The Creative System

Creativity by definition is a novel idea, however, it can be argued that a novel idea in its own right does not define creativity. In his book, Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Cheek-sent-me-high), introduces the concept in which creativity results from the interaction of a system composed of three elements, 1) a culture that contains symbolic rules, 2) an individual person who brings novelty into a field of expertise, a Domain, and 3) a field of experts that recognize and validate the innovation, This school of thought believes that all three are necessary for a creative idea, product or discovery to take place.

  1. A culture that contains symbolic rules:

Unlike the biological mechanism of genes and chromosomes that pass on genetic information from one generation to another, there is no equivalent mechanism in cultural evolution.  Instructions on how to use fire, the wheel or write a symphony do not (unfortunately) pass on through our biological make up.  They are taught anew to each individual within their culture and environment.  Each child needs to learn from scratch the rules of language, numbers, theories and morals that are passed on to them from a long history of humanity’s cultural evolution.  Each component of new knowledge and innovation builds and transcends its predecessor to continue a link in the chain of our symbolic world, as Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.If enough of the right people see the change as an improvement, it will become part of the culture.

  1. An individual person who brings novelty into a field of expertise – a Domain:

Creativity occurs when a person, using the symbols of a given domain, such as music, physics, literature, or mathematics has surpassed mastering that domain as it is taught and can now come up with a new idea or a new pattern.  Occasionally, creative individuals establish a new domain in itself, as Galileo started experimenting with physics and Freud with psychoanalysis.

I want to take a moment and explain the difference between ‘talented’ and creative’.  We have all witnessed moments of seeing an exquisite hand painting of a landscape that resembles a photograph to the detail; it is out of great talent that this artist created this picture.  However, no novel idea was part of this creation.  It did not show us a landscape in a way that we have never seen before; it did not make us see something differently.  This is where the impressionism movement rattled the art world; it was a ‘wow’ moment.  The paintings of Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gough, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and their peers made use see the world differently, a way in which we have yet to see.  A talented physicist knowledgeable with the rules of optics and the particle nature of light can solve complex problems and be extremely gifted in their field, but it takes a creative mind to solve the predicament moments with the insight of creativity to think of light as sometimes behaving like a particle and sometimes like a wave (as did Albert Einstein).

So, going back to my original argument of the difference between creativity and talent; creativity is any act, idea or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one, whereas talented, is just being really really good at something.

  1. A field of experts that recognize and validate the innovation:

A group of individuals trained within a domain and act as the gatekeepers to the domain.  It is their job to judge according to their expertise if a new idea or product should be included in a domain.  In the visual arts field, these people are the art teachers, curators of museums, collectors of art or administrators of foundations and government agencies that deal with culture.  Within the sciences, it is the professors and doctorates that can either confirm the empirical truths or verify the theoretical ones.  It is believed that when Albert Einstein first released his Theory of Relativity, there were only a handful of people in the world that actually understood it.  But it was the credibility and reverence of these individuals that gave them the authority within their field of expertise, domain, to determine the importance of a new creative realization.


(A side note on the significance of ‘field of experts’: A toddler which is just learning to scribble and use crayons may create a work of art in the eyes of his or her parents, something which is certainly novel, as this is completely new to the toddler and admired by the parents, however, not so much by the international art community).