Recently I was attending a workshop where a global data engineer listed creativity as the top job skill needed for success in the current economy. If creativity is a job skill then we need to examine whether or not it can be taught or whether or not it is a gift reserved for the “true artists” in the world.
As an artist and educator I have often been asked “Can creativity be learned?” In this essay I would like to present my argument for why I believe creativity is something that can be taught to anyone through a process of self discovery. I further propose that learning to be creative is an important survival skill that is necessary to achieve overall happiness in life.
What is creativity?
To begin with we need to find a definition for what creativity is. In his book Creativity: The Magic Synthesis, psychiatrist Silvano Arieti defines creativity as the rearranging of existing elements into new and interesting combinations. We also learned that creativity requires the combination of originality and spontaneity.
In Arieti’s clinical research he discovered that originality comes from the frequency and intensity of a person’s life experiences and spontaneity comes from the mastery of skill to the point of no longer needing to consciously think about how to do something. From these two elements we get the combination of the IDEA or creative concept and the CRAFTSMANSHIP or skill necessary to express it in a tangible manner.
My survey of research into creativity revealed that most theories of creativity are developed out of an examination of mental illness and the means of regaining a healthy equilibrium through the use of creativity to process emotional responses to perceptions. Within the spectrum of what would be considered normal mental health research has looked at creativity as integral part of an overall process of self actualization and an enhancement of personal agency.
Out of all the theories of creativity I have found three that are the most useful to consider. These are:
- Psychoanalytical Theory
- Humanist Theory
- Flow Theory.
I believe these three models are useful for developing a successful creative practice because these three link the origins of our creativity with the choices necessary to sustain creativity and the levels of productivity necessary for having a successful career as an artist or any other career. These theories give us a practical model for how to learn to be creative.
One of the greatest fears for beginning artists is that they will run out of creative ideas. When operating from the perspective that creativity is a talent that appears like a gift from God or the muses, an artist can suffer from feelings of being an imposter after an initial creative success because they don’t know where their artistic vision originates from. The other problem artists face is the idea of having to wait for inspiration.
The value of understanding these three theories of creativity is that it clarifies the source for unlimited creativity AND the process for consistently producing creative work.
From the Psychoanalytic Theory of Creativity we can recognize he subconscious origins of our creativity and know that this is a place we can return to over and over to mine for new ideas.
The Humanist theory of creativity allows us to look at the external factors that impact our ability to be both creative and productive and help us see the need for making life choices that are in alignment with our creative goals.
Finally, with the FLOW theory of creativity we can achieve peak productivity that is necessary for career success by focusing on the creative process rather than the outcomes.
Theory #1: Psychoanalytical Theory of Creativity
Developed from the works of psychologists Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Ernst Kris, Otto Rank, and Alfred Adler, the psychoanalytic theory of creativity proposes that creativity comes from our subconscious motivations that are primarily derived from traumatic life events.
Behaviorist Psychologists like B.F. Skinner deviates from this theory slightly in thinking that creativity is born from an innate instinct to procreate and that artistic expression is a release of sexual tension.
Freud and Jung would agree that sexual drive plays a part in the desire to be creative but would place more emphasis on the emotional identity and personality of the individual as opposed to environmental and biological influences.
From the psychoanalytical model of creativity we can see that most creativity in a person’s life stems from a need for sense making of the emotional world and finding a way to express repressed emotions.
Freud describes creativity as an important survival skill in response to existential crisis. Creativity is an existential crisis that is transformed through a process called sublimation into something that has profound meaning and adds purpose to our life. Today art therapy is recognized as a valuable tool for helping people gain a powerful sense of wellbeing. Freud describes this process as the most mature mental strategy for dealing with repressed emotions that develop out of emotional crisis.
Through sublimation a person responds to crisis by finding meaning in it and transforming it into a new creative expression. Essentially this is where the emotional component of art comes in. Think of the way in which musicians have transformed traumatic events such as the ending of a intimate relationship into powerful and evocative love songs or how a painter can transmit emotions into expressive brush strokes and a dancer can come up with gestures and movements to convey deep emotion. More recently we can see how social justice issues have been transformed into works of art that have moved people to march in unison seeking positive change.
Freud suggests that repressed emotions are the driving force for creating fantasies and he defines creativity as being the means of giving tangible shape or form to those fantasies in a socially acceptable manner.
In Freud’s theory a person, having experienced something profound that causes a person to question the meaning of their life retreats from the social environment and finds a creative means of expressing their repressed emotions in a harmonious way that gives meaning and purpose and re-establishes a sense of equilibrium in their emotional life. The new artwork allows a person to externally view their internal world and put it in perspective.
Once this is achieved the person can reconnect with the social world. Without this creative process a person may become anti social and mentally ill. For this reason creativity is an important survival mechanism.
From the sublimation process we see that the audience (society) plays a central role in the creative process and is necessary for its completion. Showing art is a means of reconnecting with the community.
With this in mind we can say that art is created in three acts. First it is created in the mind of the artist. Secondly it is created through the tangible expression which requires skill and craftsmanship, and finally it is created through the audience that establishes social connection.
The psychoanalytical theory of creativity acknowledges the importance of your life experiences and your individuality which is critical for producing original works of art. You can use your understanding of this theory as a continuous resource for new ideas by understanding that creative expression is a translation of emotions into meaning.
This theory also recognizes that creativity is an important life skill that is a vital in order to avoid developing a neurosis or mental disorder. From this perspective we can see why it is so important to encourage children to express themselves in the arts and why it is also important that we continue to do so in adulthood.
Unlimited Creativity: The Levels of Consciousness
Now, let’s look at how the psychoanalytical theory can be developed into a creative model that can be used to access an unlimited supply of creative ideas.
From the theory we can recognize that up to 90% of our perceptions and responses to the world occur at the subconscious level.
There are essentially five levels of consciousness in the human psyche that all work together. In descending order they are:
- Conscious – The rational mind that is aware of thoughts and perceptions
- Preconscious – The top of mind memories, stored knowledge from the past as well as social knowledge about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors (experience), and unrepressed emotions
- Hypnagogic – The lucid dreaming that draws out the imagination or Mushin “no mindedness” that is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego. It is defined as the state just prior to falling asleep or just after waking.
- Subconscious – Fears and emotions related to childhood and a sense of belonging.
- Unconscious – Repressed emotions and fantasies, archetypes, as well as primitive emotions and sexual drives
The psychoanalytical theory addresses the different levels of consciousness and proposes that the subconscious and unconscious levels are where creative ideas come from. The reason for this is that the conscious levels are tied to navigating rules and social norms that are necessary in order to remain a part of the community and to meet our basic physical needs.
The subconscious levels of existence do not comply with rules. Within our imagination we can do anything and be anything and our potential is limitless. This is where our imagination comes in which is necessary for producing original work from new ideas.
The imagination operates from a limitless perspective and the conscious world operates from within strict limitations. Creativity requires both. Unlimited ideas must be given tangible structure through the self imposed limitations of the medium and technique chosen. Rules give structure that allows the imagination to become visible.
Once we understand that we operate at different levels of consciousness and we know where our creative ideas are produced we can learn to access our subconscious and unconscious levels through specific processes that can be learned.
How to access our subconscious creativity
Transforming psychoanalytical theory into a model of creativity requires accessing our subconscious and unconscious levels. There are three techniques I recommend:
- Entering into a hypnagogic state
The first skill we can learn and apply is journaling. We can keep a dream journal by recording the imagery as soon as we wake up before it disappears from consciousness. We can also use a variety of other journaling techniques that include automatic writing, observations, self reflection journals, as well as visual journals that combine daydreaming with doodling.
With journaling we are drawing out of the subconscious and making it conscious. We can also operate in the reverse by giving our subconscious new inputs. To do this we need to combine curiosity with research and make choices as to what kinds of sensory perceptions we are interested in selecting for our unconscious to process for us into new combinations.
To add new inputs to our consciousness we need to live interesting lives that explore the world beyond ourself. Remembering that our originality comes from our frequency and intensity of life experiences we can activate our creativity simply by actively engaging with the world around us.
Finally, a third path towards accessing our subconscious is through what is known as a hypnagogic state which allows you to see all of the potential creative solutions to a problem. The simplest example of what a hypnagogic state experience is like is to think about the moment right after you wake from a dream where you are partially still in the dream and partially awake.
The hypnogogic state is like that moment you wake up from a dream and are able to still remember it. It is also like being in a daydream or in a “Zone” where you are empowered to imagine great things and see potential in everything. The most common expression for a person who is in a hypnagogic state but is not falling asleep is that they are daydreaming.
Techniques for accessing a hypnagogic state
Over the years I have found several consistent techniques for accessing the creative wellspring of the hypnagogic state. Here is my go to list of activities:
- Sacred music – Listening to spiritually awakened music of all genres can allow me to gain access to my imagination. Sound waves penetrate the body in ways that light waves do not. Putting headphones on and listening to Gregorian chant, rock opera, or new age music really helps put me in the right frame of mind to be creative.
- Walking Alone – Thoreau, Nietzche, and Kant all maintained a practice of taking long walks alone. Much of my own creativity has come from taking long walks in nature or in urban environments. For me the trick is to take a small moleskin journal that fits in a shirt pocket with me to jot down ideas as I walk. I also use my cell phone camera as a visual sketchbook.
- Travel – Getting away from your ordinary life can help access your creative self. When I ran my full time photography studio I found that I experienced greater success creatively and financially when I could get out of town every 4-6 weeks. Travel gives you that 40,000 foot view of life that allows you to reimagine your next steps towards success. It also has the added benefit of allowing you to see your studio and your work with new eyes upon your return.
- Meditation – A variation from a walking meditation practice is to sit still and be fully present in the moment. Meditation allows you to access Mushin in Japanese and Wuxin in Chinese (無心 “no mind”) which is a state of being without anger, fear, or ego which is extremely important to creating expressive artwork. Daydreams might seep into your meditation but it will be productive dreaming that helps you pre-visualize your next steps. Meditation also involves adopting a “beginner mind” approach to your art.
- Journaling – Getting in touch with your subconscious through dream journaling and reflective journaling allows you to become aware of patterns in your thinking and recognize the problems you are trying to solve artistically.
- Community of Practice – We need people to bounce ideas off of and to inspire us to produce creative works. My own creativity has skyrocketed during the past three years since I joined an artist collective . It has also been nourished for years by teaching and working with amazing students! The more positive, like minded people I come into contact with the more creative ideas I generate!
How to benefit from understanding the psychoanalytic theory of creativity
The purpose for us looking at the psychoanalytic model for creativity is to see that our creativity originates from our own individual emotions formed from life experiences.
In order to imbue photography (or any other medium) with creativity we have to first recognize that each image is a translation of our emotions. Therefore we need to get in touch with our emotions, especially the repressed emotions of our subconscious mind.
Connecting with our subconscious emotional selves allows us to access an unlimited source for creative ideas AND allows us to define the problem of translation in order to choose the best technical path (medium and technique) forward in the making of new works.
A personal creative journey
I share all of this with you as an important concept because early on in my career I made what could only be described as my first masterpiece and it paralyzed me.
Even though I went to college for photography I didn’t receive instruction about the psychological aspects of creativity. In fact creativity wasn’t even talked about. Photographic education was primarily focused on technical aspects of the photo-chemical process and the basic design elements and composition rules. The art classes I took were much the same. In a nutshell we were being taught to emulate other artists by technique rather than addressing the translation of our emotional world into a piece of artwork.
Prior to gaining this understanding of creativity I felt that a great work of art was a matter of luck and that if I ended my career with 10 great works of art I would have had a successful career. If I worked for 40 years that meant I might create one good piece every 4 years! I don’t think I could make a living at that rate.
During this time I also felt that creativity was not a skill that could be learned but was rather a divine gift that others seemed to have all the time while I only seemed to have it once in awhile. With envy I admired the work of others and felt that they had more talent in their pinky finger than I possessed in my whole body!
After making that first great image all others afterwards were painful
disappointments. I began to photograph less and less.
I put that image in my portfolio and continued to show it for years even though inside I felt like an imposter.
Fortunately I had an opportunity to view an exhibition of work by Minor White that led me down a path of self discovery of creativity. Reading about his teaching methods that incorporated mediation and journaling exposed me to Eastern philosophies which led me begin to understand the difference between Western top down thinking and Eastern bottom up thinking. His work also led me to read the works of Freud and Carl Jung.
One day I watched an interview of Dorthea Lange where she responded to the question about what her best image was by saying, “the next one!” and I realized that I needed to let go of that image and discover my own creativity. I removed that image from my portfolio and it was like removing a dam on a river. The creativity began to flow and I realized that creativity is something that can be nurtured and maintained on an ongoing basis through the application of a psychoanalytical model of creativity.
This model allowed me to understand the source of my creativity was me and my life experiences. I could now tap into my own creativity by accessing my subconscious through journaling, research, and entering into a hypnagogic state. I also realized that I had tools within the medium of photography that allowed me to translate emotions into images.
Understanding this psychoanalytical model however did not immediately solve all of my problems.
I would still have large gaps of inactivity in my work. I was often too stressed to pick up the camera and create something.
As I further expanded my research into creativity I realized that the Humanist Theory of Creativity had an important role to play in my career.
Theory #2: The Humanist Theory of Creativity
In order to make a career as a creative, artist need to produce great work on an ongoing basis at a consistent interval.
When I was starting out as a professional photographer the challenge was that I started to work for myself as a photographer too soon without understanding all the variables that needed to be in place in order for me to be successful.
Looking back I can see that I was not producing very creative work because I was under tremendous stress to pay bills and meet my basic needs. Adding to the challenge was the fact that the technology of photography had become affordable and accessible for the general public so I could no longer hide behind expensive equipment technical skill to make a living. I had to generate innovative and creative work.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a survival job or a safety net. I was self employed and had the pressure of trying to support myself and later a family which led me to dry up creatively and prevented me from achieving the level of personal or financial satisfaction I had hoped for.
Simply put, if you are struggling to meet your basic needs you will not be creative! This is what Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs is about!
In Maslow’s humanistic theory of creativity we see how individuals need to have all of their basic needs met and become a fully self actualized person in order to be able to express ourselves creatively.
Another way of thinking about this is that we can’t be free to create unless we have our basic biological, safety and community needs met, and have enough self esteem to not be worried about what other people think of our work!
Understanding this theory can help you see how all the parts of your life are interconnected and affect your creativity.
Applying this theory of creativity involves making life choices that align with your creative goals. To become a professional artist a person has to make a set of choices that puts them into position to become creative and productive. These choices include:
- Survival job that pays the bills and yet affords enough free time to devote towards making art.
- Place to live that has the space to support art making and has access to a community of other creatives that will stimulate creativity.
- Buying habits that allow you the extra resources necessary to produce art. An artist just starting out needs to make adjustments to their spending habits to insure they have enough resources to support their art practice. This may mean foregoing expensive items in order to be able to afford the items necessary to produce your work.
- Life habits that support mental health and creative energy. This might include exercise, meditation, and time for self reflection as well as dedicated blocks of time to work on your art. This likely includes keeping a schedule and learning to say no to social invitations that overlap with your artmaking time.
By making choices that address the needs on the lower part of Maslow’s pyramid that also align with your creative and professional goals you will be able to cultivate a sustainable creative practice rather than having long periods of inactivity waiting for the next existential crisis to come along.
I am convinced that the “starving artist with artistic angst” stereotype is directly related to a failure to understand the humanist theory of creativity.
Talent and Ability Factors
So far we have ignored talent as a factor in creativity because I believe that everyone can be creative through their own originality and spontaneity. However there are three cognitive abilities that impact creative output.
- Synthetic ability: The ability to generate novel and interesting ideas by making connections between diverse subjects and materials.
- Analytic ability: The ability to apply critical thinking to evaluate ideas and discern what is better or worse.
- Practical ability: The ability to translate ideas into tangible expressions. The ability to develop workflows that achieve results.
Taking inventory of our cognitive abilities can enable us to further make choices that align our abilities with the ideas and artistic mediums that will best express our potential.
As I write this I am thinking about the an artist that had to overcome severe disabilities and yet found the right level of complexity in his medium choice to create incredible art.
Creative Happiness and Your Life’s Calling
The humanist theory of creativity also goes beyond sublimation into the realm of productivity and happiness by helping you develop a creative practice that is in alignment with who you are at the deepest levels of your being.
In application, the humanist model of creativity helps you determine your innate personality and abilities and express this in a powerfully authentic way that is extremely original and spontaneous.
Whereas the psychoanalytical model says that “content people don’t create” and that existential crisis and repressed emotions are a necessary precursor to a creative act, the humanist model illustrates that “creative people can become content” and thrive as happy individuals and happy communities by aligning their whole selves to become self actualized.
Essentially, if you are not working in accordance with your core being you will self sabotage the work and continue to fail until you align your work with who you really are.
Even though a creative person is first triggered towards becoming creative through existential crisis, they need to move beyond crisis towards self actualization in order to live a creative and fulfilling life. The third theory of FLOW gets at how we can optimize our creative productivity.
Tools for the humanist model of creativity
Business Consultant and Life Coach Lynn Taylor has made it his life’s work to research Maslow’s top pyramid of self actualization and has developed the Core Value Index as a tool to help people reach the pinnacle of success.
A major component of this theory of creativity is the discovery of your life’s calling. By finding out your life’s calling you are able to map out a path for your creativity that is an expression of your highest contribution to the world.
The Core Value Index can help you identify a calling by showing you what core emotions are dominant within you and how these emotions can contribute to the community at large. From this you can develop a hypothesis for your work that enables you to carve out a distinctive niche where your work will exist in a recognizable form that is appreciated.
Finding your life’s calling has become an important topic of discussion beyond the creative and human services sectors. It is now an important topic of discussion in the business and entrepreneurial domains.
With the development of globalization, the internet, and worldwide distribution companies have been forced to identify their core values and business owners have been compelled to align their company mission and business model with their personal calling in order to adequately differentiate themselves in the marketplace and to develop authentic customer relationships that build brand loyalty. Alignment of business models (which include product development, business processes, and financial budgets) to the founder’s life calling insures that maximum positive momentum is achieved with the least amount of resistance in the marketplace.
Business is now being taught as a set of creative skills necessary to develop products and services that customers want.
The humanist model of creativity helps us understand why most businesses and most artists fail. It addresses why the starving artist stereotype exists.
Simply put, if your life choices are not in alignment with your core being you will create resistance in your life that manifests itself in a variety of ways that include:
- Failure to complete work
- Lack of cohesive work
- Inconsistent quality
- Anger and frustration that leads to quitting
By understanding this model you can recognize when you are working against your best interests and gain insight as to the best path forward in your work.
Creativity is now recognized as the number one skill needed for any entrepreneur looking to run a successful business.
The humanist theory of creativity allows you to gain insight into how to work in alignment with your intellect and talents and to express yourself in a truly spontaneous and authentic way.
The humanist model builds on the psychoanalytical model by recognizing that the actions and behaviors people take are primarily driven by emotion rather than reason. These psychological theories have become the basis for the behavior economics that are used to predict and manage human behavior within the domains of social, political, and economic activities.
Therefore a person that can align their emotions with their actions and choices can begin the path towards fulfilling the basic human needs in a way that leads to self actualization. Furthermore, both of these models empower an artist to create authentic and original work without fear of duplicating the work of others or being copied by others because copying inevitably leads to emotional resistance and failure.
Achieving self actualization through an alignment of life choices is an important precursor to the third and final model of creativity that we are looking at which is the FLOW theory of creativity.
Flow Theory of Creativity
Having recognized the origins of our creativity in the subconscious (psychoanalytic theory) and recognized the need to integrate all aspects of our life into a self actualized and thriving creative life (humanist theory) we now reach the point where we have to maximize creative production if we want to build a sustainable art practice and/or creative career.
For this we need to build a creative practice that is sustainable at a peak level of productivity.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed a theory of creativity that does just that. He maps out the relationship between emotion and productivity and defines a five step creative process.
- Preparation: Engaging in conscious thought about problems that are interesting and arouse curiosity
- Incubation: Letting ideas churn about in the subconscious
- Insight: The “aha!” moment of epiphany
- Evaluation: Determining whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing
- Elaboration: Translating the insight into the final work
What is most interesting about the Flow Theory of Creativity is that it focuses on the criteria necessary for peak engagement by looking at the relationship between skill and challenge. According to Csikszentmihalyi there are 8 factors that accompany the experience of flow.
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
Building a sustainable creative practice
To achieve peak creativity it is necessary to take these three abilities and integrate them with all three theories I have presented into an overall creative practice that is based upon a process rather than a specific outcome.
- Pre-production – research that is driven by living an interesting life that is immersed in creative ideas and explorations of our world. Pre-production involves acquiring new skills, journaling, research into art history and social issues, and having meaningful social engagements and life
- Production – This is the daily practice of doing photography and developing workflows that remove the doubt and uncertainty that is associated with the creation of anxiety and the loss of FLOW engagement.
- Post Production – This is the stage where you evaluate your work and develop insights on how best to finalize the work.
- Publication – The creative process doesn’t end until we share our work publicly and gain feedback on it which in turn provides the brainstorming step for future creative works.
Flow is about recognizing that the confused mind always says “no!” and shuts down.
In order to stoke the fires of creativity we have to first define the scope of the creative problem that is in alignment with our current skill level and only slightly beyond in order to keep us fully engaged.
From this perspective we can see the need for setting reasonable goals and developing a plan of action that removes the doubt and uncertainty from the equation.
Effective planning includes listing out the new skills necessary and the sources of information available for acquiring those skills as well as defining a workflow that empowers you to work consistently without having to extend too much mental bandwidth on worrying about how you are going to do something.
Flow also addresses the need for repetition in order to gain deeper insights. Photographic Artist Del Lusk once spent two years photographing department store mannequins for a project. When asked why it took so long he responded, “I had to work through all of the cliches in order to get to something new and creative.”
Creativity deepens with repetition. This is why it is important to find your calling and to define your creative question so you can immerse yourself in producing work over an extended period of time that is long enough for you to expand that domain of knowledge through your artistic scholarship.
The Artist Entrepreneur
In addition to this Csikszentmihalyi describes the relationship between the individual creative and the domain they work in. He developed a creative practice theory that recognizes that there are social, cultural, and economic factors that affect the creative practice of the individual.
In this model we see that the creative individual is affected by their position within a larger structural system. This connects to other psychological research that illustrates that success is directly influenced by the contextual elements such as social status and not just by hard work.
From a practical perspective this model highlights the limitations of the individual artist and the need for developing a collaborative and entrepreneurial approach to your creativity.
The productive artist has to be the CEO of their life and form a creative team that supports their art practice. The forces of economic, social, and cultural capital will shape the individual and there are gatekeepers that need to be brought into the idea in a supportive way starting with your friends and
Theories of Creativity help us gain personal agency through empowerment that comes from knowing ourselves at a deep level and learning to organize our life around our creative pursuits. The proverbial creative “gift from god(s)” and “divine inspiration” is only realized through a process of self discovery.
Learning to access the levels of consciousness below the conscious mind allows us to tap into our imagination as well as generate original content that is based upon the intensity and frequency of our life experiences.
Recognizing that our biological needs as well as our safety and social needs must be met in order for us to thrive and become self actualized is important to building momentum towards a sustainable creative practice that goes beyond the realm of emotional trauma.
Finding our calling and becoming self actualized helps us lock in our goals and creates a guiding compass for the choices we make, and finally we have looked at the ways in which we can set up our creative processes to allow us enter into a peak state of flow which will yield the kind of creative productivity necessary to sustain our career as a visual artist.
I feel this is an important discussion for artist because so often art education is strictly focused on techniques and art history that explores other people’s ideas and successes while leaving a wide chasm between the student and the examples of creativity that are given because they do not understand the origins for their own originality and creative ideas which is within themselves.