How Art Gets Created (Homage to Howie Becker)

My approach to creativity was deeply inspired by Howie Becker’s 1982 book Art Worlds–a close analysis of the work done by painters, sculptors, and photographers, of course, but also all of the other roles necessary to get art done and to get it valued, sold, and talked about. Becker made a convincing argument that art doesn’t come from the solitary artist in the studio; there are many other people involved. They remain hidden only because we aren’t looking for them–we believe so much in the romantic myth of the solitary lone genius that we look right past everyone else involved in the collective creative process.

Basically, Becker believes that Yogi Berra was right: you really can observe the most by watching.

This quotation comes from a fascinating portrait of Becker in the latest New Yorker magazine. Becker is now 86 years old and spends most of his time in Paris, where he’s a huge academic star. Adam Gopnik interviewed Becker at a French restaurant, and here’s what Becker told Gopnik about how art gets created:

Mine is a view that–well, it takes a village to write a symphony and get it performed. It’s not just the composer. The great case for me is in film, because nobody ever figured out who the real artist is: the screenwriter or the director or who? Or, rather, everybody figured it out, but never figured out the same thing. Early on when I was reading about art, I read a book by Aljean Hametz on the making of “The Wizard of Oz.” She was the daughter of someone in the wardrobe department of M-G-M, and she explains that there were four directors of that film, and the guys who thought of the crucial thing, the change from black-and-white to color when the characters enter Oz, were the composer and the lyricist! In an important way, I took the list of credits at the end of a Hollywood film as my model of how artistic creation really happens.

Creativity consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. The resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation, and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.

In a nutshell, this is the core message of my 2007 business book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Of course I hope you read my book, but if you then want to go deeper, and really understand creativity, you have to read Howard Becker.

How the Beatles are Like Duke Ellington

What two musical groups could be more different, right? Duke Ellington’s big band jazz from the 1940s, and the English group that made rock and roll famous. Writer Adam Gopnik* finds a common thread that he calls “the mystery of modern creativity.” Gopnik’s article is a book review of two books: an Ellington biography by Terry Teachout called Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, and Mark Lewisohn’s new book about the Beatles, Tune In. About Ellington, he writes:

Ellington’s ear, his energy, his organizational abilities, the sureness of his decisions are a case study for management school….He took what he needed to realize the ideal he had invented. This is not a secondary form of originality, which needs a postmodern apologia, in which “curating” is another kind of “creating.” It is the original kind of originality. Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind that we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to think that the new idea “contributed” by the work matters more than the work itself.

This is exactly the argument I make in my own writings on creativity, grounded in creativity research. Gopnik is attacking what I call “the Western cultural model of creativity” (in my 2012 book, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation). Right on!

Decades ago, editor William Shawn (of The New Yorker magazine, where Gopnik’s joint review was published) wrote:

You can’t talk about the Beatles without mentioning the transcendent Duke Ellington…Like Ellington, they’re unclassifiable musicians.”

In reviewing Lewisohn’s new book about the Beatles, Gopnik gives one of the biggest complements a book reviewer can ever give an author: “Lewisohn manages to fill in blanks that no one knew were empty.” This reminds me of the famous quotation attributed to the philosopher Schopenhauer:  “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” So why does Gopnik review these two books together?

If one thing stands out as the source of the Beatles’ originality, it is the theft of improbable parts, the sheer range of their stealing.

And then:

A Beatles-Duke playlist, folded together, has a common quality (which took me by surprise, but shouldn’t have), and that is excitement. Go from “Please, Please Me” to “Take the A Train,” and you hear the shared fervor of musicians not just making a new sound but listening to themselves as they do. It’s the sound of self-discovery.

In the end, I’m not really convinced that Gopnik makes the case that Ellington and the Beatles are essentially similar. His article is subtitled “The mysteries of modern creativity” and it doesn’t quite live up to that ambition. Honestly, I think Gopnik just really liked these two books and couldn’t decide which one to review, so he came up with a way to do both. In the end, Gopnik is doing what he says these bands did: He’s working it through on the page, thinking out loud, trying to figure out what he means, how his intuition plays out. It’s a fascinating read, even if he doesn’t quite get all the way there.

*Gopnik, “A critic at large: Two bands.” The New Yorker, December 23 and 30, 2013, pp. 121-126.

Brain Imaging: What Good Is It?

You’ve no doubt seen those colorful pictures of the brain, with different sections of the brain colored yellow, red, green, and blue–a rainbow pattern of colors spread out across the brain. These images are generated by a brain imaging technology called “functional magnetic resonance imaging” or fMRI for short. fMRI can detect the relative degree of brain activity in a very small region of the brain, approximately 3 millimeters cubed. These little imaginary cubes are called “voxels”; and then, using some expensive and fancy technology, researchers can measure the brain activity in each voxel while you’re engaged in a specific mental task. To communicate the results, each of the voxels is assigned a color based on how much the neurons inside it are firing. Scientists, journalists, and trade book authors are really excited about this technology, because it seems to give us a window into what is really going on when we’re thinking. National funding agencies have been granting lots of money to this sort of research (and it’s not cheap, because it requires expensive machines that are often located inside the medical school, because they’re also used for clinical diagnoses).

So what good is it? More and more scholars are asking this question, and we’re seeing a growing backlash. Knowledgeable scholars have been arguing that we haven’t learned much from this expensive brain imaging. Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker magazine, recently reviewed three new books that all argue “that brain science promises much and delivers little.” The books are A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind, by Robert A. Burton; Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuro-Science, by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld; and Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind, by a pair of cognitive scientists, Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached. (Not included in this review is the 2011 book Neuromania: On the Limits of Brain Science, by Paolo Legrenzi, Carlo Umilta, and Frances Anderson.) As Professor Roger Carpenter writes, in a letter supporting Gopnik’s review, this “is indeed neo-phrenology, and, intellectually, represents a regression to the nineteenth century.” (Sep. 23, 2013, pp. 12-14)

In 2011, I published a scientific article titled “The cognitive neuroscience of creativity,”* and I came to the same conclusion about the limits of brain imaging. The first challenge is that you have to learn a lot of technical detail to really understand how little information the technology provides. For example, in my article I reported that fMRI, which indirectly measures neuronal activity by measuring blood flow to each voxel, is in fact only measuring changes in blood flow above a baseline state of 1 percent to 3 percent. That means that even when your neurons are firing like crazy, you won’t see more than a 3 percent increase above a baseline state (i.e., sleeping or daydreaming). Second, when neurons start firing, the blood flow doesn’t increase until 4 to 6 seconds later. Third, when neurons become more active, they draw in more blood, but blood flow also increases over a larger area that extends to a few millimeters distant, where there may not be any increase in neuronal activity.

Fourth, different people’s brains operate in different ways–not everyone’s brain responds to a given task in exactly the same way. Even for a single person, their brain responds differently to the same task on each occurrence of the task. So researchers have everyone do the task tens or hundreds of times, and then they take a statistical average across all of the tasks. And after that, they average across everyone’s brain. So those colorful pictures you are seeing represent an average–and it doesn’t mean that every person, every time, displays exactly that activation pattern.

And finally, the colorful pictures hide a very important fact: The entire brain is active pretty much all of the time. Neurons are always firing, at least a few times every second. The brain is a complex system, and every cognitive activity is widely distributed across the neocortex. If you showed those pictures in a magazine, it would look like a jumbled mess. So researchers do what’s called paired image subtraction–they get the average brain activity in one task, and then they get another average, of brain activity in some comparison baseline task, and they subtract out the activity of the baseline task.

Are you confused yet? I said there were a lot of technical details. (And the above is a highly simplified version.) But all this led me to draw the following conclusions in my 2011 article:

1. For the most part, brain imaging has discovered facts that were already known from classic experimental cognitive psychology. We have no breakthrough surprises; no 1970s experimental findings have been overturned.

2. All thought involves many regions of the brain. There is no such thing as “the brain location for creativity” or anything else.

3. You can’t use brain imaging to make claims about causation, such as “activation in this part of the brain caused you to have a creative insight,” because the activated areas might not play a critical role in performing the task; they might be “listening” or monitoring some other brain area that is actually responsible.

4. Because the brain imaging results are always averaged over many trials and many subjects, it is incorrect to interpret the studies as showing that “creativity is located in the anterior cingulate cortex” (or wherever).

5. Higher cognitive functions, like creativity, are complex and involve many parts of the brain simultaneously. They can’t be reduced to one small location in the brain. And when you think about it, that’s just common sense.

Perhaps new technologies will emerge in the future that can address some of these issues. But whatever new brain imaging technology emerges, these five points will still apply. I’ll certainly keep following this research, and if I see some exciting new finding about creativity and the brain, you’ll read it here!

*Sawyer, Keith. 2011. The cognitive neuroscience of creativity: A critical review. Creativity Research Journal, 23(2), 137-154.