Creativity vs Criticism

Creating something is very different to being critical of something that someone else has created. To create something is to bring something into being. To be critical is to look at something that already exists and to then say something about what it is, how it is made, or whether you like it.  I think there is a time and a place for both, but that education as a whole seems geared more towards criticism than creativity. No doubt the gap between the two is also not as cut and dried as the binary seems to suggest, because criticism can be creative too, and creativity can be critical, kind of. But it kind of stands too, I think, in as much as the terms tend to broadly suggest two different kinds of thing.

I came across notions of creativity and criticism when doing my PhD on discovery writing.  E.M.Forster came up with this pithy line:

Think before you speak is criticism’s motto; speak before you think creation’s. (Two Cheers for Democracy)

The sense seems to be that criticism is more deliberate, where it is important to think through what you will say or do before actually doing it. Creation stands as an opposite, where it seems OK to first ‘do’, or ‘speak’, and to then allow thinking to follow afterwards or catch up.  Criticism seems a bit more self-conscious and concerned to be seen to be knowledgeable or wise, whereas creativity seems more a matter of getting stuck in, jumping in with both feet, willing to make mistakes.

One thing that strikes me about Forster’s quote (above) is that for thought to heavily precede speaking, or thinking, suggests that a lot is known in advance of thinking or speaking. That chimes easily with criticism because to critique is to deliberate upon something that already exists, such as a novel, a poem, existing research etc. It’s easy to think before you speak if you have something to think about, or to think with, such as a text, or a field of knowledge. But what if you want to create something? Then what do you think about? If you set out to write a poem, for example, you do not know your poem as such, before it actually exists as written words. So you do not have a poem to think about, simply because your poem is not started yet. The chances are that you have fragments that you will somehow bring into being. You may think about something, but that ‘something’ is not something you can yet speak confidently about, or talk about at length, precisely because it does not yet exist. Creativity, then, by definition, is perhaps linked to ’emergent’ processes, since something is being brought into being. Metaphors with regard to ‘creativity’ are often organic or sexual is some way, since the processes seem related to birth, nature, flow (water) or growth.

When doing my PhD, I came across two modes of thinking, namely Classical and Romantic. Classical thinkers tend to envisage writing as a means to a predetermined end. They value being purposive, and being intentional. They have a plan or design, they value rationality and judgement. Romantics, by contrast, see writing as an end itself, value the involuntary, impulses, compulsion, the organic, and unanticipated forms. They value expression, feelings, the unconscious, subjectivity. Classical tends to be associated with rhetoric and science, whereas Romantic tends to be associated with the arts, poetry, and with creativity theory. (I borrowed these terms and descriptors from Daniel Chandler’s online text, The Act of Writing. Chandler covers many bases in his text – I highly recommend it to you!)

I like the theorizing of Classical and Romantic – two different ways of thinking, two different discourses – and I see these two personas or paradigms around me, day to day. I know a couple of scientists who are very Classical! But I wonder how it is possible to be Classical and yet also create or invent something. Because Classical stresses working with what you know, and such practices as stating research questions, it easily suggests a rigidity of direction and thought (a predetermined end, being purposive). Classical values ‘knowing’ above all, and seems to leave little scope for learning or thinking. Romantic, by contrast, embraces not knowing and not understanding.

I imagine that’s it’s possible for both Classicists and Romantics to invent, or create something new. I’m willing to bet that there are various strategies that everyone engages in, but that people tend to describe differently, depending on the paradigm they subscribe to. One thing I’ve found vital for creating stuff – be they ideas, photographs, arguments or whatever – is a process of trial and error. Trial and error can seem random and unpremeditated, especially if you feel like you’re just trying something new and unpredicatable, such as throwing a bucket of paint at a wall. But trial and error can also be more focused and premeditated. If you’ve spent years throwing paint around, like Jackson Pollock, for example, then your experiments are likely to be a little more focused – done in the light of previous learning and experience. And here, arts terms, such as experience and work, very easily equate with science terms, such as experimentation, research, and findings.

So when it comes to trial and error, we can easily appreciate that artists and scientists often work in similar ways, but yet tend to express their work differently. Key differences tend to be in relation to how purpose orientated they are, and how much they’re prepared to stray from the ‘norm’. It’s usual in science, for example, to be inventive by pushing existing knowledge or technology just a little bit further. If you can improve on something ever so slightly, be it a theory or a device, you might well have achieved something spectacular in the world of science. For artists, however, the ‘field’ isn’t perhaps such a given or established place, and it’s not always obvious if a new work or new technique is even new or ‘great’ in any respect. Jackson Pollock is a good example here. Some people regard him as a great artist, whereas others point to his connections with art dealers, and see him as someone who just threw paint around.

My key point here, perhaps, if I have a key point, is that, at one level, there is a difference between creating things and being critical about things. That is, there is a difference between creating things and theorising things, albeit that theorising can be a kind of creation. I think education as a whole, institutionalised education, sticks to the theoretical or critical more so than the creative. It’s perhaps easier for a teacher to teach in relation to stuff that exists already, rather than create stuff. It’s easier for teachers to work with what they think they ‘know’, rather than work with what they don’t ‘know’. It’s easier to impress parents and politicians by teaching what ‘you know’, since you can point to books, to knowledge, to existing theory. What is more difficult, and yet more exciting, is to play around and see what happens, to follow a feeling, or do something that seems like it might be fun. That’s where the good stuff tends to be. But no one seems to want to hear this kind of talk. It doesn’t sit easily with words such as ‘standards’ or ‘rigor’ – words I’ve heard all too often in education. 😦

I had an interview with The Modern Met a few weeks ago, talking about how and why I got into photographing soap bubbles. I should have stressed that it was all about playing, and then learning from playing. It’s about looking at beauty and then trying to capture it somehow. Capturing beauty is never as simple as it sounds. You never capture what you set out to capture. So you do not ‘capture’ an ‘it’ – the language never quite works!


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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One Response to Creativity vs Criticism

  1. knlistman says:

    I do not think this quote from E.M. Forster got it right (despite his extensive writing). The person who speaks before they think tend to give the same trite responses over and over again. The person who creates doesn’t speak before they think, they do before they speak. And then, they do again, and again, refining what they have done. Forster could say in his fiction, words he never actually spoke.

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