I will try to keep this short(er). (Oops! I failed!)

As usual, there is a whole can of worms squirming around my head. When interesting new ideas smack me in the face its like an injury to my normal thought processes. Sometimes it changes me. Sometimes its the warning of a friend to step back from this or that precipice, a desperate lunge to keep me from lemming myself over the cliff edge. And that blow often leaves a little cut, the cut a scab. And as the obsessive curmudgeon I am, I pick and pick at it until the blood flows and the insidious infections are washed clean.

Or that’s the story I tell myself….

So yesterday I read a post on one of my new favorite blogs, one that rarely fails to wake me from my slumberous tread toward a stultifying creative death. The ominous tread of my mental doom, marching me quickstep, lockstep, along a seemingly preordained path. Its the path that all lemmings know. Its the path that I know all too well. And what I need is a swift kick in the groin. What I need is a breakthrough.

So, apparently there is yet another book I haven’t read that discusses the nature of creativity through the example of several eminent artists. Sounds like a good idea, right? Take the best, most noteworthy examples, shine the spotlight on them, and draw your conclusions. It seems true that we can learn all sorts of lessons by coming to grips with the most extreme versions of what we call creativity.

Here is a bit of what Sam McNerney had to say:

The psychology of creativity–both empirical research and popular literature for the lay audience–misses this. It reduces creativity to warm showers and blue rooms, forgetting that the life of the eminent creator is not soothing; it is a struggle–a grossly uneven wrestling match with the muses.

For Gardner, eminent creators are locked into a Faustian bargain, in which fulfilling their vision comes at the cost of an otherwise fulfilling personal life:

…the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal existence… unless this bargain has been compulsively adhered to, the talent may be compromised or even irretrievably lost. And, indeed, at times when the bargain is relaxed, there may well be negative consequences for the individual’s creative output.

And so it was for Nietzsche, who believed that creativity is not about solving puzzles, divergent thinking or making remote associations but destroying old systems of thought and breaking from the status quo. Doing so doesn’t require a relaxed state of mind or a few shots of alcohol but enough courage to break out of the herd mentality.”

He follows this up with a response to some anonymous commenter by saying “I couldn’t have said it better: You’re not really creative unless you give yourself entirely to your craft while looking for ways to challenge the status quo.”

Here’s what I had to say in response to the post and to his comment:

Sam, there is so much I really love about this post. As an artist working in a field that puts so much pressure on its professionals to conform to certain standards I have been campaigning for potters to at least question the necessity of these expectations. Potters are dogged by things like working toward the gallery/establishment marketplace and pressures to come up with a recognizable brand. Rather than the freedom to choose which directions to explore, potters often end up in shallow little boxes that confine all their creative endeavors. Its as if they come to an abrupt termination of their actual creativity when they exchange curiosity for security….

So I’m enormously sympathetic to the ideas that are laid out in this post.

But the question I have is more about untangling the creative process from what counts as a breakthrough. It seems easy enough to point out the high water marks of these eminent creators. We can look at the breakthrough events or works produced, but I’m having trouble separating all the smaller creative acts that lead up to those moments.

For instance, I’m not sure if every breakthrough was actually a purposeful thrashing against the confines of the status quo (something external) but rather simply the artist following their own nose to see where it leads (something independent and personal). It may turn out that what results is earth shattering, but was that always the intention at the time it was being worked on? For many artists it seems that the real priority is the intrinsic value of what we are doing. And we can surely keep one eye on how what we are working on squares with the rest of the world, but it seems that only artists who are motivated by shock value truly aim at the unconventional.

I am wondering if Nietzsche’s extreme version fits even a handful of those breakthrough artists mentioned….. I guess I’m also wondering if there is a difference between working creatively despite it being unconventional, and working precisely because it does break the rules….. Internal and external motivations are hardly ever clear at times, sometimes especially in the throes of creative passion. Sometimes we are just doing it for no definable reason except that this is what we need to be doing. Do great artists always measure the next rule for breaking? Is this something conscious?

The other issue I see is that the breakthrough may only be a solitary unique event in an artist’s life. Once they have defied convention, the artist’s work that follows that event often becomes as predictable and unadventurous as what came before. Only with this new standard. Sometimes the breakthrough only means we have replaced one convention with another. As if we have broken one habit merely to take up something different. Its almost impossible to keep reinventing ourselves. How long does something continue to be original after we’ve said almost the same things again and again and again and again? To be truly revolutionary we would skip the tracks at every turn. Is this truly what motivates eminent creators?


I slept on it, despite my twitching brain, and I awoke to find that I had moved still a few more paces off the cliff edge. In the clear light of the new morning it seems to me that the important difference is between looking at a breakthrough as the result of specific intention and a breakthrough that is incidental to the normal course of problem solving. The idea of genius as the hallmark of creativity wants to only measure creativity in terms of how thoroughly it breaks with convention, how many toes get stepped on, and how many people it pisses off. Its as if one can’t be truly creative unless an audience has been kicked in the teeth. And part of me actually likes that idea! But its hard to see the whole spectrum of creativity boiled down to only that…..

The picture we get from putting these geniuses up on pedestals is that in retrospect we can remark on their breakthrough and now have the proper evidence that what they were doing all along was truly creative. But, obviously (in this view), they were not creative until that moment of breakthrough. They were doing something else. Toiling, but not creatively. If the breakthrough defines creativity, then all else pales before it. Anyone else see the difficulty? If they had failed to provide the breakthrough, then everything else they had done would not be defined as creative…. If creativity means breaking rules, then nothing else one does seems to measure up. We are creative only in hindsight, with the notoriety of having transgressed on the sacred ground.

Another confusion is that of motivation. As Sam and Nietzsche put it, the idea is to break the rules, to be aiming at defiance of the status quo, to not be docilely munching grass, but to be throwing off shackles. Again, this is another idea that appeals to me! But again its hard to see how this treats all the variety of creative contribution fairly…..

Imagine a bear in a forest. The other creatures scrabble around for roots and the leaves of low shrubs. But the bear aims high. The pot of gold up in the high branches will take a great amount of effort and dedication to pry loose. Sacrifices will need to be made. To reach the bees’ nest and deliver the honey is just the kind of game changing breakthrough that gets the spotlight and the highlight reels.

So the bear climbs and struggles to reach its goal. And the audience of bees swarm and sting. Some artists, erm, bears, are daunted and fall by the wayside. But others persist in their madness, defying the barbs aimed at them, steadily inching closer to that moment when that pot of gold can be brought to earth, and the conventions of bees be thrown into turmoil.

The picture that Sam and Nietzsche present is that the bear is doing this for the purpose of pissing off the bees. While it seems to me that the bear is singlemindedly focused on getting that pot of honey, the alternate picture is that the real goal is to upset a few bees. Doesn’t that sound strange? It seems to confuse an incidental consequence with the grand purpose behind the activity.

In hindsight, looking at all these eminent rule breakers might give the false impression that this is what they were really after: Breaking rules. Isn’t it a bit like saying that the reason people drive cars is so that they can pollute? Or that the reason we eat food is to flush toilets?

I think one of the most important things to aim for is thinking for oneself. I couldn’t agree with Sam and Nietzsche more. But thinking for oneself is not the same thing as defying convention. Its not a very good example of how to think for oneself if all we are focused on is breaking some rule. Sounds kind of lame, actually….

In fact, rather than the lifetime of sacrifice and hardship that the book suggests is necessary, breaking rules is perhaps one of the earliest things we learn to do. Ask any parent of young children how difficult it is to defy authority and to upset the status quo. In every child at some point you will see defiance incarnate. You will see an absolute firm determination to balk the ways of the world. “I don’t wanna! I’m not gonna!” are not the ideals that most artists aim at, and yet they seem to be taken as the motivation that puts eminent creativity on its pedestals. Does that seem right?

And torturous hard work or not, does this view do anything to account for or explain instances when a breakthrough comes as the result of inspiration? In other words, not even aiming at the pot of gold, but something that just happens? From out of seemingly nowhere?

I’ll leave you all to ponder my stupendous ignorance…. Don’t take my word for any of this. I only play a grandstanding idea explorer on this blog.

So, what is your own version of breakthroughology? Discus….


Peace all!

Make beauty real!

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Breakthroughology

  1. Sam posted a really good response to my question, and then followed it up with another great post. Here is his response:

    In regard to one of your first questions, not every eminent creator possess a Nietzsche-esque attitude about destroying the status quo, but they were driven by a desire to challenge the status quo. So yes, I do think that challenging norms was the intention of all eminent creators. That is not to say they were only motivated by this avant-garde attitude. As you rightly point out, they were all also motivated intrinsically.

    Second, the mistake of one hit wonders is only fulfilling expectations. Eminent creators were also reinventing themselves. Most successful artists are in the middle. They find the right formula and tweak it here and there to maintain some novelty. The band Coldplay comes to mind.”

    And here is a bit from his follow up post:

    In 2002 Steven Pinker published The Blank Slate and corrected the widespread belief that human beings are born without innate traits and that culture and environment shape everything. In contrast, humans arrive into the world predisposed with traits immutable by external factors. This is true for aesthetics, where we demonstrate a variety of innate preferences.

    One takeaway from Pinker’s reminder is that if you are interested in delivering pleasure to a wide-range of people don’t look to modernists and postmodernists for inspiration. For them, art was surveying the aesthetic landscape and rejecting commonly held preferences. People like books with plots? People like poetry that rhymes? People like music with harmony? Let’s do the opposite, they said.

    It’s worth wondering what inspired these artists to adopt an avant-garde attitude. It certainly wasn’t mass-appeal. Perhaps it was snobbery. Art is about standing out from the crowd. In any given community where people create things some will always want to be different. They see the way forward as looking at what everyone else does – what’s easy and pleasurable – and rejecting it. Whenever there is an aesthetic consensus in a community, a select few will rebel against.

    • Scott Cooper says:

      This seems to dovetail with your stance on beauty.

      “Oh, people like pots that are useful, and enjoyable to look at and touch? Great — I will now go create the opposite!” Cue universal applause…

  2. Pingback: My misadventure with straight lines | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    I really like your analogy about the bear and the bees’ nest. It often feels like I’m halfway up the tree, and can’t remember if I was on my way up or going back down.

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