Taking creativity to task

A new book by Barbican director John Tusa gives the lie to the UK government's assertion that 'everyone is creative'.

Josie Appleton

Topics Culture

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Manchester, it was recently reported, is the most creative city in the UK.

Professor of economic development Richard Florida, who announced his findings at a Demos conference on 27 May, measured creativity not by numbers of artists or concerts, but by gay-friendliness, ethnic diversity, and the numbers of patent applications per head of population (1). And he argued that Manchester’s high ‘creativity’ index meant that it had greatest potential for economic growth.

Professor Florida explained the relationship between the gay community, creativity and economic growth in the following way: ‘Creative, innovative and entrepreneurial activities tend to flourish in the same kinds of places that attract gays and others outside the norm. When people with varied backgrounds and attitudes collide, economic growth is likely.’

‘Creativity’, by this account, is a kind of energy, like electricity, that is emitted when different kinds of people bump into each other. It then flows around society and somehow brings about economic growth.

Or is Florida simply dreaming? Such mystified ideas of creativity are critically explored by Barbican director John Tusa’s new book, On Creativity: interviews exploring the process (2). At a time when any management consultant or government aide could wax lyrical about creativity and restructuring the health service, Tusa simply gets artists to speak about their work.

Creative, creation, creativity, as Tusa says in his introduction, ‘are some of the most overused and ultimately debased words in the language’, which are liberally applied by everybody from bureaucrats to politicians to thinktanks. A prime debaser is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), with its 2001 Green Paper Culture and Creativity: The Next Ten Years (3).

The government document talks about ‘creativity’ as a capacity for spontaneous expression lying dormant within each individual, just waiting to be set free. ‘Everyone is creative’, announces the report: ‘imagination, innovation and original expression are vital components of what it is to be human and to be part of society.’

The UK government sees creative expression as a necessary part of each individual’s development, which helps to provide them with a sense of self-worth and enables them to share with others. ‘Creative thought lies at the heart of almost all cultural activity; it helps to put together those moments of uplift or of enjoyment that mean the most to people’, says Culture and Creativity. The implication is that to damn one person’s creative offering as less valuable than another’s would be a terrible sleight.

By contrast, the 13 respected painters, sculptors, writers and photographers interviewed in John Tusa’s new book don’t tend to use the word ‘creative’. But they do share something of how the business of developing genuinely new forms of expression is done. And it has little to do with relaxing to let creative energies run free.

For a start, they talk about artistic creation as being painful and scary rather than uplifting. ‘It’s the most terrifying thing to do. It causes me a great deal of pain’, said composer Harrison Birtwistle. His problems with the latest score stop him sleeping – and even dominate his dreams. The painter Paula Rego describes her work as ‘fraught with danger and risk of total embarrassment’ – it is a leap into the unknown, and most of these leaps end in failure: ‘the idea goes wrong many times.’

And spontaneous expression doesn’t work on its own – but only when coupled with a meticulous discipline and perseverance. Many of the artists describe trying again and again to get something right. Sculptor Anthony Caro said he ‘used to sit and look at it for days and perhaps move something six inches, and that would be a day’s work’. Few viewers would notice that six inches difference, yet Caro spent a whole day deciding on it (and indeed, may have changed it back again the following day).

Birtwistle describes the process of creating a ‘big noise’: ‘You build it up by pebble, by pebble, by pebble.’ A page of music would take 10 seconds to play and two days to write. Architects require a different kind of discipline – while designing the Sainsbury’s in Camden Town, Nicholas Grimshaw said that he became fascinated by ‘the absolute iron logic to shopping’, which governed the way that the aisles had to be laid out in the building.

Each of Tusa’s interviewees has his or her own way of working, of grappling with the words, paint or notes in their chosen medium. The poet Tony Harrison works in notebooks, sticking scraps of paper on top of each other. Sometimes the phrases go nowhere, but other times the rising piles of paper and glue yield a poem that he is happy with. The painter Frank Auerbach talks to, shouts at and stomps around his canvas. Creative expression, it seems, is more sweat and blood than it is electrical buzz.

And these artists describe the need to excise any trace of personal vanity in order to create something that is genuinely good. The idea that every creative expression must be flattered, or that it is important to individual self-worth, is anathema to the artistic process.

Frank Auerbach says that if he feels ‘a slight unease’ about a painting, he has ‘got to destroy it’ – he scrapes or hacks off the layers of paint that he had spent days accumulating. He quotes Yeats’ advise to ‘destroy your darlings’: ‘If one begins to cherish and like what one’s done, one’s actually on a very slippery slope indeed, selling oneself one’s own paintings.’ Painters who sat back and congratulated themselves on their talents wouldn’t get very far.

Many of the interviewees are critical of those who get carried away with being ‘creatives’. One architect criticised ‘pointless gestures’ in buildings – such as an angled wall when there was no need for one. The problem with these features is that they are driven more by the architect’s desire to show off or to express himself than by the demands of the building. The photographer Eve Arnold said: ‘I take my work seriously, I don’t take myself seriously.’ And John Tusa quotes a famous conductor’s warning: ‘Always remember, when you are conducting, you are not there to enjoy yourself.’

In fact, although many of the artists talk about their work as an intimate and intensely personal thing, there is also something highly impersonal – a striving for somehow ‘true’ forms of expression. Auerbach says that he is not aware of the mechanics of his painting – how much paint he is using, and so on – because his focus is on the forms that he is struggling to reach. ‘The first thing that I wanted to do was to state the truth, and the truth is not a painting.’

And there is no sign of protectiveness or conceit about their art – once they have made it, they let it go, to live on in a gallery, concert hall or newspaper, to become part of society’s imaginative store. The sculptor Anthony Caro said that, after he had shown his pieces, ‘they’re gone…. And they live their lives; I live my life. While we’re together we’re talking to each other – that’s real. Afterwards, it’s sentimental, I think, to be caring about old pieces, particularly’. As John Tusa put it in his conversation with Frank Auerbach: ‘you create something which is like a new species of living thing.’ The painting lives on independently of its creator.

The book is itself an example of a dying art-form: the art of interviewing. Through each interview, Tusa probes, guides and challenges his interviewee. This face-to-face intimate encounter, ‘part courtship, part self-examination, part jousting, part self-justification, part self-revelation’, is something that is often missing in a media dominated by sound-bites and ephemeral stories.

In the final chapter, ‘On interviewing’, Tusa discusses his time as an interviewer for the BBC – and reveals the combination of detailed preparation and spontaneity that allows an interviewer to bring out the best in his subject. And the pitfalls for an interviewer seem similar in many ways to the pitfalls for an aspirant artist. ‘The unselfcritical interviewer can appear self-important, puffed up with synthetic indignation, bullying, overbearing and irritatingly too big for his – or her – boots.’

In Tusa’s introduction, he suggests that everybody is not creative – that the artist’s creation is an ‘exceptional act’. It is the work of striving for perfection that ‘sets it and those who engage in it aside’.

While Tusa is right that these artists are special – excellent – in a way most of us could never be, this does not mean that we cannot learn from and emulate something of their method. The things that these artists describe about their approach – self-criticism, dedication to the task, combining spontaneity and discipline – are actually what it takes to do any job well. Car mechanics and interviewers could both benefit from going about things in a similar way.

Perhaps the obsessive ravings of Frank Auerbach, more than the inclusive waffle of DCMS, can teach us how we really can all be creative.

Buy On Creativity, by John Tusa, from Amazon (UK)

(1) Gritty city wins the boho crown, Guardian, 26 May 2003

(2) On Creativity, by John Tusa, Methuen, 2003. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(3) See Culture and Creativity: The next Ten Years, DCMS, 2001

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Topics Culture


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