[ Guest Post // Artificiality and Creativity // Kevin Sun ]
The word “artificial” has seen better days. In casual usage it often carries a negative connotation, but the term hasn’t always been so maligned.
One of the earliest attested meanings of “artificial,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dates from 1425: “Of a thing: made or constructed by human skill, esp. in imitation of, or as a substitute for, something which is made or occurs naturally; man-made.” In fact, “artificial” was sometimes even used as a compliment to mean “Displaying art or skill” or “Of a thing: skillfully made or contrived; cleverly constructed.”
The modern day premium placed on spontaneity and lack of artifice is widespread in creative fields, but when attention is directed toward these qualities, the unnatural origin of creative work is often obscured.
Art is, by definition, artificial. This paradox—that to create organic and spontaneous-looking art means acting in ways that are totally inorganic and unspontaneous—is inevitable, but also illuminating.
Asking artists to be “creative” tends to really mean asking them to be imaginative or original, but in its most basic sense, “creativity” doesn’t mean either of those things; it just means “The faculty of being creative; ability or power to create” (OED, again). The myths of spontaneous creativity and divine inspiration have monopolized popular thought for a while, but there’s an important alternative tradition of thinking about artmaking—one that doesn’t downplay but instead emphasizes the meticulous craftsmanship and labor that being truly “creative” entails.
Edgar Allen Poe is an iconic example of the artist as self-described craftsman. In 1846, he published an essay called “The Philosophy of Composition,” which details his process for writing “The Raven,” published the year before. The essay comes across as tongue-in-cheek at times, but his train of thought is undeniably clear, almost hypnotic. Here’s his explanation of the poem’s famous refrain:
That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.
The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact it was the very first which presented itself.
Creativity is fundamentally about empowering yourself to make something—to make anything—with what you have at your disposal, technically and conceptually. For Poe, the means to being creative is simple: think clearly and patiently about what you want to achieve, and then proceed confidently with small, logical steps.
A great work of art is like a well-designed building. When it’s completed, it gives away nothing about how it came into being and looks like it had emerged fully formed. But every building, at one point or another, has scaffolding. When you’re creating, you have to not only accept the scaffolding, the artifice of the process, but also embrace it as an essential part of the creative process. In the end when the scaffolding comes off, no one will ever know it was there.
[ Kevin Sun is a saxophonist, composer, and blogger. He currently studies English at Harvard University and Jazz Performance at New England Conservatory. Read more of Kevin’s writing at A Horizontal Search. ]