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Denis Dutton, the recently deceased author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times a few years ago in response to the auctioning of one of Damien Hirst‘s infamous medicine cabinets:

The pricey medicine cabinet belongs to a tradition of conceptual art: works we admire not for skillful hands-on execution by the artist, but for the artist’s creative concept. Mr. Hirst has a talent for coming up with concepts that capture the attention of the art market, putting him in the company of other big names who have now and again moved away from making art with their own hands: Jeff Koons, for example, who has put vacuum cleaners into Plexiglas cases and commissioned an Italian porcelain manufacturer to make a cheesy gold and white sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp. Mr. Koons need not touch the art his contractors produce; the ideas are his, and that’s enough.

Sophisticated gallery owners or curators normally respond with withering condescension to worries about the lack of craftsmanship in contemporary art. Art has moved on, I’ve heard it argued, since Victorian times, when “she’d painted every hair” was ordinary aesthetic praise. What is important today is not technical skill, but skill in playing inventively with ideas.

Dutton uses the rest of his piece to demonstrate that objects that are well crafted, made by hand (in the most positive sense), and beautiful have always played a role in our species’ history, a point of view expounded in more detail in his last book.

The importance and role of craft and handmadeness are on my mind these last few weeks after having viewed the final exhibits for three different MFA programs. Based on the work featured in these three shows, it is clear to me that each program has a tacit—or in some cases, explicit— attitude about the importance of craftsmanship in contemporary art.

Invoking the Roberta Smith taste test* (my personal version of Occam‘s razor for navigating the world of art) I give a high five to Rhode Island School of Design. Yes it is a great art school with extraordinary resources and easy access to different disciplines and programs. But respect for the hand and the craft is evident even when the work is taking a counter position. A RISD value, “to encourage generative thinking and making” is clearly evident in this show.

Beyond the sprawling MFA exhibit however is additional evidence of how the school views handmadeness. Quietly on display in RISD’s spectacular library (situated inside a massive bank building brilliantly repurposed by Office dA) is an exhibit of handmade books by the students of Jan Baker. Baker has been teaching a book making class for 25 years and her collection of student samples is close to 500. Baker has chosen 200 and painstakingly created a “displayscapes,” lovingly populating the museum cases with these exquisitely crafted works. Arranged by themes—story telling, travel, animals, food, alphabets for example—each display cabinet invites your eye to explore a miniature world of artistic mastery. Baker has color coded each piece by the decade in which it was done, pointing out that much of the meticulous cutwork had to be done by hand. “These older works were made long before we had a laser cutter.” I could have spent hours excavating inside each one.

Displaying artist books has been frustrating curators for a long time, and Baker is equally stymied by how to share objects that are designed to be held in the hand, paged through slowly and carefully. Her kimono-like styling—a page open here, a pop up offered there—is more enticing than most artist book shows I have seen. But the longing to jimmy the glass and reach in to hold these gems is constant.

The show is up through July. The displays are on several levels, so be sure to visit all of them, including the window box in the Special Collections wing. This is an unforgettable exhibit.

*The Roberta Smith Taste Test:
What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.


Door into my zone of privacy, my studio

I know, it is easy to feel a bit of smuggish pleasure when an above-the-fold article in the Sunday New York Times articulates just what you have been saying for years.* Certainly I am not the only artist out there voicing advocacy for the way of solitude. There are many of us in that phalanx (metaphorical only!) who spend most of our days working alone and know that is the only way we can do what we do. But Susan Cain, author of an upcoming book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has brought the topic to a larger audience.

From her article, The Rise of the New Groupthink:

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

In her article, Cain highlights the necessary introverted approach of Apple’s cofounder Steve Wozniak. And given the current spike in interest in Steve Jobs and Apple, this telling of the story is important:

The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.

But it’s also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.

Intentionally so. In his memoir, Mr. Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

I am looking forward to reading the book. And for a few more converts—or at least more respect—for the hermet’s life.

*Here are a few previous posts on Slow Muse that touch on the value of solitude:

Stand Alone: More on Solitude

Scaling Solitude

A Translucent Network of Minimal Surprises

Sages of Silence and Fear

Breath Me, Light

In the Hive, and Out

Silence’s Non-Narrative

Seasonal Surrender

Being Schooled

The Intimate Interrupter

At some level, everything is of interest to the eye…a view of one corner of my studio space

How do artists work? In a recent posting on Real Clear Arts, Judith H. Dobrzynski makes the case that as mysterious as the creative process is, it is that which people most want to know. And that interest exists in spite of the fact that most artists don’t really even know what their process is.

Some may say they know and wax on about their creative process. But in my experience the best you can do is create a convenient narrative. Our mind (or part of it) wants to be able to sense a path or a plan, to grab on to some sense of order in even the inchoate zones like creativity. But whatever story you tell it is just one version of the journey that actually lives in a Rashomon of valid narratives, all of them incomplete.

For example, Dobrzynski includes a quote from Georgia O’Keefe about her process:

I have picked flowers where I found them, have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked. When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.

(This appears in the catalog for an upcoming show in Santa Fe, O’Keeffiana: Art and Art Materials.)

Dobrzynski goes on to describe O’Keefe’s way of working:

O’Keeffe was very organized. She placed her drawings in named file folders, took photographs of her still subjects from many vantage points in different light, trimmed her brushed meticulously, and so on. Associate curator Carolyn Kastner, who organized the show, told the Associated Press that she looked hard for something “messy,” but could not find a thing.

There is value in seeing an artist’s work space. It is yet another clue in the back story but just that—only a clue. Over the years I’ve visited hundreds of studios, and each tends to speaks to the highly personal journey that is happening in that work space. Mondrian came to his studio every day in a suit and never spilled any paint on his attire, an approach I have always found resoundingly impossible to imagine. On the other end of the spectrum, some artists epitomize the old saying, “An artist is just someone looking for somewhere to store stuff” and have studios that might qualify as reality TV hoarding. My friend Nancy Natale has posted dramatic “studio before” and “studio after” photos right on the home page of her wonderful blog, Art in the Studio. She may have changed teams at some point.

And as for me, I don’t know for sure which team I am on either. My studio has two parts—one is ordered and relatively presentable, the other wildly chaotic, messy and (in my mind) chock full of possibility. I always seem to opt for the both/and.

Is there just TMI when it comes to the creative process? Some think so, especially in the full tilt confessionalism of blogtown.

On Mind the Gap, one of my favorite art/culture blogs, Wendy Perron from Dance Magazine is quoted on this topic:

There’s an annoying new trend of blogging about the process of making a dance. I am talking about young choreographers, anxious to be in the public eye, who think that writing about what happened that day in the studio will somehow 1) bring them a wider audience and/or 2) make them a better choreographer. I realize a blog is a good way to keep your website alive and to involve your potential audience. But explaining how you make a dance, the problems you encounter and how you solve them, is not going to help either you as the choreographer or your potential audience.

In agreement. The current proclivity to language everything—from personal material to the creative process that belongs outside that “explain everything” domain—is increasingly problematic. There are costs, some of them unperceived.

Mind the Gap’s response brings up issues that I feel strongly about, like the “pre-verbal place” that needs to be protected:

Perron’s original post is worth reading in full, as in it she gets deeper into specifics on exactly why she worries about this reliance on words when it comes to creating fresh art. Her thoughts were really interesting to me, particularly because she’s cautioning young artists to pull in the reigns and that’s not a message I come across very often. Usually it’s about how to be more, do more, and say more, all in the hope of reaching more, teaching more, and selling more.

So, to blog or not to blog about process, that is an interesting question in the messy rule-breaking world of creative expression. Did Perron intend this as dance-specific advice, particularly needed due to its physical nature? How important is the “pre-verbal place” in other types of creative work? I personally thought Perron’s admonishment to knock the blogging off was a little harsh, but the seemingly always-distracted-by-blinking-technology side of me understands that she has a point.

Several people have asked me how blogging has affected my real work in the studio. It is a complex question for me and one for which I do not have a pat answer even after four years. Sometimes I say I use it as a linear counterpoint to the inchoate nature of my painting life. Or that it de-hermetizes me and makes it easier to embrace open-heartedness. Or that my love of poetry and of provocative ideas serves to clarify my intentionality. That the process of writing is palate-cleansing (palette-cleansing?!!)

All these responses feel true but none feels complete. Maybe it is just a case of e) all of the above. And while I have not used this blog to parse the creative process into logical, languaged form, I do enjoy observing that pre-verbal place from a safe distance. It is like watching something quite unexpected and at times mesmerizing, but doing so from behind the bushes.

Icicle propagation on a building facade in Pittsburgh: Living with constraints

A few months back I posted a quote from the artist Carroll Dunham that has a great deal of meaning for me:

The most basic thing to say about painting: it’s a limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes. But it’s a negative premise. It’s not, “I like painting because it’s so wonderful—it can do all these wonderful things.” It’s more, “I like painting because it’s so limited, it’s so uptight, so old and so flat and so rectilinear.” Within that, you’re good to go.

Recently I have been reading a lot about innovation, from breakthroughs in open innovation to high yield collaborations. Although a lot of my reading has focused on how innovation plays out in corporate settings (it is all of interest to me regardless of the context), the parallels to my personal experience are still relevant.

For example, this passage is from Jeffrey Philips on the blog, Innovate on Purpose:

What happens in with a tight brief, or a well communicated set of criteria, is that the team is then liberated to innovation within those criteria, or to achieve something incredibly new and different within that criteria. Since we all need a villain to slay or some fixed point to pivot from, having some fixed criteria or goals mean that we can then assume those goals are fixed and find all manner of outrageous ways to satisfy those criteria or goals. That’s when the really interesting ideas start flowing. Good ideas then lead to a decision making process based on the established criteria or constraints. This is a two-fer. You get better idea generation, better engagement and a team that can more easily choose the best ideas, since the constraints were clearly identified.

If you want a team to really excel at idea generation, set a big problem or goal for them, define the strategic opportunities and establish some key constraints. Then, allow them all the degrees of freedom possible outside of the constraints, and wait for the great ideas to come.

The role of constraints—be they within the confines of painting or within a team setting—continues to fascinate me. Given my personality proclivities that chafe at the very thought of limits (in that oft-circulated challenge to describe yourself in just six words, mine was “Don’t tell me what to do”), I have never tired of the limits that painting imposes on visual expression. Although Dunham is being both truthful and tongue in cheek in his comment above, I have never flinched from staying right there in the middle of that “limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have never been keen on the idea of a creativity elite. Since 1959 when C. P. Snow wrote his legendary essay “Two Cultures” about the breakdown in communication between the sciences (“the white coats”) and the humanities, other us/them dichotomies have emerged. Creativity is one of those, highlighted in recent books like Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class and the Rays’ The Cultural Creatives. And my ongoing dialogue with my friend Bose about what constitutes creativity has kept this topic particularly active over the last few weeks.

An earlier post about the difficulty of measuring creativity has also been rattling around in my head. I have a personal life full of amazingly talented artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, but I have always considered my highly analytical, business-oriented partner Dave to be one of the most creative people I know. When I first read the well publicized creativity exercise used to promote open source innovation, 40 uses for a brick, I realized that’s the way Dave has always approached everything, from business problems to planning a family vacation. He sees connections that others often overlook and has an ability to keep propagating new ways of seeing.

This is different than what happens for me in the studio. And yet there is some common elemental source at work here—a shared language, a common fragrance. Parsing it any more than that seems like an unnecessary excursion. But it is my nature to leave plenty of life’s unnamed experiences only partially exposed, respectful of what is inchoate and just a little mysterious.

What set me off this morning was a back issue of the New Yorker with an article about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s painfully unsuccessful attempts to make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Having just recently been enamored and awestruck by experiencing The Great Gatsby performed verbatim in a production of “Gatz” at the A. R. T. (and written about here), I was a bit unnerved by this unsettling account. It is about the harsh reality that creativity doesn’t always spill over. It has its limits, it has those domains where it cannot scale. In other words, it is a story about human longing and human limitations, of how the gap between the two can be a terrain of extraordinary misery and suffering.

Billy Wilder described Fitzgerald’s foray into Holllywood as “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job,” with no clue how to connect the pipes and get the water to flow. How could the author of one of American literature’s greatest novels be so off in another form? In Slow Fade, Arthur Krystal does a decent job of putting it into perspective:

Fitzgerald drew his faith not from camera angles or even plotlines but from sentences; and what draws us powerfully to his work is the sensitive handling of emotional yearning and regret. When he was revising “Gatsby,” he characterized the burden of the novel as “the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” As Arthur Mizener….pointed out, “it is precisely this loss which allows Gatsby to discover ‘what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.'” Perhaps Fitzgerald could have captured this heightened state of awareness in a script, but was this what the studios were looking for? Fitzgerald’s vision of becoming a great screenwriter was no more realistic than the likelihood of his returning a kickoff or writing a hit Broadway show. But, then, Fitzgerald was not one to give up on dreams; if he had, he could not have written so beautifully, so penetratingly, about their loss.

Reading this left me with a willingness to surrender to the “chop wood, carry water” that so characterizes a lifetime of work, be it in an overtly creative field or not. This isn’t a negative view; rather it is accepting where we might be brilliant and where our own personal river runs thin. Fitzgerald’s life happens to exemplify two extraordinary extremes. But that is often the nature of genius.

Siva drinking World Poison, Nandalal Bose (Photo: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi)

I have been participating in an ongoing conversation with my friend Supratik Bose about the nature of creativity. Over dinner a while ago he told me he didn’t believe something could be deemed creative unless it demonstrated market value. Bose, trained as an architect and the grandson of India’s most beloved artist of the 20th century, Nandalal Bose, doesn’t make that statement lightly. I on the other hand will argue that point for the rest of my life.

Our debate is lively and robust however, so I don’t want it to come to a “agree to disagree” stalemate. I told Bose to read Lawrence Weschler’s unforgettable account of one man’s mission to transform an artist laboring for years in obscurity to international renown. (“Shapinsky’s Karma” is a chapter included in Weschler’s book, A Wanderer in the Perfect City.) Bose told me to read Nancy Andreasen’s The Creative Brain, which I am currently doing. And this weekend he sent me the link to an article in the New York Times, Charting Creativity: Signposts of a Hazy Territory, by Patricia Cohen, which is full of timely news on this immense, unfathomably complex and provocative topic.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Creativity is kind of like pornography — you know it when you see it,” said Rex Jung, a research scientist at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque. Dr. Jung, an assistant research professor in the department of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, said his team was doing the first systematic research on the neurology of the creative process, including its relationship to personality and intelligence.

Like many researchers over the past 30 years or so, Dr. Jung has relied on a common definition of creativity: the ability to combine novelty and usefulness in a particular social context.

As the study of creativity has expanded to include brain neurology, however, some scientists question whether this standard definition and the tests for it still make sense. John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, argues that the standard “has outlived its usefulness.”

“Creativity is a complex concept; it’s not a single thing,” he said, adding that brain researchers needed to break it down into its component parts. Dr. Kounios, who studies the neural basis of insight, defines creativity as the ability to restructure one’s understanding of a situation in a nonobvious way.

Everyone agrees that no single measure for creativity exists. While I.Q. tests, though controversial, are still considered a reliable test of at least a certain kind of intelligence, there is no equivalent when it comes to creativity — no Creativity Quotient, or C.Q.

While Rex Jung and others are doing their scientific level best to come up with some kind of meaningful measure—Jung calls it a “Composite Creativity Index”—I’m going with the naysayers who say it can never be nailed down, dissected or completely comprehended.

I like the description of the difference between creativity and intelligence:

One study of 65 subjects suggests that creativity prefers to take a slower, more meandering path than intelligence.

“The brain appears to be an efficient superhighway that gets you from Point A to Point B” when it comes to intelligence, Dr. Jung explained. “But in the regions of the brain related to creativity, there appears to be lots of little side roads with interesting detours, and meandering little byways.”

Although intelligence and skill are generally associated with the fast and efficient firing of neurons, subjects who tested high in creativity had thinner white matter and connecting axons that have the effect of slowing nerve traffic in the brain. This slowdown in the left frontal cortex, a region where emotional and cognitive abilities are integrated, Dr. Jung suggested, “might allow for the linkage of more disparate ideas, more novelty and more creativity.”

And bless that Bose. One has to be a class act to send along an authoritative collaboration of the opposing point of view since this claim also appeared in the article:

Dr. Kounios…said that Dr. Jung was doing original and interesting work, but he maintained that trying to find a correlation between creativity and a single area of the brain is an “old-fashioned approach.”

“Creativity is a collection of different processes that work in different areas of the brain,” Dr. Kounios said, so the creative act must be broken down into tiny pieces. He also rejects utility as part of the definition, arguing that there can be brilliant and creative failures — what he calls near misses.

I’ll take all of them in—the near misses, the creative failures, the byways and the detours.


A bit of background on Nandalal Bose from the San Diego Museum of Art which mounted a traveling exhibit of Bose’s work for the first time outside Asia in 2008:

Nandalal Bose was born in Bihar, India, in 1882. At the beginning of his career in 1905, he was one of many artists and visionaries who sought to revive the spirituality and cultural authenticity of Indian art after 50 years of colonial rule and westernization. In 1919, Bose became the first director of the art school at the new university founded by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in rural Bengal. Here, traditional Indian teaching methods were favored over British-style education.

For the following three decades, Bose began to experiment with a variety of indigenous Indian, Japanese, and Chinese techniques. His work consisted more of scenes of nature and tribal and village life, as well as devotional subjects. It was his portrayal of village India without dependence on Western materials or styles that captured the attention of Gandhi and catapulted Bose to the status of national icon as the only artist Gandhi patronized.

Nandalal Bose

Desert landscape near Alice Springs, Australia

I’ve gone through creative dry spells. Everybody does, but when it is happening to you, it is hard to not take it personally and forget that the condition is common. It is easier to talk about it when the episode is over. It’s a little like childbirth: Give me a while before I tell you about how it was to deliver an 11 pound child.

Reading through the rich responses to Jerry Saltz’s recent posting on the reality of being an artist (here) started me thinking (again) about the highly interior and intensely private nature of the struggle for flow. So many artists owned up to and spoke about their experience with such candor, and I was deeply touched by many of their words.

One writer included a link to Susan K. Perry, a psychologist and writing consultant, who is also the author of Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity. Over the years Perry has collected a list of the most common fears that lead to creativity blocks:

The worry that the work isn’t good enough
The fear that I have no talent.
The fear that, if anyone notices my work in the first place, they won’t like it.
The fear of appearing foolish.
The fear of not being able to finish a long project, or of dying before it’s done.
The fear that I’ve wasted my time.
The fear of offending somebody.
A terror of leaping into the abyss of the imagination.
Feeling I’m in over my head, that I won’t be able to do this without appearing stupid.
The fear that I’ll run out of ideas and never be able to produce anything again.

Does anyone ever conquer all of these demons? Probably not. Virginia Woolf wrote, “Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing without blushing—shivering and wishing to take cover?”

Perry points to another writer’s insights:

The brilliant writer David Foster Wallace, who, like Woolf, committed suicide, was interviewed in 1997 on NPR’s Fresh Air. Asked by Terry Gross whether, when he was a teen tennis player, his self-consciousness interfered on the court, he said, yes, of course. He went on to wonder whether perhaps those listening have “this part in their brain” that allows them to turn off thoughts of “what if I double fault on this point, or what if I miss this free throw, or what if I don’t get this strike with the entire bowling team hanging around.”

Wallace at first figured “this stuff” doesn’t occur to professionals, then added, “but when I hung out with pro players for the tennis essay, it occurred to me that they have some kind of muscle that can cut that kind of thinking off.” Such self-consciousness, he said, is “literally paralyzing. You can end up like a bunny in the headlights.” Wallace couldn’t turn it off and gave up tennis.

One of Perry’s suggestions for dealing with the feeling of being frozen by a fear: Trivialize the task.

I adopted it as one of my mantras because it really works. For a writer, for example, what this means is accepting that a creative career or a creative life is a long evolving process, not a single product—and certainly not an unpolished draft of a product.

It helps to think of yourself as playing at whatever you’re doing. If it feels like work and nothing but work, maybe you’re doing it wrong. Because you can’t fail. You just try again, or you try something else, or you try in a different way.

In a different post Perry compares creativity to making love. That’s extra credit reading.

A moment of homage to the hand. My hand. Your hand.

I started the morning reading about the relationship between a person’s problem solving skills and their ability to work with his or her hands. The correlation is significant enough that some recruiters look for cerebral problem solving candidates with car repair experience on their resume (if only!) In a stimulating post about work and play by the author of Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds has assembled a good selection of videos about how important play is in every aspect of our lives. Tim Brown (from IDEO) gave a TED talk in 2008 that is worth watching, particularly to see how he engages playfully with his audience (walking the talk in a particularly refreshing way.) Also worth a watch is another TED talk (gotta live TED!) by Dr. Stuart Brown who states his point of view quite directly: “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.”

There’s some definite playfulness in another book I’m reading, Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals. Their blog, Signal vs Noise, is a lively and interesting place to visit as well.

And thanks to my Tweeter buddy James Burke for alerting me to Reynolds’ site. It’s a steady flow of stimulating stuff.

Margaret Kilgallen at work

A provocative article on Slate reviews Jaron Lanier’s latest book, You are Not a Gadget. Written by Slate senior editor Michael Agger, the essay digs into many of Lanier’s ideas and just says No. Lanier, one of the leaders in the early days of virtual reality and an respected Wired alum, is not a fan of Web 2.0, the hive mind, or where things are going in that online space. “He was the guy with the dreadlocks and the giant V.R. goggles perched on his forehead, the epitome of the hippie-shaman-guru strain in tech culture,” says Agger.

One of Lanier’s contentions is that creativity in music has suffered in the era of web access. It is all retro, says Lanier, and he challenges listeners to distinguish between music being made now and what was showing up 10 years ago. Although a somewhat distanced observer of that particular world, I feel he may have a point.

But this passage really caught me:

Lanier is a survivor and has good instincts: We need to be wary of joining in the wisdom of the crowds, of trusting that open collaboration always produces the best results…But his critique is ultimately just a particular brand of snobbery. Lanier is a Romantic snob. He believes in individual genius and creativity, whether it’s Steve Jobs driving a company to create the iPhone or a girl in a basement composing a song on an unusual musical instrument.

The problem is that the Web is much bigger now, and both Jobs and the bedroom oud player must, in their own ways, strive for attention from the hive mind.

Individual creativity vs the collective hive. The 19th century (and therefore outdated) “Romantic” notion of the artist as soloist, loner, isolate. The collaborative-heavy hegemony of the Web. These are just a few of the questions that are forming a new topology of creativity.

Pluralist to the core, I have always opted for “e) all of the above.” There are so many ways to make, create, invent, engender—who can say what’s sanctioned, what’s appropriate? But is that very idea an outdated notion as well?

I recently viewed the documentary, Beautiful Losers, by Aaron Rose. The film is a subtle and understated portrait of a group of (mostly) disaffected skateboarders, graffiti artists and musicians in the early 90’s who eventually turned to visual art. Brought together by a shared lack of pretension and the desire to just have fun, eventually they became their own art movement. Mostly self-taught and suspicious of the superficiality of the mainstream art world, they were committed to an extraordinarily fierce brand of self-expression. And while many went on to be very successful, that was not the driving intention.

There is a sweetness and uncomplicated quality about the film as well as many of the artists it features. It is an art underworld version of “build it and they will come”: The teeming audiences of kids that filled the ad hoc gallery shows in the early days found their way there without the aid of Facebook, Twitter or Gawk. Could it happen like that now? Probably not. The accelerated pace of the hive mind would make the slow, organic incubation that these folks enjoyed (and I would say, needed) less likely.

But then again, maybe these pervasive cybertechnologies will constellate a new kind of creative outpouring. We’re in the middle of watching this unfold, so it is hard to know for sure. But like I said, my tendency is always to go with e).