Creativity and Oscar Wilde

I was discussing creativity with an old friend the other day. She’s a performance artist and a professional dancer. She told me that that creativity was something enjoyed only by the select few. Her view, shared, I’m sure, by some other artists, writers, poets, sculptors, and performers, is that creativity is expressed as the generation of art, and only artists are creative. The rest of us—the farmers, mothers, bankers, engineers, shop assistants—are condemned to watch the creative few with open mouths and wish that ‘I could do that’.

I disagree intensely with this viewpoint; I’d like to explain why.

First, let’s be brave and tackle art. What is it? It’s easier to say what art isn’t. Oscar Wilde believed that if something was popular, it could not be art. This wasn’t just snobbishness; he thought that art should break boundaries and so would be unacceptable to most people. At the very least, he believed, art should shock. Tracey Emin’s unmade bed is a great example of this sort of art. Art has to be on the bleeding edge and once it’s become common, and copied, it’s not art anymore.

If we accept, for the purposes of this discussion, Oscar Wilde’s definition of art, then any artist who wishes to eat is not creating art, but is creating something that is accessible to more people. Creativity then, is not just found in the generation of art, although you could say that it is often the creation of something that resembles art.

So, what is a creative person? What do they look like, and how can we recognize them? Do all creative people have strange hair, wear bright clothing, and call each other ‘darling’?

Few of the creative people that I have known fit the ‘darling’ model. Surprising though it may be, in the engineering labs where I have spent much of my life, none of the people I worked with called me ‘darling’!

I see creativity as falling into one of two branches—the enjoyable and the useful. Enjoyable creativity produces all the things we normally think of as art. Poetry, music, painting, sculpture, writing and dancing are good examples of enjoyable art.

On the other hand, useful creativity produces all the things we depend on in life. That is, the invention of new things or the improvement of existing things. Because the product of this creativity becomes either commonplace or is hidden completely, it is inevitably under appreciated.

The cell phone is commonplace, and definitely would not fit Oscar Wilde’s idea of art. Yet the cell phone is the ultimate proof that creativity is not just for dancers and poets. Many engineers worked to bring the cell phone to our ears, and each one, in his discipline, was innovative. Some were brilliant, and might have been considered godlike, had anybody outside their field understood their accomplishment.

The humble washing machine was invented decades ago, and because every house has one, we overlook the resourcefulness that went into its design. Anybody can put a motor, tub and hot water together, but to make it inexpensive enough to transform the lives of millions, takes ingenuity of a high order. Yet the engineers who designed the washing machine, like the ones who designed the cell phone, are unsung.

But this isn’t just about engineers. Almost anybody, given the chance, will express their imagination in the work they are doing, often brilliantly. Many jobs don’t allow for much ingenuity—it’s difficult to be an inspired car mechanic or supermarket check-out girl. But these people often have ways of expressing their own creativity once back at home.

A lot of people can be imaginative in their work: housewives, amusing the baby; gardeners; teachers; even taxi-drivers, finding the shortest (or longest) distance between two points. There is no reason at all for the rest of us to gaze at the ‘creative few’ with open mouths and wish that ‘I could do that’.

Creativity, I feel, sits just under the skin of us all, and needs only the gentlest, welcoming scratch to burst forth and flourish.

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