“What’s creative,” he asked, “what does that word even mean?”
My answer finds trouble at each turn:
1. To be creative is to, well, make something, but making something new isn’t enough. If creativity and novelty were perfect synonyms, art would be easy. Recombining letters and words—or notes or pigments or movements or gestures—would suffice. But artists seek a different sort of novelty mixing the strange and familiar to find truth. Sometimes we call “creative” what we should have noticed or known but didn’t. “Creative” isn’t the same as “odd”… though that could be what my classmate meant.
2. And can something be creative only once? Is a cliché a cliché only if you’ve heard it? Which standard of freshness shall we apply—the absolute or personal? What’s more stultifying than absolute? What’s more finite than personal?
3. New and right to me may not be, and no assay or measure will establish what “creative” means definitively and universally. Its elusiveness is welcome magic.
4. For the artist, creativity consumes itself. Art loses heat the instant of completion. The object signals creation’s (and imagination’s) end. Though audiences warm their minds on the ashes, they examine artifacts of an artist’s experience and thus reassemble. Interpretations add perspective. Yet, from the artist’s outlook, they stir spent coals.
5. Creativity is more pursuit than achievement, never accomplished finally or entirely. Its only purpose may be prompting more of itself.
6. Some creativity arrives only when exhaustion looms and nothing remains. What once appeared creative proves an earlier stage.
7. Genes, circumstance, sensory equipment, or disposition fence artists. Makers want to leave themselves and be creative but find an unexamined patch of their own yard instead.
8. Maybe some artists are demi-gods, just naturally original, endowed with genius and a special touch, but, if so, their attributes won’t sustain them. Exercising your voice until it’s worn out isn’t creative. Art requires subverting, rejecting, and redefining all you think you know, continually.
Which is what I’m guessing my teacher was trying to say. His patience ran out. He wanted us to stop talking about what was or wasn’t creative and get to work.