I spent a few days in Paris at the end of last week on a short break with my family. We visited the wonderful Pompidou Centre, which was showing an exhibition of modern art by a bloke called Bertrand Lavier. Now modern art isn’t usually my thing, but coincidentally I’m reading a book at the moment about conceptual blending as a creativity technique so I was prepared to be open minded about the works on display and the artist’s own approach to creativity. At first glance, it’s hard to appreciate the creative ‘value’ of a lump of rock on a fridge (one of the works on display). Or a huge square panel painted entirely in dark blue (cleverly entitled ‘Dark Blue Panel’). Or a white canvas with 12 Phillips spotlights shining on it. Or a garden leaf blower mounted on a chest of drawers. Or a teddy bear on a stick. Or a portable fridge mounted on a metal safe. Or a TV in a dark room playing a recording of a firework display. Or a crashed car. My ten year old daughter got quite angry at what she perceived as ‘lazy art’. “Daddy,” she said, “It’s not fair that people like Monet spend months on a painting and yet this man can get away with just putting a teddy bear on a stick.” We had a long conversation about creativity and how it comes in different guises, and how you have to take a ‘leap of faith’ with your mind to appreciate this stuff as art. It’s not about how long it takes to make. It’s whether it’s original and whether people will get pleasure from looking at it – i.e. does it have value. Judging by the queues at the door and the entry price, rocks on fridges clearly do have appeal.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I am always banging on about the fact that we all have creative abilities and that we shouldn’t fall into the common trap of believing that creativity is in the exclusive gift of those who work in the creative arts, like Lavier. We consider artists to be creative because the output of their imagination is a tangible piece of creativity, like a painting, a sculpture, a performance or a piece of music which didn’t exist before they ‘thought it up’. We can see the result of their creativity, whereas most of us do jobs that don’t require us to produce a ‘piece of creativity’ in this way. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re not creative or we don’t have the opportunity to apply creative thinking. If people say to me “I’m not creative” I just ask them if they’ve ever solved a problem in their lives – at home or work. If they have (and they have), then they’ve been creative. Organisations seem to be more comfortable with the term ‘problem solving’ then they are with ‘creativity’ because the term feels more at home in the business environment. Whatever. Call it what you like. The fact is, we solve problems by thinking them through, seeking solutions (ideas) and applying them to deliver value (i.e. no more problem). Creativity is simply the act of applying our imagination to conceive an idea. That idea may just as easily be a new business process than a piece of modern art. Bertrand Lavier doesn’t have a monopoly on imagination. He sits in a room and thinks of mounting a leaf blower on a cupboard (for some reason!) and sticking it on a wall for others to take pleasure from looking at. You might sit in a room and think of an idea to improve your next team meeting. You’re both using your imagination. In fact, the two needn’t be mutually exclusive. It’s well documented that visiting art galleries can improve your creativity by exercising the right side of your brain. When looking at art, our eyes dart around randomly, detecting patterns and concepts. We use our imagination to interpret what we’re looking at it, to make sense of it (hard in Lavier’s case!). It’s why some medical schools in the US and Europe are sending students to art galleries, so they can hone their powers of observation and learn to spot subtle differences in a patient’s condition. The learning from my Pompidou visit was that creativity comes in many forms. For some the output is a teddy on a stick, for others it’s a business problem solved. Don’t for one minute think that the artist is any more creative than the office innovator.