Can You Teach Creativity? Part One


Why do people go to Art School? (I wish I’d have asked myself when I was young; it might have saved me a lot of time, money and diverted energy). More specifically, why do people enroll in undergraduate programs in “Photography” or pursue an MFA in the same? Or, more commonly, why do we take ‘Seminars,’ either from recognized ‘experts’ or worse yet, from more rebarbative ilk, the boorish, flim-flammers peddling their nonsense to photographers who happen to use certain equipment? Why do a certain subset of us – ‘street photographers’ –  feel the need to pay good money to follow a self-appointed expert around for a day? What could we possibly learn? What could an ‘expert’ possibly ‘teach?’

I once asked this question to a semi-famous photographer who occasionally gives “street photography” classes through The Center For Documentary Studies at Duke University. Nice enough guy, but he evaded the question by mumbling some platitude while his eyes shifted nervously. Gotcha, I thought at the time, my bet being, deep down, he knew he had nothing to teach other than slavish imitation. My wife took the course. She enjoyed it. Did she become a better photographer? Probably not in any significant way she couldn’t have learned on her own with some minimal attention.

I’ve asked myself this for years, given I went to ‘Art School’ back in the day.  Was I someone who sincerely desired to express himself creatively…or was I just another sheep looking for the simple answer and thus easily led to believe in the expertise of others? If the whole endeavor was legit, what was I expecting to learn? Technique? Visual skills? Camera skills? Interpersonal skills? Street smarts? I’m stumped.  I’m willing to entertain that such pedagogical opportunities might have been of some value to me as a wannabe creator; I just don’t remember my motivations or expectations. Maybe readers who’ve attended these things – or “Art School” no less – might chime in.

So, as I usually do when I’m confused about something – good classicist I am – I go back to the Greeks for edification, ( which is a good general rule for life). Can we be taught “creativity?”


The Dance of the Muses on Helicon.

The Dance of the Muses 

The Ancients certainly didn’t think so. The Greeks generally understood creativity to be the product of what Plato called mania, inspiration, or Aristotle called ecstaticos, genius. You either had it or you didn’t, and it came and went on its own schedule, irrespective of how hard you tried to conjure it. Paradoxically, the greater the effort to conjure, the less likely it would appear. This is because the Greeks considered such mania to be of divine origin, the gift of your “muse.”  You can’t force the hand of a god, and to attempt to do so is hubris.

 Specifically, the Greeks understood the Muses as the source of orally related knowledge of poetic lyrics and myths and were considered to be the personification of knowledge and of the arts, especially dance, literature, and music. The Muses were mythological beings who breathed inspiration and creative knowledge into mortals. The Muses lived on Mount Olympus, where they entertained the Olympian gods when they weren’t inspiring mortals. That’s the Olympians above, getting down and dirty to the ancient Greek equivalent of a Muse garage band.

The Muses did not teach at university nor did they offer weekend creative retreats or paid seminars. That’s because inspiration, the pre-condition of all creativity, couldn’t be taught.  The best mere mortals could do was to encourage the muse-inspired student and teach him to properly channel his mania when it appeared. This Greek idea of inspiration held the day in western culture through the 19th-Century, when Romantics (think of Goethe, Wordsworth, Emerson, etc) updated the idea of creativity and its sources…and ended up in the same place as the Ancients. They stressed the fundamental non-reductive individuality at the heart of all creativity and believed no group instruction could teach it.


Helpful Hint #1: People Lying in the Street Make Great Art. Especially if They’re in Paris

My experience in 50 years of attempting creative endeavors is that the Greeks were right (they’re pretty much right about everything, actually). You can’t teach creativity; at best you can teach slavish impersonation of another’s style, which, obviously, is something distinct from creativity. What you can do is encourage inspiration. A teacher can pass along the enthusiasm necessary to be creative. The muses need to do the rest.

The Bauhaus, a 20th-Century German Modernist art and design movement, also believed that creativity couldn’t be taught. The Bauhaus promoted the radical simplification of forms, rationality and functionality. What’s interesting about Bauhaus theory is that they did believe craft was a fundamental pre-condition to any creative attempt. You couldn’t be creative if you weren’t competent to employ your tools in the cause of your creativity. As such, art instruction is legitimate for teaching the basic rules, techniques, and procedures of your chosen craft. Art teachers are really technicians. But that’s as far as they can go.

In this, the Greeks were in agreement. Classic Greek thought made a distinction between subjects that could be taught and those that could not. As noted, creativity, for the Greeks, fell into the later category.  Creativity was emperia, something which you didn’t gain via being taught by someone else, but rather something you “absorbed” via the grace of the gods. It was a gift that came and went on its own terms. In intellectual terms,  mania was not susceptible of theory, which was a prerequisite of all knowledge that could be taught. According to the Greeks, whatever could be taught had 1) a body of information, 2) a set of methods to apply to that information, and 3) a theory of how to apply the method to the info. Such subjects were called techne – crafts or sciences subject to rules – what we moderns call ‘techniques.’

You can teach technique.  And, in fact, the Greeks believed that you must learn technique to avail yourself of what the Muse offered. No technique, no creative receptivity. Can’t have one without the other. So….

To be Continued. Part Two – the Relationship of ‘Technique’ to ‘Creativity’ Or…. Will Using a Leica Make You a Better Photographer?

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18 thoughts on “Can You Teach Creativity? Part One

  1. Dominique Pierre-nina

    Well said. Most if not all great artists have never been to “Art School”

  2. Kenneth Wajda

    Here’s why. People like art courses and photography classes because they like structure, they need to go park the car somewhere and go to something that has a finite start and finish time.

    I teach street photography and really what I’m doing is showing other people how I an able to photograph people facing the camera so that they can see that they can, too. They just want to watch it being done and to be given permission and they need somebody to give it—that’s why there are classes and workshops.

    The class kind of inspires them knowing that they’re going to this structured event, they can get excited looking forward to it, maybe it comes with lunch, and they can talk photography with other people who won’t get bored. And the class gives them license to go out afterwards and go shooting because they’re all jazzed by the new information even if it isn’t all that new—it feels new.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      I think you’re right, Kenneth. You are facilitating inspiration by setting an example for what’s possible when one is inspired. You are not teaching creativity…but you are nurturing it.

  3. 32BT

    I once read somewhere that the Chinese lacked any form of creativity because their culture discourages individuality and their language requires copyskills from an early age, copying over and over and over to memorize the characters. I figured it was a good point, and immediately asked myself this: is creativity an exportable resource?

    From an educational perspective one could additionally wonder whether the converse then also holds: if you encourage “individuality” and deemphasize copying, will creativity improve?

    Which suggests in other words that a teacher can probably provide more than technique alone, but we all know that whatever this “more” is, it isn’t well defined and therefore it isn’t well taught. Not all teacher are created equal…

  4. Rob Campbell

    As I always maintain, you should be taught how to use tools if only to save yourself time and error in trying to work ’em out for youiself. Today, Photoshop comes to mind. All I know about using it, which isn’t much, took me years to accomplish, yet some of the most used things in my box were taught in five minutes by other people, sometimes not even photographers.

    I have the sort of mind that learns nothing from technical Photoshop books, yet can pick it up quickly by watching a demonstration. Schools/colleges can do that – if the staff can do it!

    As for touching or pushing the creative gift – yes, you are better some days than others, but by good technique you are able to deliver, at the least, a technically good result, and that’s often all a client understands or needs, anyway.

    What sems to me to be depressing, is the idea of going to art school only never to leave it, but to become a teacher doing the odd, commissioned private gig now and then. I believe that academia is for learning, and once you achieve that, you must get the hell out and use what you learned to get the life you imagined and, with luck, pay the bills, too. Does anyone go to art school with the burning desire to become an art teacher? That’s not the same thing as going back, now and then, to encourage those still in the nest with their beaks open and up.


  5. Keith Laban

    Well, why the hell did I spend four years at art college?

    Well, acne apart, it was an unparalleled opportunity for a young man to worry about nothing and to obsess about sex. It was of course also an unparalleled opportunity to spend four years doing what I loved to do and be supported in the form of a grant.

    The tutors were there as mentors, to encourage, cajole and aid progression. It was a journey from youth to adulthood and the inspiration that led to a lifetime’s career as a painter, illustrator and photographer.

    Despite working alongside tutors and peers the process instilled a strong sense of self, of self belief and self reliance, to the point of the exclusion of others. To this day the mere thought of having to get a proper job, to work alongside others or having to teach others just fills me with horror. If I so much as see another photographer I know I’m in the wrong place.

    As far as I’m concerned creativity is the expression of self, not a group activity and not something to be taught.

    1. Rob Campbell


      I always obsessed about sex, but then that’s probably because I never had pimples; even now it plays games in my head but they are such sophisticated games, compared with those of when I was young, that they tire me right out. A friend tells me that it takes more and more to raise less less often…

      Isn’t Photoshop a wonderful thing? Sometimes, when I find a new broken vein on my leg, my mind rushes to the Adobe Solution; sadly, it only works on pixies.

      Life’s a bitch at times.

  6. Andrew Molitor

    I dunno, what is creativity, anways?

    There are definitely techniques which can be taught, and learned, which will make you as it were “more open to the muse.”

    Does that count as teaching creativity? I think artistic creation really comes down to something like:

    1. have an idea
    2. work out an inspired way to express that idea, a proper form for it
    3. execute that expression

    3 is just technical methods, “craft” if you will. 2 can be taught, or at least methods for making inspiration much more likely to arrive. 1 seems to be all that’s left. Being only me, and not everyone else, I have trouble imagining that anyone would have trouble with 1, but perhaps that’s the nub of the thing that can’t be taught.

  7. Rob Campbell

    Well there the glitch: you are approaching creativity with a sense of planning. I disagree totally: creativity, in my experiences of being kissed by the muse, she don’t work like that, not one bit: she manifests herself by allowing you instantaneous reaction to circumstance. Where the non-creative soul will stand still and curse the situation in front of him, his creative cousin just moves a couple of feet to the left or to the right, up or down a smidgen, and makes a picture.

    I really believe that if you have to sit down, have a cup of tea and plan, then you are in the wrong business.

    To illustrate the point: sometimes I might have been given a layout for, say, a travel brochure shoot. I would get this stapled collection of photocopies of pages with mock text and little boxes for images, a pat on the back and a kick out the door, all in the expectation that a couple of weeks later I might return with a collection of snaps that the agency could stick into those empty boxes and fill out a brochure selling lies and illusion. Sometimes I was a good visual fibber, no conscience at all about folks blowing their annual holiday in a trap. The Costa Brava was one such gig, where I had a little collection of tiny plastic flowers in bright colours in my camera bag, and if a hotel on the front was on my list, out would come assorted colours held close to the lens to make delightful out-of-focus blobs that masked away the railroad and fast highway that ran between hotels and beach. (At once you see why I never used rangefinder cameras.) In that sense, there was both experience made me have plastic colours to hand, and creativity that let me fill in the empty boxes with travel atmospherics that made reality better than it was. One year, I was given a model to take along, and apart from a ghastly cover shot that had been drawn and was essential that I shoot to fit, we both had a reasonably good time doing much what we felt like doing. Nonetheless, it was nice to outgrow those jobs.

    But more importantly, I think commercial art of all kinds has always been about telling better fibs than the competition. Maybe the best artists are also the least trustworthy. Those cats of old often painted a Venice that simply didn’t exist within the topography sometimes represented; they had no qualms about moving buildings hundreds of feet out of position to make them look pretty closer together. I lIke that.


    1. Andrew Molitor

      Rob, you seem to imagine that I am sitting around writing out flow charts and bullet lists.

      All I am talking about is this: suppose you are given a brief for a calendar. Something, or nothing. This model? Those locations? Hit these points? Or perhaps nothing at all? Given nothing, you perhaps come up with something “I shall hire that girl, and do something sun-drenched, because that will be nice!”

      At this point you are confronted with the problem of “well, what the hell pictures shall I take that fit with whatever constraints I am working with?” though you might not this is quite that way. The question of “what the hell picture shall I take” surely arises in some form or another.

      There are teachable methods that will make you more open to the muse at that precise point. There’s no guarantees in life, but you can take steps, teachable steps, to vastly improve the chances that you’ll be able to say “aha, I think I see it.” at the appropriate time.

      After that, it’s just technique.

      1. Rob Campbell

        I don’t see it that way at all.

        The “what the hell kind of pictures shall I take” aspect was usually not considered to any degree before the moment of truth arrived on location. As David Bailey famously says on a video: “if I planned my pictures before I took them, I’d send somebody else to shoot them.” Do you see his – and my – point there? It’s about winging it: 100%. That’s where creativity lives. The other way, you are just a button-pusher.

        If there’s a brief, as such, that’s digested before leaving home and doesn’t raise its head again unless it gives you indigestion, which means you shouldn’t have taken it on in the first place.

        People who shot advertising stills often had to work to layouts, but I didn’t really do too much of that beyond a few bank ads and stuff for local department stores, and even then, the result was that the copy was often just built around whatever pix I brought to the agency after the shoot. It was very flexible most of the time, in my world.

        I shot fashion for years and when that died the death, mainly due to companies becoming unable to compete on production costs with Chinese manufacturers or just being bought out by bigger fish in London, with the power/buying structure moving south of the border, I changed direction and that’s the why and how of my calendar production era. The design side was picked up from watching art directors working on my pictures and seeing how they made tracings and used Letraset; I knew my eye was good enough to hack that, even if my typography was always played very safe!

        There is nothing teachable about standing on a beach with a camera in hand, and a girl looking at you waiting for your request. The way it worked was you suggested something to start the gig, she’d do it; you’d see something better as she moved and take up on that, or she’d run into her routine – most had one – where she thought she looked at her best, and it would do the same thing, move you onwards. It’s rapport, which is why two tuned in top people working together are not equal to the same two people working with different top people. It’s the why of Bailey and Shrimpton, Avedon and Dovima; Parkinson and his wife, Wenda, Penn with his own spouse, Lisa Fonssagrives. Even Rob C and his muse Fiona M. 🙂

        None of it is out of schools: it’s all out of your personal chemistry. You can hardly explain it to yourself, never mind pretend teach it to another person. If you could, everybody would end up equal, and they sure don’t! Instinct, love; they are the key: you fall in photographic love with your muse.

          1. Rob Campbell

            To your first sentence, if it was not sarcasm: not terrifying in the least – it’s part of the buzz, one of the reasons you do it.

            To the second: not all creatives are in the same field of work; how could they do it the same way? But aren’t we talking about photographers here? I also happen to think highly of those still life guys who shoot jewellery and products such as bottles of booze, of one type or another: that, to do well, and unless you are accompanied on-set by an art director who is pushing his idea rather than giving you your head, takes a creative skill I don’t think I ever had. Apart from anything else, it’s about serious photographic skills whereas my own work was simple, photography-lite, based on trying to catch some kind of beauty in a person. Technical skills were essential, but they were limited to a narrow band of needs.

            And that, again, comes down to personality: it has never been my dream to be some kind of technical guru: I settled a long time ago for pretty pictures, and sometimes I got there. The more you investigate the world of photographers, the more you realise that it’s what the best ones have: eye, and ability to translate what it sees to paper or screen. Very few of my personal heroes are/were technically driven – well, maybe Albert Watson’s the exception.

  8. mrkranky1957

    “…Muse garage band.”
    — When are they going on tour?
    —Will they be playing locally?


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