Thursday, November 15, 2012

Creative Work

Whenever I hear "creative" people describe their creative process, or more precisely their creative woes, I am always struck by the strong similarities to my own experiences trying to do science. I do consider myself as trying to do science.

Take, for example, this excellent statement on self-disappointment at the early stages of your career from Ira Glass.

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

This almost perfectly sums up how I felt about almost all of the early work I did in graduate school. I can't say that I've actually gotten to the point where the work I produce meets up with my my own personal standards, but it has been on an upward trend, and I'd say Ira Glass' advice is spot on. If you want to write good papers, just write a lot of papers, and if you want to be good at giving talks, give a lot of talks, preferably in a context where you feel comfortable being bad or mediocre.

That last bit, being comfortable with being bad is really reminiscent of things Brother Ali says in this interview.

Ill Doctrine: Brother Ali Meets the Little Hater from on Vimeo.

There are a few things Brother Ali says that really resonate with me.
There was a moment where I was so stressed out. And I'm like, "Man, everything that I ever did that people liked, I just got lucky. I'm a fraud."
It's a weird weird thing to have what you create also be your livelihood. What we create is also our sense of self. What we create is also the way the world views us.
And so I start thinking about it. Ok, it's not that I'm blocked. It's not that I don't have anything to say. It's that I don't know how to say what I need to say. Or it's that I don't think that it's going to be received well. Or it's that the people that love me and have supported me and have, you know, gave me the little bit of freedom in my life that I have, I don't want to let them down and I don't want to hurt their feelings by saying what needs to be said.
I think almost all academics of any variety feel this way from time to time.

But I wonder if some people might not be surprised that I would feel so similarly to creative artists in the pursuit of my science, or that maybe take it as evidence that I what I do is not science. It is certainly doubted about Linguistics occasionally. But I think these people (probably strawmen) are mistaken in thinking that science is not a creative process. This was recognized by Max Weber in is 1918 essay "Science as a Vocation" (which I've blogged about before).
[I]nspiration plays no less a role in science than it does in the realm of art. It is a childish notion to think that a mathematician attains any scientifically valuable results by sitting at his desk with a ruler, calculating machines or other mechanical means. The mathematical imagination of a Weierstrass is naturally quite differently oriented in meaning and result than is the imagination of an artist, and differs basically in quality. But the psychological processes do not differ. Both are frenzy (in the sense of Plato's 'mania') and 'inspiration.'
He also suggests that the best science and the best art is produced by individuals devoted to the science and art for their own sake, rather than being driven by the express goal of producing something new, for the sake of novelty.

The distinction that Weber draws between art and science is that science is necessarily committed to the abandonment of old science. That is, art from the Renaissance is still, and always will be, art, but science from the same period is no longer science. It has been superseded by more recent developments.

Anyway, here's the song Brother Ali was talking about, which I'm sure almost all academics can identify with, except for the suicide ideation, hopefully.

1 comment:

  1. Great essay. I think that more people are coming around to the fundamental convergence of art and science-- the realization that you need rigor and rationality to make art and creativity and imagination to do science.

    The last point about the "timelessness" of art versus the ephemerality of science is an interesting one. I'm not sure I entirely buy it. actually. I think there are paradigms of art (in Kuhn's sense) just as there are paradigms of science, so if old art still seems relevant (or indeed even appears to us *as* art) it is because the paradigm underlying it hasn't fundamentally changed. On the other hand, once-obsolete scientific models are often validated by later experiments. So it's a bit more complicated than Weber suggests, even if there's a basic truth there about how science and art change over historical time.

    On another note, you have a nice font. What is it?

    Thomas Patteson


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