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Where does true creativity come from?

Everyone reading this has likely experienced the splendid sensation of those ‘flow’ moments. Where you feel as though you could seemingly do anything – write multiple essays or creative pieces in a short period, or paint, immersed by energy, focus, and purpose.

To many of us, this is what creativity feels like (whether or not this is augmented by caffeine or stronger substances is a question that is perhaps taken up another time). And in the presence of a work of a master – Shakespeare, da Vinci, Sartre, Auden, Angelou – we assume we are seeing the results of this process. And, to a great extent, we are. But is that all there is to success, or does what happens outside ourselves matter as much as this internal spark?

Talented individuals “become notably more focused” on a particular style or process, after succeeding in creating high-impact work

According to a paper published in the journal Nature Research, associated with the prestigious Nature Journal, researchers have seemingly discovered evidence that shows how talented individuals “become notably more focused” on a particular style or process after succeeding in creating high-impact work.

Using deep learning technologies, they analysed creatives in order to produce a collection of datasets. These included Jackson Pollock and his abstract expressionist paintings, Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and scientist John Fenn, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2002 as a result of his discoveries on electrospray ionisation.

The academics also stressed the continued importance of creative exploration. But their paper, splashed across media outlets including The Guardian and Artnet, raises as many questions as it answers.

In the context of a market economy, based on reputation and fame, creating sequels, or similar works, to previous “hits” is often the route to monetary success and critical acclaim

How one measures “high-impact” work and the meaning of impact is a question that seems rather important. In the case of Pollock, his “action paintings” won applause in the context of a desire to promote avant-garde thinking and cultural pluralism by American opinion leaders after the Second World War. Critical analysis of them resulted in the idea of Abstract Expressionism as a distinct genre by critics, able to be successfully repeated to the point it eventually became cliché.

Genre is an important word here. In the context of a market economy based on reputation and fame, creating sequels or similar works to previous “hits” is often the route to monetary success and critical acclaim. Instead of spending scarce marketing dollars on something riskier or new, advertising a third Lord of the Rings movie becomes a logical decision.

Put simply, is it really a complete understanding of impact if one looks only at the auteur and his or her creation, rather than also considering society and the effects it has on who succeeds and where?

At the end of the day, if someone’s project has been successful, they’re going to be incentivised to try to repeat it rather than attempt something new

Although I’m not at all trying to suggest that “good” and “bad” art is relative, the idea that access to funding and fame based on already existing renown doesn’t play a role even in the scientific context, given that scientists rely on government or corporate grants to conduct advanced research, is hard to take seriously. This allows those that have already had one hit to keep the hits coming. At the end of the day, if someone’s project has been successful, they’re going to be incentivised to try to repeat it rather than attempt something new.

The Nature study is impressive, and identifying the formula for success has long been the Holy Grail of individual creators as much as the cultural industry itself. But to really ensure as much talent as possible is tapped, society might have to look at the total context.

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