Look back to see now
– Guy Debord
Creativity is about working within systems. In other words, products of the mind are not inherently creative of themselves, but creative within a system of rules and structures that are sometimes applied, sometimes destabilised and sometimes inverted, subverted or completely rejected.
Even when rules and systems are rejected and subverted, part of the creative process involves consciousness and knowledge of the system itself.
In other words, there is no such thing as a creative vacuum. Creative artifacts, whether they are in traditional forms or avant-garde high-tech ones, speak to the past and acknowledge the current social context.
How important is the past to the creative present?
Creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes that precedent, in the form of systems and rules, is essential for producing useful and impactful creative artifacts:
A person who wants to make a creative contribution not only must work within a creative system but must also reproduce the system in his or her mind.”
Reproducing the system means learning its rules, the boundaries of the domain or discipline, the criteria for validity and selection, as well as the conventions for research, form and expression.
For the writer, artist, designer and scientist internalisation of the system requires looking back.
The writer reads prolifically, immersing herself in groups where writing is analysed and discussed.
“ If you’re musician, you should know a lot about music, that is, you’ve heard music, you remember music, you could repeat a song if you have to. ”
The artist looks at work and analyses its production and meaning. She uses the work of critics to ascertain standards for credibility and validity.
The scientist applies precedent in a much more formal, systematised way – examination of past results is an obligatory part of the research process.
Work needs to be anchored to what came before to be unique, and to its social context to be impactful. Both require a regard for history and precedent.
The creative must nurture what inventor Jacob Rabinow calls “a big database” of information about their field:
If you’re musician, you should know a lot about music, that is, you’ve heard music, you remember music, you could repeat a song if you have to.”
Immersion can easily also turn into procrastination.
So here is a list of the ways you can actively use work from the past to create today:
1. Active engagement
Active engagement with a creative artifact from the past requires taking notes, whether mentally or on paper, about the work. What does it mean? What strategies does it use to make meaning? What is its form and how does the form communicate its message. What does the work itself speak back to? What are the philosophical ideas that the work is founded on? Does the work work: does it achieve its aims?
2. If a creative strategy works, use it
Kids are fantastic at watching what adults do then copying. Adults can use copying too. When you’ve analysed a creative artifact from the past and ascertained its strategy, emulate it.
This applies to everything from writing good advertising copy to a literary masterpiece. Sometimes the difference between work that gets traction and that doesn’t is not in the original ideas you implemented, but rather in whose strategies you copied.
3. If a creative strategy from the past doesn’t work, tweak it
I probably learnt as much about writing from reading bad work entered in competitions and from students, than I did from reading the ‘greats’. Because you’ve analysed the work, you can see where something went wrong and importantly – how – it went wrong. So, actively pursue that knowledge to adapt your own work. Tweak, stretch, invert strategies from past work to improve outcomes.
4. Imagine your work in dialogue with other art
See your projects as answering back to or speaking to the works and artists from the past. In seeing my work this way, I can locate the gaps in my field or domain of work – and fill them. There are often always questions or comments you want to make about work from the past. Use your creative projects to articulate those questions and comments.
As with most other human pursuits, creativity never occurs in a vacuum. Even despite the fact that creativity can feel wholly subjective, creative work requires the investment of external sources. Especially work by creatives from the past.