Creativity is intelligence having fun.
When you're involved in creating something, do you find yourself thinking, "This is drudgery" or "What fun!"? How we label what we do can make a big difference in how we feel about it.
Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer conducted a study to determine what effect our words have on our experience of engaging in an activity. Using cartoons from a Gary Larsen calendar, all the participants performed a series of tasks of increasing difficulty. For half of the group, the task was defined as work and, for the other half, as play. Even though the tasks were exactly the same for both, the individuals in the "play" group enjoyed them. In contrast, those in the "work" group reported that their minds wandered as they made the effort to complete the assignment.
Around the world, playing is a natural for kids. Even without toys, they can make up a game or build a structure with whatever materials are at hand. Play stimulates curiosity and imagination, and thus creativity as well. It's an important part of learning. As adults, we too often fall into the trap of thinking that play is for slackers, having fun is a waste of time, unproductive or purposeless. Instead, we're supposed to be serious! But what if that kind of thinking leads to dreading what we do, considering it simply a chore to get through? And what if play is what truly produces the results we want in our artwork, and in life in general?
People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing.
Recently, I watched some videos of German illustrator and graphic designer Christoph Niemann. His whimsical creations make me think that play/fun informs his work. I read that every Sunday, he would sit down with a blank piece of paper and a random, everyday object. He didn't know what he was going to draw, except that it would include whatever was right there. He turned pennies into scoops of ice cream, bananas into horse legs, a fork into a giraffe, a comb into a car grille, and highlighters into light sabers. You can see his humorous art on his website and in these videos:
Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."
Play is the answer to the question: how does anything new come about? --Jean Piaget
Brian Sutton-Smith (1924-2015), a New Zealand play theorist, spent all his working years attempting to discover the cultural significance of play in human life. In a 1967 study, he demonstrated that participants who were given a task to imagine various purposes for an object were likely to come up with many more ideas if they were permitted to play and tinker with the object first. Why? Other research indicates that while playing, we're in a psychological state in which it feels okay to wonder "what if?" and even to fail. That allows us to freely explore the unknown.
Swiss-German artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) greatly admired and was inspired by the art of children for their direct and naïve renderings. He tried to achieve that untutored simplicity by experimenting with artistic techniques, working with intense colors and line drawing in an unstudied way. He applied paint to everyday materials (burlap, cardboard panel, muslin) and in a nontraditional manner (spraying and stamping). It meant breaking academic rules of painting in oils on canvas.
As "Klee at Play," a recent exhibit at SF MOMA demonstrates, Klee was dedicated to exploring the creative and transformative possibilities of play. I was tickled to learn he made whimsical hand puppets for his son, Felix, fashioned from scraps of cloth, papier-mâché, and found objects. Between 1916 and 1925 he produced about 50 of them.
Interestingly, as an instructor at Bauhaus, the German art school that combined crafts and the fine arts from 1919 to 1933, he was the only one who did not grade his students. Perhaps he sensed that grades would stifle their creativity rather than encourage freedom of expression and new insights.
I experienced this firsthand a few weeks ago, when I decided to dye with rust for the first time. I'd been collecting rusted objects for probably a year, without a clue as to what I'd do with them. Since I knew nothing about the process, online I learned about using a 50/50 solution of white vinegar/water. I took some old cloth, layered it with rusted pieces or wrapped it around a rusted object, then sprayed the batch with the solution, covered it with plastic in an old baking pan, and let it sit for a day or so. When I opened the plastic, removed and rinsed the cloth, I was delighted--like a kid who'd just found some candy. I hadn't planned any of it and couldn't envision ahead of time how the scraps of cloth would look, yet I was pleased with the results. Even more, I felt happy because I had played. I went into this new activity without expectations, simply wanting to experiment. I felt no anxiety about performance. I had no particular goal. I wasn't concerned about the outcome being great or terrible. I was simply engaged in the process. It's clear that play is about openness rather than fear and judgment.
I have similar experiences when I attend open sessions of a college group at my local art center. I get to play with materials and techniques that are not part of my repertoire. For me, it's like dropping into a kindergarten class. In the last one, we played with stamps and different inks. I found myself repeatedly stamping with a particular shape or pattern in layers. The results were abstract designs that I'd like to transfer to cloth. I had no idea this was going to happen. I just played in the sandbox du jour and had fun with what unexpectedly occurred. If you have a friend or several with whom you can form a play group, try it out. Let each person take a turn in sharing something with the others.
Professor Langer says, "If we stop judging ourselves, creating art becomes more possible." So, instead of putting off new activities because we're afraid of making a fool of ourselves, we can take up the paintbrush or flute. We can enjoy playing with them rather than worrying about what others think of our painting or music. Langer offers an example from the life of French artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954). A woman visiting his studio examined a painting he had just completed and declared: "The arm of this woman is much too long." He quickly retorted, "But, madame, you are mistaken. This is not a woman, this is a painting."
As I continue to explore rust dyeing and collage, in turn, they're leading me to imagine a whole new way of displaying my textile art. In the middle of a frustrating period about something else in my life, this kind of playing affords me moments of lightness and joy. As American painter Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) suggests in his "10 rules for beginning creative projects": Attempt what is not certain. American visual artist Ann Hamilton adds: One doesn't arrive--in words or in art--by necessarily knowing where one is going.
This is not to say that we never plan what we're doing or take our art seriously. Not at all. But play is a crucial element in having our work evolve. It's about fully engaging in an activity or process, in the present moment rather than jumping into the future with evaluations and projections about what might or might not result.
Questions & Comments:
In The Creativity Challenge, KH Kim lists eight signs of a creative person: big-picture thinking; spontaneous; playful; resilient; autonomous; defiant; risk-taking; daydreaming. Do you check off "playful" to describe yourself?
How do you include play in your creativity?
What happens when you play in a new medium, with different tools or techniques, or in a field completely other than your own?