Sunday, July 20, 2014

Collective Creativity

At long last the venerable New York Times is beginning to catch up with New Savanna. I've been blogging about collective creativity for awhile now, and thinking about it for longer than I've been blogging about it, at least since I learned that Duke Ellington copped ideas from his men and built compositions around them – and I have the vague sense that that thinking predates Lincoln Collier's biography of Ellington. So I've been at it awhile.

Anyhow, they're running an op-ed, The End of 'Genius', by Joshua Wolf Shenk:
But the lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: the creative network, as with the crowd-sourced Wikipedia or the writer’s room at “The Daily Show” or — the real heart of creativity — the intimate exchange of the creative pair, such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney and myriad other examples with which we’ve yet to fully reckon.

Historically speaking, locating genius within individuals is a recent enterprise. Before the 16th century, one did not speak of people being geniuses but having geniuses. “Genius,” explains the Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber, meant “a tutelary god or spirit given to every person at birth.” Any value that emerged from within a person depended on a potent, unseen force coming from beyond that person.
After noting the proliferation of new world in social science and social neuroscience Shenk focuses on the pair:
The elemental collective, of course, is the pair. Two people are the root of social experience — and of creative work. When the sociologist Michael Farrell looked at movements from French Impressionism to that of the American suffragists, he found that groups created a sense of community, purpose and audience, but that the truly important work ended up happening in pairs, as with Monet and Renoir, and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In my own study of pairs, I found the same thing — most strikingly with Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
WHY is this? For one thing, given that our psyches take shape through one-on-one exchanges, we’re likely set up to interact with a single person more openly and deeply than with any group. The pair is also inherently fluid and flexible. Two people can make their own society.
In my own case I was never more creative than when I was working with David Hays. In my eulogy I talked about how we collaborated in face-to-face interaction, which involved long conversations and many cups of coffee:
This ritual began when both of us were exhausted from the intellectual work, and frustrated because we weren’t making progress. Each of us would lie back and drop into fitfull reverie. Every so often one of us would make a comment or ask a question. The other would reply, to no mutual satisfaction, and the fitfull reverie would continue. Eventually we would work through it, begin talking and talking, and Dave would sit down to the computer and write up some notes on what we had accomplished.
Shenk concludes, properly enough, with some questions:
This raises vital questions. What is the optimal balance between social immersion and creative solitude? Why does interpersonal conflict so often coincide with innovation? Looking at pairs allows us to grapple with these questions, which are as basic to the human experience as the push and pull of love itself. As a culture, we’ve long been preoccupied with romance. But we should also take seriously something just as important, but long overlooked — creative intimacy.
Two final notes:

  • While graffiti writers are fiercely protective of their names and territory, they nonetheless ofter work in pairs and small groups and many are loosely organized into crews and will put the name of the crew on their work.
  • Check out Michael Nielson's Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, which is a manifesto of sorts for collective discover.

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