Technique, critique and creativity

by Dominic Blackwell

I have a background in lots of different creative activities. I was trained as a classical musician, but I have also been employed as a computer programmer, done graphic design for other people, written fiction and poetry, created traditional and digital art and hugely enjoyed doing some improvisation workshops (impro / improv — whatever you want to call it).

Now all these fields have in common that they are fundamentally creative activities. (Yes including programming — if programming wasn’t a creative process we could just program computers to program themselves and take human beings out of the equation). Also there are paths to developing skill in all of them. In some of them, I am a long way down the path, in others I am still near the beginning.

But one thing I have become aware of, especially now that there are extensive internet forums for each of these activities, is the strange nature of technique. On the one hand you need to know what people have done before. So you can use their solutions to common problem. And so you can communicate with the tradition of what has been created before. Some people when perceiving one of these activities will see nothing but the technique. How quickly can you play this piece without any wrong notes? How recognisably can your art represent your subject?

There are many places on the internet where critique happens. Now I’m not talking about trolling and put-downs but places where people are genuinely trying to help each other get better. What seems to develop at each of these places is a sort of ‘hive mind’ of what good work is. “Your proportion is off. I used to do that when I started.” “You aren’t using the rule of thirds in your composition.” “You are telling instead of showing.” And this can get quite random. Sometimes it represents what respected people in the field have done before. Sometimes it is some strange set of ideas that emerge when the blind try to lead the blind.

However, there is something else which true but less obvious. If an activity is really creative there has to be some personal element in it which can’t be taught. And furthermore if the field is to allow innovation, creators have to be able to risk breaking the ‘rules’ and following their own artistic consciences. Conscience is the right word because these really are like moral choices. The person who ignores totally what anyone else has done is going to have a hard time making progress or communicating anything. But the person who just produces derivative work which has already been done before is not really contributing much either. And it is not as if there is an objective test for what is groundbreaking work and what is a failed experiment.

So all I can do is keep developing my taste and then make the stuff that feels authentic. Perhaps people will like it. Perhaps they won’t. But either way there is more to creation than technique and the bit of creativity which isn’t technique could well be the most important part.

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