Can You Teach Creativity? Part Two

Studio Class, 1978, NYC. It Was About This Time I Decided I’d Rather Drive a Garbage Truck Than Photograph “Product”

[This is a follow-up to a previous post, wherein the claim was made that you can’t teach creativity…but you can teach “technique”.]

Can creativity be taught? Not if the Ancients – Plato and Aristotle – are to be believed. Plato believed that creative inspiration was a type of mania. Aristotle believed the same, considering creativity to be the product of an irrational rapture, what he termed ecstaticos. If they’re correct, then ordinary teaching methods can’t explain to a student what is, at base, irrational. The alternative is to try to teach inspiration by yourself being manic or ecstatic, in effect, attempting to infect the student with your own mania. Think of this as “the Dead Poets Society” theory of teaching creativity, after the god awful movie of the same name where Robin Williams is some eccentric high school instructor teaching his kids to write poetry because he’s crazy about it. In theory, this might work occasionally, but it’s unlikely such mania can be objectively transmitted. The best the teacher can do is give an example for the student to observe.

If creativity can’t be taught, can it be nurtured? Yes, in the sense that it can be taught to be effectively expressed using your chosen tools when it does appear. How is this taught? By teaching “craft,” i.e. competence of the fundamentals of one’s creative medium. Craft, what Aristotle called techne, is teachable because it is rule-based. The craft of photography, for example, would be teachable for Aristotle, because it is subject to a set of rules – it possesses a body of information that can be mastered via a theory, and it has a theory that could be written down and handed on to students that they could apply to the body of information. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of having to spend a year wading through Stroebel and Zakia’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes will know what Aristotle is talking about….and why it isn’t the teaching of creativity itself.


Is There Anything “Creative” About This Photograph? Or is it Just a Product of “Technique”? Or is it both?

All of this is predicated on the assumption that technique is separate from creativity. But is that true? In my experience, maybe, maybe not. At least for me, the more competent I became with my tools, the greater the creative possibilities that opened up to me. The more I knew “how to do,” the more I felt I had the capacity to express, the more my desire and ability to express. The photo above is a good example. It was driven by certain creative impulses, but it was only possible given I had the tools to accomplish my creative purposes, creative purposes which were themselves intimately interwoven with the potential inherent in my tools. In this sense, the distinction between techne and empeiria noted in Part One, becomes problematic. Could I have expressed myself in this manner if I hadn’t mastered the technique that produced the work? No, at least to the extent I couldn’t have expressed the sentiment conveyed via the medium of photography. Uneducated in photographic craft, I’d be limited to some other means of expressing the sentiment, writing maybe, or speech. In that case I’d need to be proficient in that medium.

To that extent, the idea that craft is separate from art, a fundamental premise of aesthetics since Plato, accepted by the Renaissance and currently a tenet of Modernism, is a false dichotomy, certainly so in technologically dependant creative media like photography. Like all either/or propositions, it does violence to the much more subtle nuances invariably involved in the motivations and capacities of human pursuits, certainly those of creativity as a practical activity. Unfortunately, what’s come down to us in history from the Greeks is largely the product of the Idealist way of thinking – represented by Plato – wherein reality was seen in stark either/or terms, the real versus confusion or error, with no practical middle ground.

However there were Greeks – many thinkers apart from Idealists like Plato and Aristotle – who recognized a more nuanced nature of things. Pyrrhonism – a type of skepticism – believed that anything capable of human mastery could never be understood in its entirety but yet culture required we attempt to transmit what we do know. How such information transmittal worked, well, we didn’t know. Basically, as to all human knowledge, the Pyrrhonists believed the best we could do would be to stay open-minded yet neutral, what they referred to as isotheneia (a balance of arguments on both sides) and aphasia (the refusal to make definitive judgments). In the issue of the relationship of technique to creativity, the Pyrrhonics would say…it’s complicated, and either/or judgments would only further unnecessarily obfuscate attempts to teach and/or encourage creativity.

Call me a Pyrrhonist.

With that in mind, in Part Three, coming shortly, I’ll teach you what I did, and what you can do, to become a better photographer. It’s simple really.

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8 thoughts on “Can You Teach Creativity? Part Two

  1. StephenJ

    The essential feature of creativity, is original thought.

    So logically, if it is original thought it can’t be gleaned from a book, which of course is the content of someone else’s original thinking, or creativity.

    I accept the point about technique though.

    The Greeks, as in so much else, got this right.

    WTF happened to them?

        1. Rob Campbell

          Nope; I think they survived and absorbed all of that – today, they might blame the EMF and the euro for the decline, much as do many rural Spaniards.

          The other factor, directly connected to national earning power, is the purchase of land and housing by richer foreigners, but they don’t really have to be foreigners to do the local damage, just richer. London is doing it to all the desirable rural areas of Britain simply because of the huge difference in house prices: sell your little flat in Hampstead and you can buy a castle in the Hebrides, should one be left.


  2. Rob Campbell

    Regarding the shot of the nun: I would say it’s the result not so much of creativity per se, as the result of acute observational ability and an instinctive sense of visual equilibrium combined with an instinctive understanding of what constitutes a remarkable moment; recognition.

    I tend to think of creativity more as a matter of the original skill one brings to solving problems that sit there awaiting solution. In other words, when you have to make something appear from pretty much nothing but a selection of variables at your disposition, if you can turn that dumb, unhelpful set of factors into something delightful, then you have exercised a creative ability.


    1. Rob Campbell

      Actually, having just noticed the “Oblivion” sign (little iPad!) in the sky, the shot shows even more perceptive a sense than I had imagined!


  3. Dan Castelli

    I taught photography for 35 years. I considered myself very, very lucky and blessed to teach something I loved since I was a wee one. It was work, but not in the same sense as my older brother who was a pipefitter viewed work. I was very good teaching process, techniques, history of photography, and the tie-in of photography with geometry, chemistry, business, et al.
    I could nurture and encourage a spark within a student and push them toward exploring something that held an interest for them. But, teaching creativity? No.

    I did find that my students that had been taught to be curious about the world around them, that were readers or had an opportunity to travel beyond their small rural town, produced more original work. Students that possessed above average social skills, or displayed empathy toward their fellow humans had more success. The were intellectually hungry and were not complacent.

    Now our daughter is an associate professor of Illustration at an art college associated with a major university in Cambridge MA. She is finding the same situation. Her best students are the curious, the students who question everything, who work & re-work a piece until they can’t squeeze anything else out of it.

    As an artist, she is truly creative. She just sees the world differently. She was fortunate to be exposed to artists & teachers that nurtured her unique vision and pushed her. She was allowed to be the weird ‘art kid.’ That helps.

    Her Mom & I did nothing out of the ordinary. We encouraged creative play, reading, we traveled within our geographic region. We taught her to be curious and to look, just not see. We let her draw and have time alone. But there is no renegade creative gene in our family that surfaced after being dormant since great, great, great Uncle Leonardo lived in Florence. :-))

    I don’t know where creativity comes from. I know it’s a fragile thing that must be allowed to develop, and it can be easily crushed. But you can’t teach it.

    1. Rob Campbell

      You are absolutely right; however, not so certain about it, creativity, getting crushed.

      I know it can be thwarted, forced to one side within the image business because of clients who are idiots or simply do not want anything beyond an educated button-pusher; I know all about frustrations on the job, the rotten feeling when opportunity is sabotaged as you are trying your best to save a project but, in the end, you just have to do a Tmar production: take the money and run.

      Doesn’t mean your personal creativity is crushed long-term, though; if anything, it becomes the more precious to you. But as I agreed, I don’t see creativity being anything but the product of your own makeup, which you can hardly change.

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