Stop Being Afraid Of Conformity
A good understand of creativity means we need to move beyond thinking about it in terms of individualism and conformity.
Freedom, individualism, authenticity; these powerful ideas hover close to our thoughts about art and creativity. But, what if we are too focussed on the “be yourself” message at the expense of other deeper truths about the creative process?
The World Beyond Your Head
For the past few days, I’ve been in Adelaide, enduring some rather unwelcoming winter weather. It’s been cold, wet and very windy, which of course in the perfect excuse for curling up a good book. This trip I’ve been reading Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, the follow-up to Shopcraft as Soulcraft, one of my favourite books on creativity.
To be honest, the opening chapters of The World Beyond Your Head are a little dry. Crawford’s argument is a familiar one, our dependence on digital devices is undermining our ability to focus, appreciate the world and pay attention to the people around us. In an attempt to go beyond the obvious claims we find in countless newspaper columns and blogposts, Crawford opens with an extended discussion of enlightenment philosophy that serves as a useful, if somewhat over long introduction to the roots of our cultural obsession with individualism.
Going Beyond Individualism
Things heat up, once Crawford turns to contemporary creative practice. While discussing musical creativity, Crawford writes,
“Consider another example: the process of becoming a musician. This necessarily involves learning to play a particular instrument, subjecting one’s fingers to the disciple of frets or keys. The musician’s power of expression is founded on prior obedience. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this isn’t the main thing – there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music that can be expressed mathematically. For example, halving he length of a string under a given tension raises its pitch by an octave. These facts do not arise from the human will, and there is no altering them.”
Obedience, physical constraints and mathematical truths: Musicians, like all artists, know that these are the walls within which we create. We conform ourselves physically to instruments that were mostly designed generations, if not centuries ago. We rearrange and juxtapose musical ideas that long ago been studied and codified. And, we struggle, to discipline our body’s movements enough to reliably execute our musical ideas in the real world.
“The education of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely that is arises only within concrete limits.”
How Creativity Connects With Culture
It’s easy to assume creativity just a subjective thing, living in our heads within the realm of opinion and ideas. Crawford’s example of the musician reminds us how much the physical world constrains what the musician does and also, as he goes to explain, how deep a role culture plays in suggesting what the musician may play.
“At a broader level of musicality, she plays within a genre. It may be hard bop or West Coast cool, Hindustani or Karnataka, or some synthesis of her own, but not invention ex nihilio…
…From the standpoint of any particular individual in the present, they are experienced as a horizon of possibility that has already been set.”
When we hear music fans debate, the arguments can be so strident; who is better, Taylor Swift or Beyonce, Coldplay or U2? Suggest that the differences are largely superficial and you will surely be shouted down. But, compare any two major Western pop stars today to what is possible within the realm of human musical expression and the similarities soon start to outweigh the differences. Taylor Swift and Beyonce have a lot more in common with each other than they do with Balinese Gamelan music, for example.
Limitations are not bad things when it comes to creativity. In fact, the opposite is true. Limitations encourage creativity.
Crawford does a great job of succinctly highlighting how shared culture makes improvisation possible amongst jazz musicians as they play together. The musical forms they have inherited, showed obedience to through learning and agreed to play together fuel the flights of improvisational genius.
“The improvisation is possible because all parties are attending to one another. It is fruitful only because they are also steeped in forms’ the history of their art has become the genetic material, the constitutive fibre, of their own creativity.”
Crawford arrives at an understanding of creativity where the familiar debate between “individualism” and “conformity” is secondary. However, this runs counter to so much of what we are taught, from our schools years into our working life, as we are encouraged to see creativity and innovation as something that is mostly individualistic, happening inside our heads, in the realm of ideas, rather a more community-based practice, that happens outside our bodies, limited by very real physical constraints we cannot change.
It feels more humble, humane and liberating to accept that we really are not re-inventing the wheel every time we try to create and are, instead, working mostly with physical and cultural realities we have inherited.
Or, to put it another way, the next time you set out to make something, accept what you have inherited, make what you can and worry less about how unique your creations are. Don’t fear conformity, accept what feels familiar as a gift that gets you going on the path to making something!