Creative edges

Individuals who are creative move along the edge of their existing abilities. But the same is true of creative companies. Creative people combine things in new ways. This is also done by creative businesses. They sample ideas from old products, from competitors, from social media, and from their existing knowledge base and use these as the foundations for their own products and ideas.
— Christian Stadil & Lene Tanggaard, In the Shower with Picasso

Only at the edge can you see clearly where you’ve come from and where you might go.
— James Sallis in conversation with Patrick Millikin

If not just the brain but the quirks that made the individual were composed of recycled matter only, it was hard to be sure where the edges of one such being ended and another person began.
— Sebastian Faulks, A Possible Life

As a subscriber to Rouleur, a cycling journal packed with an eclectic mix of writing and photography, I was delighted to find that the 50th edition not only had a front cover designed by Paul Smith but included a short interview with him too. Smith is one of those figures forever nudging himself into my consciousness, not least for his links to the cycling world, as well as his quirky clothing. As a young man, he aspired to a professional career in cycling, but he had to find new dreams and aspirations when injuries closed off that particular avenue. Discovery of art, graphic design and architecture, combined with experience in retail, led him to a life in fashion design and, latterly, photography. His entire career has been one informed by on-going curiosity, creative inquiry, and magpie-like habits as a collector. As he suggests in the title of one of his books, You Can Find Inspiration in Everything (And If You Can’t, Look Again).

In a documentary profile directed by Stéphane Carrel, Paul Smith: Gentleman Designer, Smith also highlights the importance to him of lateral thinking. This was a concept developed by Edward de Bono in the late 1960s, around the time Smith himself was part of the vibrant Notting Hill community that was beginning to make an impact on music, fiction, art and fashion. In the documentary, Smith talks about how the shift towards dandyism in the 1960s prompted the creative use of alternative fabrics, even as the traditional tailoring techniques of Savile Row were still being deployed. It is an important point. Ideas and inspiration were sought from all quarters, but traditional skills were still required to realise the new ideas. Creativity and innovation happened at the edge of what was already known. The documentary demonstrates that this is a pattern that still shapes the way Smith works.

This is not unique to fashion design. True creativity usually is bounded in some form or another. An artist works within the confines of the canvas. A poet faces the constraint of the blank page. A sculptor exposes the shape hidden within the block of marble. A photographer frames their subject, both excluding and including what will be seen when the camera’s shutter is activated. A composer writes for specified instruments. A gardener tends a delimited landscape. A chef makes use of a small number of ingredients in preparing a dish. But they all communicate outwards, hoping to move others with their work. They all exercise a degree of autonomy, mastery and purpose within the loose frameworks under which they operate. Whatever constraint they face catalyses rather than inhibits their creativity.

As Alf Rehn argues in Dangerous Ideas, the exhortation that we often hear from senior business leaders and management consultants to think outside the box is misguided. Of course, like Smith, we draw on the influence of external factors, sampling and remixing them. We steal like artists. But the point is that our own creativity is determined by and dependent upon what already exists. We operate within a box, or a framework, and our creativity manifests itself in the ways we build on, develop and re-shape that which has come before. This is very much the thesis of Christian Stadil and Lene Tanggaard. In their book, In the Shower with Picasso, they illustrate how creative people operate on the edge of the box. They may well serve as bridges to new ideas and outside influence, their efforts may well result in the map being redrawn, but essentially they continue to operate within the recognisable bounds of their discipline. As Stadil and Tanggaard phrase it: ‘we need to learn how to creatively traverse the edge’.

James Sallis is another of these boundary walkers, exploring the edges of multiple disciplines and genres. A true Man of Letters, Sallis is a novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer, biographer, musicologist and translator. He has worked in publishing, in academia, in hospitals, and is also an accomplished musician himself. In his long-form and short-story writing, Sallis has tended to focus on two genres: science fiction and crime. Both are constrained by tradition and the expectations of the reader, even as they themselves explore edges between the known and the unknown, conformism and deviance. In his six-book cycle of Lew Griffin novels, Sallis plays a literary game. The novels are as much expositions about literary criticism, the history of jazz and the blues, and recent US history, as they are tales of detection and criminality. Poetic and allusive, they sit at the edge of generic tradition.

walk-the-line
[Picture credit: Walk the Line by Shonagh Rae]

In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon urges us to ‘Read bibliographies. It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to.’ It is certainly like that reading a Sallis novel. One allusion leads you to a new author, a new poem, a new book. But it is also like that in the networked, digital world that we now find ourselves navigating. My personal experience is that I have become part of a number of interconnected and overlapping communities that meet both online and in restaurants and coffee shops. These cater to my varied interests, inform and validate my thinking, and allow me to bridge to other disciplines that inspire me to take different approaches to the work I do. I am still operating within an established framework, but I am exposing myself to a greater diversity of perspective. Participation in these communities prompts me to develop new ideas. They may be a long time in gestation, and will require nurturing. There is no doubt, too, that they will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Working at the edge of an organisation, I then seek to influence others within it by introducing these ideas, influencing their thinking through what I share and how I act.

Valdis Krebs offers a pithy one-liner: ‘Connect on your similarities and benefit from your differences.’ I remain fascinated by the period of Modernism. I am captivated by its artistry and challenge to the way we look at the world, by its fusion of art and science, by the lessons it has taught us, and from which we can still benefit today. One of the things that intrigues me about the period is the role the salon played, either formally, with wealthy individuals taking on the role of benefactor, or informally, with the frequent café gatherings. There is a feel of the salon about many of our current communities. In a recent Edge article, Andrian Kreye even suggests ‘it was mostly the lounges and cafes in Europe (and later America) that gave birth to the fundamental principle of progress and innovation, namely the network.’ Whether it was the Generation of ’27 in Spain, the surrealists in France, the Bauhaus movement in Germany, Gertrude Stein and companions in Paris, the Algonquin Round Table in New York or the Bloomsbury Set in London, groups formed that catered to both similarity and difference.

These were multi-disciplinary communities that enabled the cross-pollination of ideas. Artists would then take what they had learned, exploring and experimenting with what was already known in their chosen sphere. Even as they critiqued and rebelled, they still conformed to a certain extent with what had been long established. They worked within existing frameworks. T. S. Eliot’s poetry, for example, is littered with the fragments of other writers. James Joyce’s Ulysses is wholly dependent on the work of classical mythology. Luis Buñuel’s films would lack any power if he had not himself experienced life in the bourgeoisie. In later years, rebel music like punk, reggae and hip hop evolved from what had gone before. Abstract art built on the foundations laid by painters in the 19th century. Smith and his friends in the fashion industry introduced countercultural variations on established themes.

So too now with the future of work advocates. Change agency does not happen in a vacuum. It happens on the edges of that which already exists. It develops and adapts what came before. It does so with incremental, creative steps. As part of an evolutionary progression.

What happens to us when we get older? Why did we let them beat the creative spirit out of us? When we were children, we all played with crayons and Legos and finger paint. What happens in adulthood that leeches our desire to create, to build, to get messy and explore? Or at least try?
— Marc Eckō, Unlabel

In the era of ecosystems, seeing the big picture is more important than ever, and less likely. It’s not simply that we’re forced into little boxes by organizational silos and professional specialization. We like it in there. We feel safe. But we’re not.
— Peter Morville, Intertwingled

We need frameworks – a box – for thinking to be possible. Without our boxes, we’re lost at sea, as all thought builds on frameworks, assumptions, accepted conventions and definitions.
— Alf Rehn, Dangerous Ideas

We need to give our ideas time to form, to breathe, to strengthen, to let us know when they are ready – and to do this at our own pace, in our own way.
— Neil Usher, Red in the Face

As is so often the case, I am indebted to Kenneth Mikkelsen for introducing me to the documentary about Paul Smith. A note of thanks too to Andrew Jacobs for making me aware of Alf Rehn’s work.

One thought on “Creative edges

  1. Pingback: Creative edges | Socially Build

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