Leaving the brakes on:  how creativity is held back

October 03, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

I’ve just had some feedback on my latest degree assignment that has a familiar, and somewhat frustrating, familiarity to it.  Unlike the classical déja vu, I really have heard this line before: “you appear to be holding back”.  “Holding back what?”, I hear you ask.  “The tide? The door? The years?” – if you’re too young to get that last one, I envy you.  What my tutor meant was ‘holding back with my creativity’.   I first heard something similar during the very first module, where, in my defence, I was still getting to grips with the idea of not thinking like an engineer.  My work in that module was considered to be a bit formulaic, that is taking influences from artists that I liked and applying the lessons I’d been learning to my pictures.   At the time, I felt this was rather harsh, given that I thought this was what ‘studying’ meant, hadn’t studied anything for nearly 20 years and I had a pretty good understanding of the fundamentals of photography.  What more did they want from me?   The answer, of course is pretty simple; the objective was to develop my own artistic ‘voice’.    Since art is given to be the creation of something using imagination and skill that has some meaning or emotion, it stands to reason that the voice we seek is more about what we want to say, than how we say it.  I understood the feedback that I’d received then, but why was I still apparently holding back now?  At each point in my studies, and in my new life outside of engineering, I’ve tried to improve my approach to creating new work, so was I somehow failing?

Well, no.  I believe the answer lies in research, carried out back in 1968 by Professor George Land, for the recruitment people at NASA.  He devised a test that could identify the markers for considering someone to be a creative genius.  By means of validation, the test was then given to a group of 1600 children aged between 3 and 5 years old.  Land and his team went on to test the same group every 5 years until they were 15 years old and compared the results.  When the group were at their youngest, an astonishing 98% of them exhibited the signs of creative genius, but by the time they had reached 15, the number had dropped to just 12%.  This staggering drop was further explored by Land, when the test was given to a group of around 280,000 adults.  Within that group, the were just 2% that showed the markers.  Land explained this by discussing divergent and convergent thinking, the former being the most common in young children.  Divergent thinking is essentially the exploration of ideas and scenarios through imagination.  It’s what children do when they play at being characters such as pirates, soldiers, Disney princesses etc.  Along with imagining themselves in character, they visualise props and surroundings with whatever things come to hand, so that a broom handle might become a lightsaber, a towel might be a magical cloak, and so on.  Divergent thinking doesn’t obey any inherent rules or constraints beyond our capacity to imagine.  What happens as we grow up is that we are bombarded by convergent thinking, that is structured messaging about subjects we have to learn, or rules we need to follow.  They become engrained in our personalities to the extent that we don’t realise them as affecting our behaviour.  For example, I cannot walk into a house without taking my shoes off unless the owner keeps theirs on.  This came from being told to remove my shoes when entering our house by my parents, who were pretty strict about it.  It comes as no surprise then, that Land’s results reflect the shift from divergent to convergent thinking as we get older and learn more in keeping with the latter.  Our need to imagine is replaced by tangible experience, whether applying a life skill like driving a car, or solving a problem in the workplace.  In my case, I’m a generally compliant person.  I loathe what I call ‘petty authority’ because of the attitude rather than the enforcement rules (overzealous security guards, traffic wardens with a superiority complex etc) and will rebel wherever possible.  However, by and large I will do as I’m told if the reason is genuine and that attitude missing.  My behaviour then, is a clue as to why I might be holding back.   Instead of letting my imagination run away with itself on a particular project or theme, my mind is subconsciously thinking about whether the images are good enough to be seen, whether the viewer will interpret them a certain way as I intended, and whether I’m demonstrating my learning through the work.  These self-imposed constraints make sense to me on some level, so I’m less likely to treat them like a traffic warden.  When I think about it, most of the artists who inspire me are rebels. Whether using colour film when everyone else was shooting black and white (Meyerowitz), shooting banal everyday objects in recognisable settings (Egglestone) or revealing beauty in overtly sexual images that shook conservative America (Mapplethorpe), they all freely expressed themselves against the traditions.  In doing so, they changed photographic art through imagining something different, inspiring others to follow suit.  Such changes don’t come freely through divergent thinking alone, of course.  They needed to gain the specific skills to make photographs, which undoubtedly needed traditional learning methods (convergent), but they also refused to be limited by other people’s ideas of what makes a good subject or image.  They were not holding back.

From a recent photography challenge reimagining the humble toothbrush

The message then is to be more divergent, but how do you do that when pushing 50 years old?  I’ve heard anecdotes of artists actually reverting to being a child, playing with toys etc and I know several very talented photographers who observe their young children’s play and try to relate to it.   I’ve taken a slightly different route, recently embarking on writing a novel, whose story has been loosely floating around in my head for years.  I don’t expect to get it published when finished, or indeed for it to be particularly good, but that’s not the point of doing it.  The enjoyment I now get from imagining my characters, and the fictional world they inhabit, has been liberating thus far.  I love the idea that the only real skills I need are to be able to write and to imagine, which takes me right back to being a child.  I’ll just have to make sure I don’t throw any of those vintage temper tantrums when I don’t get my own way.  Somethings do indeed need to be held back.



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