There?s a place in the mountains of Colorado that my wife and I visit every summer. I?m always somewhat overtaken by the grandeur surrounding me, and it?s easy to get swept up in it all. In those moments I can?t help but think that the creativity on exhibition here is unsurpassed.
There?s a painting hanging in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art of the Virgin Mary holding newborn Jesus in her arms. The serene gaze of unfathomable affection between mother and son, between Theotokos and Theanthropos is breathtaking, and every time I visit I am enraptured by this work of art. In those moments I can?t help but think that the creativity on exhibition here is unsurpassed.
There?s a book at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland that is held under protective glass and within stringent climate control?the famed Book of Kells. The artistry and ingenuity that rests upon each page is a sight to behold, and the mind is dumbfounded as to how people so long ago could produce a work of such intricate detail with the relatively primitive implements available to them. In those moments I can?t help but think that the creativity on exhibition here is unsurpassed.
As this litany of experiences demonstrates, we tend to lurch from creative object to creative object; sometimes it?s found in the new, while other times it is discovered in the ancient. Sublimity is no respecter of times, and creativity of all forms and from all eras can overwhelm us just as easily as it can fade into the mists of memory and the depths of time.
But I sometimes suspect that chasing after what is creative is a trap. In my own work I am always striving to be as creative as I can, to create things that are fresh and new and relevant to the audience for which they are created, but also to transcend the mere day-to-day grind of just getting something out the door and bring forth something that touches myself as much as I hope it does others.
And in the times when I hit those creative blocks and cannot seem to generate any ideas, I feel like I?m the one doing the heavy lifting, with the world around me failing to lift a finger and offer help or inspiration.
It is (at least to me) an interesting quirk of history and philology that only in modern times have humans understood themselves as ?creative? as we tend to use the word. While we recognize (hopefully) that we aren?t the sole source of what we bring forth in our creative endeavors, we do tend to see the whole project of creativity as almost a sort of pseudo-act of creation akin (if only obliquely) to the divine act of Creation itself. In Christian circles, we have even taken to calling ourselves ?co-creators? with God.
In the ancient world, this notion would have been both nonsensical and potentially even considered blasphemy. For the ancients, creativity was something that was the provenance of the gods alone. In pagan cultures the gods were most often seen to be the ones who brought creation forth from pre-existent matter; much like artists, they gave form to the chaos of undifferentiated matter and, thus, creation was born.
Perhaps humans mimic this process, but the distinction would be completely a matter of scale. True, humans bring form to matter, but not like the gods; to consider oneself ?creative? would thus be hubris of an almost Promethean order, with the potential threat of Sisyphean results.
In the Christian mind God did not bring forth creation as a form out of matter, but rather brought forth everything out of nothing. Thus, while in the pagan mind, the gods and matter were both eternal. In the Christian understanding of the cosmos, everything that is?even the underlying matter of every form?proceeds from God?s creative act, and so everything that exists participates to one degree or another in God?s being, since God is Being itself.
In this understanding, humans could not possibly be ?creative? nor even ?co-creators,? since creation as an act is more than just applying form to matter, but is actually bringing forth the essence of the created thing itself.
In the stock example, Michelangelo took the marble and imposed the form of David upon it. In some sense one might even say by doing so he drew the form of David out of the rock. But his act of creation would not be seen as truly a creation at all, but rather as a transformation. He took the form of a rock and transformed it in his famous David. Consequently, while the matter of the rock remains the same, the form has changed.
Now, of course this could all descend into mere equivocation, as we probably don?t think of ourselves as ?creative? in the sense of having delusions of divinity. But I think there is value in thinking of creativity as transformation.
In my own work, I find that when I think of myself as creative and the role of my work as being creative, I subconsciously place the lion?s share of what I produce onto myself. I am the one generating the ideas, I am the one executing on them, I am the one responsible for this creation.
But when I begin to see my work as primarily about transformation, a shift in my thinking can begin to occur. I have to realize that ultimately I am not the source of what I am ?creating?; rather, I fundamentally have to approach my work with a spirit of gratitude and submission. My art is always subject to gifts that I have been given, both in the skills and techniques I have developed, but also in the things that I am able to form and transform. In no part of the process am I ever able to get away from this fundamental truth, at least not without turning my work into something that it?s not. Even the ideas that I think to be solely my own are not; as the old scholastic axiom goes?there is nothing in the mind which is not first in the senses.
In my own frustrations and challenges, I find that when I am searching for the most creative things, what I think I am trying to find is some kind of silver bullet: a style, a technique, a process?anything that will help me attain some standard of creativity that I presuppose I have or need to have. Instead of beginning with a sense of gratitude and wonder at what I have been given, I often tend to begin with a spirit of comparison:
Why can?t I be creative like that?
Why didn?t I think of that?
If only I could be as creative as this person, I?d be happy?
I want to be someone for whom creative endeavors are an act of worship, of giving to God what He is due. In naming the animals man was given the responsibility of transformation?what was once undifferentiated and nondescript now is this thing or that thing. In working the garden man imposes form onto nature and cultivates it into something more than it currently is.
And so while I still appreciate creativity in the things that I see, and could probably name even more things that, at the moment, seem the most creative thing to me, I think I am beginning to try and think about art and creativity differently. I want to be someone who is full of humility and gratitude in what I do, who can appreciate what is awe-inspiring and creative in what others do without comparing myself to them.
And who knows? If God willing I can ever get there. That might be the most creative thing I?ve ever seen.