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December 14, 2018

How to look at art: History of creativity: Constructing new world

‘Divine Inspiration’, Piero della Francesca, 1450
‘Divine Inspiration’, Piero della Francesca, 1450

Creativity is our ability to generate new ideas. We all are born creative to adapt to our environment to compete and survive. As we grow up and settle into a status quo, our unchallenged creativity weakens. It could be fine in a slow-changing environment, but the world we live in is highly interconnected and dynamic.

To survive and succeed, we must stay highly creative. If we are free and encouraged to experiment and challenge the status quo, we can sustain our creativity. If not, we stagnate and lose advantages. Creativity is not luxury, it is essential. Like leading businessman and visionary Dr Manu Chandaria said, 'Survival in the 21st century will be difficult, and without creativity, it is not possible'. But how has the world has viewed creativity over the centuries? 

Originally, it was seen as a matter of divine inspiration; an act of God. Greeks and Romans had Muses, the goddesses of inspiration, and linked a genius, a person who advances original knowledge, to the sacred or the divine. In the Christian and Muslim traditions, humans cannot create anything new; creativity is the sole prerogative of God. For Hindus and Buddhists, creativity is not creation 'from nothing' but a kind of 'uncovering'. Chinese culture understands creativity as a holistic process of continuity, rather than radical change and originality. In many languages, there is no word for creativity.

In the 18th century, with the arrival of the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment, the view of creativity began to change in the West. It became linked to the concept of imagination — the ability to form images, ideas and feelings in the mind without direct input from the senses, such as seeing or hearing. In the writing of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, imagination became a key element of human cognition. William Duff identified imagination as the most important quality of genius.

In the late 19th century, creativity started to receive more attention. This was driven by the Darwinism, the theory that says that organisms' ability to adapt and compete is the key to evolution. In the early 20th century, scientists such as Hermann von Helmholtz and Henri Poincaré began to publicly discuss their creative process, and the pioneering creativity theorists Graham Wallas and Max Wertheime began building on their insights.

In 1927, English mathematician Alfred Whitehead, defining creativity as we understand it now, emphasised the importance of imagination in education: 'Imagination is not divorced from the facts. It is a way of illuminating the facts. Imagination enables men to construct an intellectual vision of a new world'. He believed imagination teaches students to connect the knowledge and apply it to their own lives. 'Disconnected knowledge is meaningless,' he said; 'parroting facts is not thinking.' He thought of formal school examination as 'educational waste'.

In our days, creativity is recognised as an essential path to human growth and societal development. Governments seek ways to enhance the teaching and learning of creativity in schools. Numerous business surveys on creativity are carried out. Neuroscientists uncover the 'secrets' of the creative brain. Sadly, there are some who still believe creativity is 'useless', 'the act of God', or that it cannot be taught.


Artists, designers, scientists, and entrepreneurs! Please volunteer a creativity talk or workshop in schools in Kenya. We need you! Contact Alla on [email protected]

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