Creativity is Overrated
A few weeks ago, I was asked to play in the courtyard archway of a church I frequently attend. Ann Arbor has a massive art fair, apparently one of the biggest in the country, and upon one of the many streets which stretch out like the fingers of a deformed hand seemingly designed to interrupt the natural flow of traffic for everyone else in the city not interested in overpriced watercolors of some hippie’s wiener dog (in other words, me), sits this church. Outreach is not particularly easy, so if thousands of people are going to walking past your establishment, it is wise to take full advantage of it. So, they asked musicians in the church, and there are quite a few, to take turns in the courtyard while another member sat at a table offering free water and pamphlets to passersby. The outreach, however, is not the point of this story. The point of this story is that I had to play for about an hour and, as I’ve mostly been practicing a couple of Paganini caprices for the entirety of the summer, did not have an hour’s worth of written down, ready-to-go music to play. I also don’t have any “easy gig music for 1 violin” books or something like that, as I find those incredibly uninteresting. So, I proceeded to engage in one of my favorite activities: improvisation.
I made stuff up for nearly an hour. Now, there were a few things I threw in there that I didn’t merely cobble together from the recesses of my brain, fiddle tunes and such. However, the vast majority was new music, never heard before and never to be heard again. Upon relating what I had done to the young lady driving me home, she asked me this peculiar question: “How do you stay creative?” To which I replied, “Creativity is overrated. I’m not really that interested in creativity. We’d all do a lot better if we instead focused on how well we were doing something, rather than how new and revolutionary an idea we can come up with.”
Creativity is overrated. It’s a statement that goes against everything we’ve been taught to value growing up. So often we hear dreamy-eyed adults going on about the supposed creativity of children, about how someone used to be so creative as a child, and how they’ve now lost their creativity. We value the creative types, or those we deem the creative types: the artists, the inventors, the dreamers, the writers, etc. And I will agree, children are quite creative. Children come up with all sorts of new and crazy ideas, daring art projects, and stories. The problem is that 99.9% of everything produced by a child’s “creativity” is wet hot garbage.
Of course, it is perfectly fine and natural for a parent to enjoy and encourage the “creativity” of their child. However, this is important not because creativity is so crucial, but because this kind of wanton exploration endemic to children is a form of play and engaging the limits of the world around them. This is necessary for proper childhood development. However, we are remiss to encourage creativity, in itself, as a positive value. It creates a generation valuing the “new” for its own sake. Instead, let us replace our valuing of creativity with another thing, that helpfully also begins with the letter “C”: Competence.
On an aside, since we are talking about words for ideas that we shove down children’s throats that begin with “C”, we can also do away with “Confidence”, but this can be discussed another day.
Some of you might be inclined to ask me: “So, do you not want your young students to be creative?” The answer being: NO! In fact, not no, but Good Lord NO! You think I want a 6-year-old using her childish creativity when learning to play the violin? Good heavens, I can’t possibly think of a worse idea! No, what I value in students is not creativity, but competence. I want students, especially those at the beginning of their musical journeys, to do exactly what I say. Violin technique has a long tradition and has been very well thought out by many brilliant men over the past few centuries. I don’t want someone with no experience trying to find a new way that seems good to them at that moment, as their “new way” is usually the result of coping for some underdevelopment in the muscles of the hand and fingers. Now, this is not to say that I endorse the style of teaching wherein the teacher demands blind obedience without understanding. I encourage my students to challenge and ask questions when they don’t understand something, as it is my responsibility to help them understand why they are doing what they are doing (for more info on my views on this, see here). However, I have no interest in my students doing something new if it is not going to be done well.
In our constant pursuit of the novel and the unique we have left off the importance of competence in our lives and societies. Greatest praise is not reserved for those who follow the old ways with the highest level of mastery but goes to the newest titillating ditty currently in fashion. What you end up with, then, is a litany of cultural output bereft of lasting value. Nothing that spews from the sewer pipe of modern popular culture has any reason to be preserved and therefore is cast away once all possible monetary and dopaminergic value is ruthlessly squeezed from it. People may remember with a bit of light, derisive laughter a chart-topping song from a few years back, but no one really cares to go and listen to it again. Such cultural output offered no true inspiration to the populace, and therefore the people didn’t bother to keep it in memory.
Compare this to the edifices of culture based instead in supreme competence and excellence: great European and Asian architecture, the sculpture of the Renaissance, the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the ancient Cathedrals, the music of Johannes Brahms, all of which still uplift the heart, nourish the soul, and bring joy and beauty to the lives of people to this very day.
I bring up Bouguereau and Brahms specifically, as I find them prime examples of those who valued competence over perceived progressivism within their art. Bouguereau, whose art mostly concerns itself with achingly beautiful portraits of young country girls, was reviled by the artistic elite (the impressionists, in his day). However, it is still very common to see a Bouguereau painting thrown in a mix of images online meant to encapsulate the pinnacle of the inspirational beauty of art.
Brahms was famously in a battle for the very future of classical music with none other than Richard Wagner (who, I’ll admit, is an example of someone both genuinely creative AND competent). After the death of Beethoven, there was the great question of what should happen next, as it seemed to many that the classical forms of composition had peaked with that legendary figure, and so why would anyone bother to continue using them? Wagner argued that the next step in music was to now combine all performance art into one giant spectacle, as clearly the worth of the individual forms, the symphony, the opera, the sonata, etc, had been used to their fullest capacity. Brahms, however, made his argument for the continuation of the classical tradition, that there was still more to be had. Brahms was famous for his dedication to supreme competence, often burning music that didn’t live up to his standards. He took the old forms and poured into them all his heart, soul, and immense talent, producing music that ranks at the top of most lists of Favorite Classical Pieces. You see, Brahms understood that those old forms of composition existed for a reason. They were not a stepping-stone, they were a foundation. They provided order and clarity for the composer to support their own expression and direct it in a productive and coherent path. They didn’t erase or choke personal expression. They made it solid and worth something.
Brahm’s Piano Trio no. 1: A more beautiful beginning and ending to a piece of music has never been written
And here we have the great poetic irony: The pursuit of competence above all often produces that which some my think of as creative. Brahms’ music certainly didn’t sound like anyone else’s. But it was his pursuit of excellence that allowed him to put the stamp of his very soul on his music. An attempt to come up with something “new” and “exciting” would have been to create something that was not truly Brahms. And here is the other irony: the relentless pursuit of the “new” produces something that isn’t the true expression of the artist but is instead something wholly manufactured and artificial. Many of those who created the great works of art could definitely be described as creative, but creativity was not their goal (Bach was actually considered to be old-fashioned in his day), excellence was.
So, in closing, pursue competence, pursue excellence. Creativity is overrated. And who knows? It may be that, within your pursuit of excellence, the depths of the expression of your soul that sing out of that effort will bring forth something new, groundbreaking and, most importantly, worth-while. Such individuals used to be what we called “geniuses”, a term that has interestingly devolved to merely mean a person of very high intelligence. But, even if you are no genius, pursuing excellence will bring joy and purpose to your life and make the world a brighter place. We’ve had enough of the new. Let’s bring in the age of the brilliant, the beautiful, and inspiring. Let’s bring in the age of excellence.