The Meaning of Creativity
Once upon a time there was a city in America, whose mayor believed in order and organization, and above all in planning, especially in all things relating to his municipality. He recognized that a healthy city must tend to grow, just like a biological tissue, but he differentiated between the sound, organized and controlled growth of normal tissues and the uncontrolled and chaotic growth of cancerous tissues, and wished to ensure that his city be more like the former than the latter
Accordingly, he caused his city to be divided into zones corresponding to all forms of human activity. There were zones for manufacturing, for light industry, for office buildings, for theaters, concert halls and restaurants, for apartments, for townhouses, and finally for ordinary single family dwellings. The rules were rigorously enforced and the mayor was persuasive enough and in office long enough for his sensible plan to approach completion.
On the whole, his efforts were regarded as outstandingly successful and Freetown, his city, was held up to the world as a model for others to aspire to and emulate, if they could. Still, there persisted some nagging problems. When the entire visible population had been assigned to their appropriate spaces, there remained a significant residue that did not seem to fit in anywhere.
Some had no source of income which they were willing to disclose, some lived by renting their bodies to strangers, and some depended completely on the generosity of passersby. It was characteristic of this group that they were difficult to enumerate and indeed their numbers seemed to fluctuate erratically from time to time as individuals drifted in and out.
Some called them street people, some called them derelicts, and some called them miscreants; no one knew what to do with them. They cumbered the earth. It was not a historical period noted for generosity to those unwilling or unable to work and, while the government made available work- training programs designed to prepare the indigent for a wide range of entry level jobs, the results were disappointing. Typically, the potential trainee would begin hopefully and then lose interest and eventually drop out.
More draconian procedures were no more successful. It was not practical to throw all the street people into jail, as the jails were already filled with genuine criminals. The idea of paying them to go away was briefly considered and then discarded as too expensive and difficult to enforce.
Finally the mayor and his staff sighed and decided to evade the problem, enabling them to declare a victory. A somewhat rundown section of the central city was designated facetiously
“The Demilitarized Zone” and set aside for people who were not readily accommodated by organized society. While it was never codified into law, it was widely understood that no one would be bothered by police within the Zone, provided that he confined himself to non-violent activities, which would not be too closely monitored.
The new policy was instantly successful. All those regarded as misfits in the more upscale parts of town migrated in a body to the Zone, as to a natural haven. Here one might find people catering to every form of sexual proclivity; here migrated sidewalk artists, street musicians, as well as individuals who improvised performances of all kinds; here were encountered retailers of T-shirts stamped with colorful legends, adult books and videos, as well as all manner of goods of questionable ownership. One might also find drug peddlers here, although custom confined them to certain blocks. And finally there were many beggars and panhandlers as well, people who had nothing to sell or do which could command a price. A subcategory of these were derelicts who did not actively solicit money, being dependent upon remittances from outside the Zone.
From the point of view of its inhabitants, the Zone had many advantages over the more traditional slum, ghetto, or barrio, from which it differed substantially. The violent types, the thugs and street bandits, who infested the latter institutions had been rounded up relentlessly and shipped out to jail. The non-violent resident or transient was safe from molestation by either his fellows or the police. An individual who bothered others was very apt to be reported to the police and subsequently exported, often in damaged condition. The absence of violence made it feasible to maintain a multitude of very cheap flophouses, as well as free public shelters, where one might sleep without qualms. Here and there a church group had established a center for free meals. While religious services were available at these, attendance was strictly voluntary.
Although formal rules and regulations were minimal, the people of the Zone were by no means in a state of anarchy. Early in the history of the Zone, they recognized that the various money-raising activities prevalent there were often not altogether compatible, so that the presence of a particular type might tend to inhibit practitioners of a second type. Conversely, there was sometimes a synergistic effect between two different categories. This stemmed from the fact that the cash flow into the Zone relied entirely upon casual visitors from other parts of the city or the suburbs and, if these were attracted, or repelled, by a certain kind of street activity, other entrepreneurs in the vicinity were likely to be influenced.
With this in mind, the inhabitants of the Zone, without coercion from outside, voluntarily organized themselves so as to achieve the most satisfactory distribution of activities. The drug dealers, whose clientele tended to specialize, were confined to one or two blocks on the periphery, as well as a nearby shelter, and were never seen by the bulk of the visitors to the Zone. Prostitutes of various kinds were also restricted to row houses within a somewhat larger area, with discreet coded signs indicating their specialties. The performing artists were spread out over a wide area, with never more than one to a block, which they might share with a sidewalk artist or a retailer of souvenirs or imitation Rolexes. Beggars, who were stationary, and panhandlers, who were mobile, could also be fitted in with the performing artists, although never more than one to a block. In their own interest, these were urged to avoid aggressive soliciting and could be forcibly expelled if they failed to comply; also, the desirability of silence was impressed upon them.
Although the system had its critics, there was general agreement that, on the whole, it worked amazingly well. Far from being an eyesore and a liability, the Zone had become an asset to Freetown and a major tourist attraction, putting to shame the more conventional art galleries, museums, and concert halls, which were the city’s pride. This was so much the case that several upscale restaurants had relocated to the Zone, where they were accepted with a shrug by the city government, as well as a warning that they must adapt themselves to the local customs rather than vice versa.
With time, the people of the Zone came to take such pride in their quarter that they kept it spotlessly clean of their own accord, rendering the municipal sanitation department redundant. Flower beds were planted in the dirt strips between street and sidewalk in such a way that each block acquired a brilliant color at its own particular season, so that, from April to November, there were always blocks of spectacular beauty. The flowers were supplemented by blossoming fruit trees, which had been planted at regular intervals along the strips in such a way that their colors contrasted with and accentuated those of the flowers. Freetown had always been famous for its flowers and the two parts of town now complemented each other nicely.
The quasi-gentrification of the Zone was further promoted by the rehabilitation of a large vacant lot in its center, where a fire had destroyed a group of dilapidated row houses. This was planted with grass and flowerbeds and also equipped with brick crosswalks and a small brick plaza in its center. The city did not look too closely at where the bricks came from, as there was general agreement that the park completed the evolution of the Zone by providing a much-needed center, which could also accommodate a half-dozen or so of its artists, mendicants, and performers.
The only group (apart from the drug peddlers, who did not count) who tended to be dissatisfied with the new system were the beggars, who now felt conspicuous and out of place, as if they were somehow lowering the tone of the locality. Perhaps this was because they were the only ones who did not provide any commodity or service in exchange for the donations they received.
The Zone is of course history now. This is largely a consequence of the wave of super-prosperity which swept over late 20th century America. Urban developers were drawn to the area and proceeded to put up expensive stores, hotels, and office buildings, in the process commonly known as gentrification or urban renewal. As the Zone came to be populated more and more by conventional urban types, its former inhabitants, while not exactly encouraged to leave, felt increasingly uncomfortable and gradually drifted away of their own accord, until the area largely lost its unique characteristics and became indistinguishable from the rest of the city.
What I now relate occurred during the heyday of the Zone, when its raffish population coexisted with affluent tourists, from whom it drew its livelihood. Ralph, Sam and Max, who were graduate students at a nearby university, had taken advantage of the spring vacation to visit the Zone, which Ralph and Max had never seen, although they knew it well by reputation.
Ralph, a blond, rather willowy young man and an aspiring artist, had just returned from an exhibition in a nearby city inaugurating a major new gallery, while Max, an older student and a potential writer, who was dark and heavyset, had recently visited a publishers’ convention, where many new books were displayed. Sam, a tall and athletic biochemistry major, who looked older than his age, was showing the others around. Having time to spare, they decided to include the Zone in their schedule. Both Ralph and Max had heard of it and wanted to compare the actuality with its colorful reputation, which Sam did not attempt to embellish. It was early May and the flowers and blossoms, for which the Zone, as well as the more conventional parts of Freetown, were famous, were at their height. The cherry blossoms were mostly gone now, but the dogwood trees were at their height, while the flower beds were full of red tulips, yellow daffodils, blue violets, and a multitude of others.
It was mid-morning and the sidewalks of the Zone were relatively not crowded. Most of the tourists came in the afternoon or evening and the residents moved in synchrony with them. No prostitutes were to be seen and only a handful of artists, performing or creative, were about. However, the latter category included several sidewalk artists of significant talent, who worked in pastels, as well as one who, employing chalk, used the sidewalk as an easel.
The only outdoor Zone activities occurring at anything like their usual intensity were begging and peddling. The three men had many opportunities to have their shoes polished, as well as to buy a wide range of colorfully decorated T-shirts and many other dubious goods. However, in deference to the customs of the Zone, the peddlers did not prolong their sales pitch and a simple shake of the head sufficed to shake them off. The three were left in sufficient peace to continue the conversation Ralph and Max had begun earlier, which centered about the dearth of originality in both their fields.
“It’s as if the contemporary artist has no place left to go, “said Ralph. “The local exhibition is full of material, which is both very conventional and dull, or else attempts to shock in a primitive way by violating some taboo. When a crucifix immersed in urine gets only a shrug, the artist moves on to blood-stained tampons arranged in patterns and enclosed in cellophane, or else to freeze-dried dog turds sprinkled with imitation gold dust. Either there is no originality or it takes a grotesque form.”
“It’s much the same in my field. Most of the fiction published today is the most amazing garbage; nearly all the good books are non-fiction. I think the trouble is that, when one has followed a trend to the end, it is impossible to retrace one’s steps without appearing dated. To avoid this, it is necessary to make a sharp break, either into a fresh new approach or outlook, or else into a novel form of rubbish. Unfortunately, there is no known systematic way of choosing the first alternative. The only way to do so is to fall back on the quality we call creativity, which no one can summon up by an act of will. Perhaps you either have it or you don’t.”
“It’s different in science,” said Sam. “At least for the last century or so, there’s been one breakthrough after another. When one seems to have been completely exploited, another comes along which changes everything. Individual scientists may bog down and be mired in the same habits of thought, but science as a whole, never. I suppose that’s because science is both truly progressive and accumulative. It always renews itself and can never go backwards.”
“What is creativity?” said Max. “If I knew what it was, I would go look for it.”
“Me too,” said Sam.
Their conversation was interrupted at this point by their passing a beggar, who was sitting on the sidewalk with his back against the wall of a store selling psychedelic posters. He was missing an arm. He had leaned a placard saying “Vietnam vet” against the wall. He was lean, with a sallow complexion and a resentful, hangdog look. Max, who had been in Viet Nam himself, wondered idly if the man were really a veteran. Certainly his impairment seemed real enough, but surely he could qualify for disability payments.
Noticing that there was nothing in his plate, Ralph gave him a dollar. “God bless you,” he said mechanically. Max now felt obligated to give him a dollar too and received the same formula. Sam, who had nothing smaller than a ten dollar bill, silently averted his eyes. “It’s a gorgeous day,” said Max. “And those flowers are…spectacular.” The beggar stared, as if the idea were novel to him. “Yeah, they sure are,” he said finally. As they walked away, Max and Ralph noticed that he had removed their two dollar bills, so that the plate looked empty again. They returned to the thread of their conversation.
“I don’t think there is any mystery about what creativity is,” said Ralph. “It’s the ability to solve a problem in an original and elegant way, like cutting the Gordian knot. I think it is elegance which is the true hallmark of creativity. There is always a discontinuity associated with a creative solution to a problem; it is never approached gradually. Artists struggled for centuries with the problem of perspective, and then it was solved within a short time by the introduction of vanishing points, which was not a refinement of earlier methods, but an entirely new departure. One could say the same for the rise of impressionism and abstract art.”
“I see what you mean,” said Max. “George Eliot introduced in her books the idea, very novel
in her day, that men and women could interact in many ways which had nothing to do with sexuality; this was certainly creative.”
“Your point about discontinuity,” said Sam, “certainly holds true in science. Copernicus made a clean break with the past, replacing a system which was grotesquely complicated with one which was simple and elegant. The transition from classical to quantum physics did not occur by gradual stages which progressively refined the subject, but by an abrupt jump which changed everything. In my own field, Pauling was able to solve the structure of the alpha-helix by dropping the requirement, which seemed graven in stone, that a helix must have an integral number of residues per turn.”
The next block was empty, except for a street violinist, who played indifferently well. They each gave him a quarter, Sam borrowing from Max, and walked on. The following block contained a beggar, who, like the Viet Nam vet, had a placard, which was so placed that they could not read it until they were quite close to him. However, they had noticed that passersby tended to choose a circuitous route around him. The reason for this became clear when they had come close enough to read his placard, which read simply “AIDS.”
At this period, the early-80’s, a diagnosis of AIDS was equivalent to a death sentence and they accordingly looked at the man with a mixture of macabre interest and pity. A glance was enough to dismiss any thoughts that he might be shamming. He was extremely emaciated and he had acquired the semi-translucent look sometimes seen in very old people. Unlike the first beggar, he had made no effort to conceal what he had collected, which was not very substantial. Ralph and Max each gave him a dollar and received a muttered “Thank you” in exchange; Sam, who disliked people prone to acquire AIDS, walked past without looking at him. As they walked past, Max glanced briefly back at the man, to find that he was being regarded with a look of such intense hatred that he felt a pulse of something akin to pain.
After a minute or two, they put aside depressing thoughts and resumed the conversation. Max began: “I suspect that creativity is more widely distributed than we think. Most people have at least a little and it’s always struggling to get loose. If you have more than a little and don’t use it, it will drive you crazy.”
“I tend to agree,” said Ralph. It’s unfortunate that most occupations have so little scope for it. Maybe that’s why we have so many bitter old people. What chance do these people, for example, have to be creative?” “They’re a special case, surely,” said Sam. “I doubt if creativity could appear here. But I think that it can arise in very ordinary jobs. The prison warden that controlled rebellious inmates by feeding them baby food, instead of bread and water, showed creativity of a sort.
They were now approaching the small plaza in the center of the Zone. To their surprise, and in contrast to the blocks they had passed through, they saw a bustle of activity, which was centered about a particular point, where a small crowd appeared to be milling around. People seemed to be walking past and then returning, as if they had unfinished business there. However, having returned, they did not linger, but soon resumed walking.
The crowd was sufficiently dense that they had had to wedge their way through it before they could see what the center of attraction was. They were surprised to see that it was only another beggar. This one was unexceptional in appearance, looking in fact perfectly ordinary, except for being blind. Like the other two, he had set up a placard. He had received so many donations that a plate did not suffice to hold the money he had collected, so that he was forced to use a basket. People would often pass by, pause, and then walk back to drop something in the basket.
However, our three men did not have to hesitate. Upon reading the beggar’s placard, all three gave a two-digit sum. Even Sam contributed his 10-dollar bill. Moreover, as they walked on afterwards, they all felt a curious sense of exaltation, as if they had done something noble and beautiful. They were silent for some time, until they were stopped some distance from the crowd by an elderly woman, who asked what was going on.
“It’s only a beggar,” said Max. “It’s his placard that’s the attraction.”
“What on earth does it say?”
“It is May and I am blind.”
The woman thanked them and made her way towards the crowd. The three men continued their walk. There was no further talk of creativity; it would have been redundant.