“. . . artists are the harbingers of the future mentality required both by science and by the imperatives of living in our precarious times . . . we now truly stand in need, not only as scientists but as a civilization, of the artists’ cognitive capacities,” wrote physicist Arthur Zajonc. From my 20 years teaching creative process courses, I think these are the eight most important “cognitive capacities” that artists teach.
1. Artists show us how to “not know” and be open to new perspectives.
Our current social world is set up in a way that being a “learner” is not considered hip or desirable. Think of the words we use for learners: “neophyte,” “wet behind the ears,” “plebe,” “a beginner.” Our goal as adults is to become skilled and knowledgeable—to lose our beginner status so that we can gain in social standing and prestige. But the problem is, once we “know” something, we lose the space inside our minds for new perspectives, solutions, or possibilities. (Our minds like clarity and structure, they don’t like to be confused.) The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.” “Knowing” is a closed loop. But the artist is not stuck in that closed loop, because the creative process forces him or her to be open to anything and everything that might facilitate and support new creative work.
2. Artists demonstrate the ability to dwell in ambiguity.
The creative process is ambiguous—when you’re in the creative process, you’re not following a clear path. The thing you are seeking lies in a murky, in-between place that hasn’t been discovered before. It requires “feeling your way” through ambiguity and confusion.
3. Artists show us how to stubbornly pursue an inner vision.
Great artists trust their inner voice . . . even when pursuing ideas that other people view as crazy, naive or stupid. It’s challenging to pursue something that no one else “gets.” And when you’re in the middle of pursuing your vision and have nothing to show, there’s no way to fully convince other people of what you’re doing. Adding to the challenge, pursuing an inner vision means you don’t know ahead of time exactly where you will end up. You are immersing yourself in mystery, and there’s no clear way to determine when you’ve arrived at your destination or how long it will take to get there. Pursuing an inner vision without the support of your family, friends, and community, requires persistence and stubbornness.
4. Artists demonstrate how to foolishly play and explore the limits of what is possible.
Great artists have a proclivity for play. For example, think of Picasso’s art, Robin Williams offbeat humor, or a few Beatles songs (like “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” or “We all live in a yellow submarine”) Great artists are not afraid to look foolish, because by risking foolishness, they often come up with something brilliant. Foolish play gets us out of “one-way” thinking. It gives us the freedom to make impossible juxtapositions, combine disparate elements to form new patterns, and shape wild hypotheses. Play gives us brilliance.
5. Artists show us how to look at things in new ways.
Leonardo da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you begin bylearning how to restructure it in many different ways. He believed that the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and then he would move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Artistic work requires that we put distance between ourselves and our subject–making the familiar…strange.
6. Artists demonstrate how to connect the unconnected.
Leonardo da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. Creative thinkers find and make connections between dissimilar concepts or entities, holding incompatible subjects together until they see a relationship or pattern. Artists work with metaphor, which is a bridge between two dissimilar things. For example, when someone says, “Ted is a freight train,” the listener is forced to hold two dissimilar things (Ted and train) together, which is an impossible task for our thinking minds. But our imaginations have no problem creating a scenario in which the statement “Ted is a freight train” is true. Aristotle considered metaphor a sign of genius, believing that the individual who had the capacity to perceive resemblances between two separate things and link them together was a person of special gifts.
7. Artists show us how to work with images.
Einstein claimed that words did not have much to do with his thought process. Instead, it was visual and kinesthetic images that assisted him in formulating his mathematical and scientific concepts, while words had to be “sought for in a secondary state.” Many scholars believe that the explosion of creativity in the Renaissance was tied to recording and conveying information in drawings, graphs and diagrams–as, for instance, in the renowned diagrams of Da Vinci and Galileo. Galileo revolutionized science by making his thought visible with diagrams, maps, and drawings while his contemporaries used conventional mathematical and verbal approaches. Making something visual—whether it is making a “vision board” or developing a visual map of a particular project, gives you the ability to think and share information in new ways and has transformative power.
8. Artists teach us that it’s OK to go against the norm and step into new terrain.
In order to creatively solve a problem, artists must often abandon their initial approach—which stems from past experience and re-conceptualize the problem. By leaving “what they know,” great artists do not merely contribute new work to existing artistic arenas; instead, they develop new arenas entirely.