Why Creativity Practice Is Not About Doing Art

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Practising creativity is something I’ve been advocating for a long time as a way of growing your creative brain. A common misconception surrounding the phrase practising creativity, though, is that this means doing something “artistic”. That’s not it at all, for two reasons.

First, most creativity happens outside of art, or the arts. The consensus definition of creativity among creativity scientists is that which is both new and useful, which isn’t a bad place to start (though there’s a bit more to it than that). Entrepreneurs, leaders, teachers, parents, engineers, mechanics, kids, mathematicians, sportsmen and women, and many more kinds of people engaged in a varied number of cultural domains, regularly come up with new ideas that are useful – whether useful to themselves or recognised as useful by others. Think of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was a new way to describe the state of America and his vision for a changed one, and has been found to be among the most valued (i.e. useful) instances of public speaking in history. That’s creativity, yet it’s a series of socio-political statements; hardly art.

Second, most art is not creative. Yes you heard that right; in fact, most activity and thought that happens within the “creative” fields as a whole are non-creative. It’s pretty obvious when you think about it. Painting-by-numbers requires the painter to follow a pre-set pattern. It’s ‘art’ but there’s nothing new about it (though it can be useful for the painter e.g. as therapy). Most art that’s produced more freely by people isn’t very useful – not many people value it or like it. And anyway, most artistic output echoes earlier styles and ideas, so isn’t that new anyway.

Think of a dance performance, say at the Royal Ballet. While artistic it’s not usually creative, since the dance has been choreographed and all of the dancers are simply following the routine. It’s beautiful, yes, but it’s not new. (The newness came in the original choreography – though even here the choreography may be pretty unoriginal.)

Music is the same. Buskers play other people’s songs – that’s not new, and most aren’t great anyway, so it’s generally not hugely useful, so it’s not very creative. Even songwriters’ own material is largely derivative. The music may be kick-ass, exciting, moving or whatever, but most ‘original’ written music is not truly new in stylistic or lyrical terms – it’s not very original – even though it might be (but usually isn’t) valuable or useful.

No, when I refer to creativity practice, I’m talking about practising creativity at the cognitive level – at the level of the precise mental operations which underpin creative idea generation and development. Regularly tackling problems in a cognitively creative fashion will serve to increase your creative intelligence over time, whether the problem context you are faced with solving centres on a business dilemma, a parental situation, a design task or an art challenge. (Some art, after all, is indeed creative. Please lower your paintbrushes, artists, they look sharp.)