video):

“When she was growing up in rural Virginia … she would be out working in the fields. And she said she would like feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a “thunderous train of air”. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew that she had only one thing to do at that point. And that was to, in her words, “run like hell”. And she would run like hell to the house, and she would be getting chased by this poem. And the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough, so that when it thundered through her she could collect it, and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough. So she would be like running and running and running and she wouldn’t get to the house. And the poem would like barrel through her and she would miss it. And she said it would continue on across the landscape looking, as she put it, “for another poet”.”

The idea of a poem looking for a poet is striking. This is probably the strongest statement on creativity as “discovery” you’re likely to hear.

Classical mathematics

Classical mathematicians would say that they discover truths that pre-exist “out there”. They would see their task as discovery, not construction. Hilbert, of the Formalist School of the 1920s was a big proponent of this way of thinking. He got into a battle with the “intuitionistic” school of mathematics that held that mathematics was a constructivist activity. I will have more to say on this in a future post.

Over to you

Have you had an experience, where you have been undertaking a creative activity, and it has felt more like discovery than construction? I would love to hear about it – post a comment below. And if you haven’t signed up to the weekly update of these posts, you can do so by hitting the subscribe button in the top right of the screen.

Some other news

I had a number of responses last week to my post on reframing and its role in creativity. In particular, a couple of people weren’t convinced that the chance of rolling a 1 with two dice was 11 in 36, and not the intuitive 1 in 3. I’ve done a bonus post with two different proofs of it being 11 in 36. Have a look if you’re interested.

Also, some sad news. I had a lot of responses to my post what our family guinea pig taught me about creativity. It seems it struck a chord. Sadly, the star of that post, the indomitable guinea, Fili, died last Friday, after a short illness. Vale Fili. To paraphrase First Dog on the Moon, it’s amazing how much space a little guinea pig takes up in your heart.2015-07-24 18.16.49