Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls

The following paper (originally titled: “Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls: indeterminacy, art & learning“) was presented at a conference entitled: “Creativity & Education: Discourse, Power and Resistance” at the University of Plymouth, March 2001.


The combination of academic “linear” discourse and poetic “non-linear” syntax in this text is typical of many papers delivered at conferences over the past few years. The conferences of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas (ISSEI) and the Discourse Power Resistance series, have been a particularly useful forum for the exchange of ideas and as arenas within which to deliver less traditional forms of presentation.

Title: Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls: creativity, art & learning

This talk consists of two strands: one, a set of notes about creativity, learning and related ideas and issues; and two, a set of examples of creativity in action (both visual and textual) – mostly drawn from my own field of the arts. Parts of the talk employ a “poetic” non-linear discourse. My hope is that this interweaving of verbal and visual discourses will itself stimulate creative responses, questions and associations, which we can explore through discussion in the second half of the session.

First a few haphazard thoughts:

Creativity is a term we apply to distinctive ways of being, thinking and doing that demonstrate the following:

flexibility and openness to experience – responding in inventive ways to stimulii;
making innovative patterns of connection, association and meaning;
manipulating, ordering & re-arranging materials in unusual & sometimes unpredictable ways;
noticing afresh, observing anew, developing a different perspective;
challenging norms & conventions.

Intuition, improvisation and non-linear ways of thinking tend to be important.

Creativity often involves experiment, trying-things-out, making a mess, establishing a productive context with high levels of disorder, uncertainty & indeterminacy. Elements of chance/serendipity are often essential – both in the creative process and in the products of creativity. And there’s an element of surprise, of being surprised by what emerges. A sense of something unexpected, not predetermined.

From a Buddhist perspective creativity can be enhanced by the development of an open non-discriminatory mode of awareness ~ mindfulness ~ disinterested attention to all that arises ~ a non-centred awareness.

Creative Emergence
While creativity involves the emergence of new forms, processes, orders and patterns – an unfolding of material and mental structures – it does not take place in a vacuum. New forms and ideas don’t arise from nothing or nowhere. Rather they’re the product of interactions between materials (physical and conceptual) and processes – a productive friction generating sparks of ideas and possibilities. Creativity as a kind of combustion – sometimes premeditated and sometimes spontaneous. Usually creative ideas and actions are variations on existing ideas and actions – the bringing together of elements to make a new synthesis, or taking a line of thought a bit further or in a new direction.

Brian Goodwin provides a biological perspective on this process. He writes: “the problem is to understand how unexpected properties arise from the interactions of the component elements of a complex system, which can be physical, chemical, biological or social. These are called emergent properties….” He paints a “picture of nature living on the edge of chaos, which is where creativity arises”. High levels of deterministic “order” may therefore inhibit creativity rather than promote it.

As an example of the process of “creative emergence” or transformation let’s consider the most famous haiku by the poet Basho. The original (in my anglicised Japanese) goes:


The literal translation is:

Old-pond ya
Frog jump-in

Most versions in English are as awkward and convoluted as the literal translation except for the version by the concrete poet dom sylvester houedard. He produced the simplest translation that catches the transitory flavour and humour of the original:


A creative three-word solution to a tricky poetic problem!

Historical Perspective.
Now let’s take a historical detour. One view of creativity that is still widely held places emphasis on notions of specialness – creativity as a distinctive characteristic of a few individuals. In 18th and 19th Century Romanticism we find creativity taking up residence in the draughty garret of the artistic and poetic “genius”, whose actions and utterances are seen as being of a different (and superior) order to that of ordinary folk. The artist is a different kind of being to the artisan. Craft and “good workmanship” become something to be subverted or despised. The avant-garde revolutionary genius takes leave of the academy. Cultural power shifts from the establishment “salon” to the “Salon des Refuses”.

Vasari paved the way for this break, between the creative domain and the domain of the rest of us, when he began to write of Renaissance artists as eccentric individuals with special and unusual gifts. He saw this as evidence of human beings exhibiting God-like powers. Michelangelo became “the divine Michelangelo”. Evidence of divine intervention, of creativity as a “gift” bestowed on a few rather than an innate attribute of all, becomes part of the cultural sediment of the 19th Century and is canonised in 20th Century Modernism. Creativity becomes the prerogative of artists, composers, poets and, occasionally, distinguished “men of science”. Blake’s image of Isaac Newton executing the geometry of God on an earthly surface embodies this view. Leonardo becomes the epitome of polymathic creativity, and Picasso is accorded the status of a demi-god – the icon of masculine virility and creative energy. The patriarchical power-base is obvious. As is the rhetoric of fertility: “giving birth to ideas and images”; artworks as the “offspring or children” of male artists; “fecundity of ideas”; etc. All assuming an association between cultural production and biological reproduction. Male envy, fear or arrogance enshrined in the robust exercising of creative power.

However an alternative view can be found within a disparate group of sources. I would include the following in this alternative tradition: John Cage, Joseph Beuys, Ruskin, Merleau-Ponty, John Dewey, and others, as well as some proponents of Buddhist thought and practice. In all of these sources we encounter a view of creativity as an integral part of our make-up as human beings. Creative thought and action characterise our being in the world, dynamic attributes of our perceptual and conceptual systems. This poses a democratised challenge to the other elitist and restrictive view.

The implications of both of these views on teaching and learning may be obvious but they are far-reaching. The Romanticist/Modernist tradition, which still dominates thought and action in many fields of education, sees creativity as both unteachable and as the genetic endowment of a few individuals (some people are creative, others aren’t – you’ve either got the “gift” or you haven’t). The other tradition sees creativity as a fundamental capacity or potential of everyone – something that can be encouraged and nurtured and learned. Indeed learning itself can be seen as quintessentially creative.

Art, Learning and Teaching
Turning to my own field of Art & Design we find creativity, inventiveness and innovation recognised as necessary attributes of artists and designers. However how these attributes are to be developed or even identified are matters about which there is less clarity and not a great deal of explicit thought or action. Again there is often an assumption that these are qualities which students either have or haven’t got – which explains the common practice of using interviews and entry procedures as a filtering process – resulting in a tendency towards exclusivity rather than inclusivity. This picture is changing – but very slowly.

So how can creativity, inventiveness and innovation be developed and promoted in learning and teaching? How can “creativity” be developed in all learners – both staff and students? How can we move from exclusivity to inclusivity?

These are as much ontological issues as they are epistemological – crucial matters for debate, research and educational experiment. Creativity thrives in an atmosphere that is supportive, dynamic, and receptive to fresh ideas and activities. The learning environment has to encourage a diversity of interactions between learners. Action and reflection need to be carefully counter-balanced. Open-ended periods of play and “blue-sky” thinking need to alternate with goal-orientated problem-solving. Stimulating inputs and staff interventions have to be interwoven with periods in which learners develop ideas and constructs at their own pace. Critical thinking and robust debate have to co-exist with a supportive “space” in which risk-taking, imaginative exploration and productive failure are accepted as positive processes of learning. And the development of meanings and interpretations need to be considered as inseparable from the development of material processes and production. Creativity is as much about making meaning and making meaningful as it is about innovation and inventiveness. Diversity of interpretations, actions, ideas and images are both products of creativity and a productive matrix within which more creativity can emerge.

Identity, Perception and Enlightenment
Merleau-Ponty argues that perception is itself a creative process by which we encounter, handle and make sense of the world of things and other beings. Perceiving the most insignificant object, involves a complex and creative encounter with otherness – which is perhaps why it has been described and celebrated by so many artists and poets.

Creativity also builds and affirms a sense of identity, well-being and aliveness, and is most active in conditions where personal and collective identities are sustainable and respected. Merleau-Ponty refers to this building process as “self-constitution”. We are creators of our “selves” – making who we are in each of our thoughts, actions and interactions with others and the world. Buddhist practice involves the realisation (sudden or slow) of our everchanging nature, and the process of being changed by this realisation. Recognising that we need not be defined and confined by an apparently enduring self, we can learn to let go, to change, to move from state to state, to be creative and to creatively be! By shifting our frame of reference we realise that the self is a ceaseless creative dance of neurological activity, constantly unfolding into new possibilities and potentialities. Through disciplined learning practices we can come to realise that the self is a dynamic creative process rather than a fixed entity.

These thoughts on selfhood can lead us to question the notion that we “have” ideas. What is it to have an idea? Should it be the other way around – are we “had” by ideas? Do we inhabit ideas, or are we inhabited by ideas? And who is it who “has” the idea?

An idea arises as a moment of consciousness. The more we relax our hold on the linguistic or conceptualising self the more likely it is that ideas will arise out of the flux of interactions deep in the neurological system. Being in possessive mode in relation to ideas can be counter-productive. In a sense the less we try to “have” ideas the more likely it is that they will arise. Getting our “selves” out of the picture may unlock the flow of creative neurological activity.

Experiential evidence from the sciences and the arts points to the effectiveness of “letting go”, even of “giving up”, allowing the intuitive, pre-linguistic processes to run “underground” in the mind – at the margins of consciousness rather than at the centre of attention. In these conditions ideas often emerge in “Eureka”- mode! The Taoist phrase “doing by not-doing” seems appropriate – letting things happen by themselves. It could be that ideas do not “belong” to anyone (despite notions of “intellectual copyright”!)

Creativity and the Academic Context
Just as students require a learning environment that engenders creativity, academic staff need the right conditions in which to develop creative ideas, innovative programmes of study and inventive modes and patterns of delivery. Overloaded teaching and assessment timetables, and a huge increase in administrative duties are factors that do not facilitate the development of a creative and innovative culture of learning and teaching. Creativity in nature inevitably leads to diversity and evolutionary change. In the human sphere it also engenders constant challenges to orthodoxies of any kind. The current tendency towards increasing centralisation, uniformity and conformity (standardisation, benchmarking, etc.) contradicts the supposed encouragement of creativity. At a time when educational experiments and independent thinking are struggling to survive we ought to be positively encouraging such developments as risky but necessary collective manifestations of individual creativity. To ghetto-ise creativity within safe or economically useful arenas is oppressive and counter-productive. Some radical thinking and action needs to be directed at changing this situation.

Creativity, Beliefs and Ethics
In the current climate in which creativity is the latest in a string of governmental, educational and cultural buzzwords, presented as a “good” thing (and incidentally as if it has just been discovered), it is important to maintain a critical distance and to interrogate both the concept and the reasons for its new found favour. So many groups are now claiming “creative credentials” there is a danger that the term will lose all meaning. Some colleagues in Art & Design feel somewhat sceptical of the “creativity agenda”, not because they think that creativity is confined to artists and designers, but rather that it has until recently been both synonymous with Art & Design in the minds of others and treated as marginal to mainstream educational concerns. Creativity should not be separated from the beliefs, values and purposes which support and contextualise it – it is not value-free or untainted by ideology. Creativity can be a handy disguise for greater state control of education, possibly done in the name of “releasing creativity” or “harnessing creativity” for economic ends (a dangerous notion!). Creativity can be exercised by spin doctors, coercive legislators and opponents of egalitarian or democratic power. So we need to be critically aware of the purposes and values that underpin our own creative thoughts and actions, and those of others.

Creativity and Assessment
Creativity and learning involve transformation at some level. From a slight variation in the way we use a piece of equipment to do something we hadn’t been able to do before, to Buddhist “enlightenment”, involves us in qualitative change. And creativity involves changes in thought, process, connectivity or association – externalised in surprising and unexpected ways. These changes can be seen as part of a continuum of creative actions and responses that may be difficult or impossible to compartmentalise and quantify. The resistance of these processes to measurement and quantification can lead to major problems in assessment. How do we measure and award grades or marks to a “creative” solution to a problem, or the creative use of words in an essay, or to the unexpected leap of imagination demonstrated in science or art or technology? How can we measure the degree of creativity, the amount of unexpectedness, unorthodoxy or inventiveness? Describing the qualities of a particular manifestation of creativity (in a report or feedback session) is one thing, translating this into a single fixed numerical equivalent is reductive, over-simplistic and probably indefensible.

Creativity and Indeterminacy
Creativity by definition (if we had a definition) doesn’t conform to deterministic patterns. If we think of determinism in simple terms as a belief in identifiable cause and effect – one thing leading to another in a predictable and relatively controllable way – then creativity seems to involve a break in the chain of causality, or at least an inexplicable leap from one thing to another. That is what generates surprise, enjoyment and excitement. “I hadn’t thought of that possibility”. “I didn’t make that connection”. “I’ve not seen those materials used in that way before”. These are responses to indeterminacy, rather than the accumulative satisfaction gained from deterministic processes. The pursuit and imposition of deterministic methods, practices and explanations in education is misguided and probably counter-productive in relation to developing creativity. Creativity and connectivity are more likely to arise through negotiating discontinuous, divergent and contradictory opinions and information, than through interactions with congruent and convergent material. Encountering and making sense of multiple perspectives, a plurality of views, can be crucial in developing creative thinking and a sense of meaningful identity.

Creativity requires space, time and conditions in which indeterminacy is valued and encouraged – where there is room and positive support for play, intuitive and associative thinking, tacit learning, “messy” interactions with materials (physical and “mental”), risky experiments, trial and lots of errors, and undirected “free” time for contemplation, reverie and relaxation. These conditions are increasingly squeezed out of timetables and curriculum planning – largely because they don’t seem to lead to demonstrable (and measurable) results or, in other words, because they can’t be justified in deterministic terms. A Campaign for Indeterminacy might be more necessary than a Campaign for Creativity!

Creativity in Action

John Cage
The composer, artist and thinker John Cage, recounted how when he was young he wanted to change the world. As he came to realise he wouldn’t be able to do this he became somewhat frustrated and despondent, until he realised that although he couldn’t change the world he could change the way he viewed the world – he could change himself and how he thought and acted. This insight lead first to greater harmony and a sense of well-being, and also to a life of endless creativity in which in a curious way he did “change the world” – or at least that part of the world we call music and art.

He spent his career encouraging us to open our ears to the soundworld that surrounds us all the time, and to open our minds to indeterminacy, to chance events and the endless surprising routine of everyday life – which, once we get our preconceptions and thinking habits out of the way, can be a source of endless delight and wonder. This is Cage’s view of the creative life.

Here are some fragments of his writings re-organised by me to give a flavour of his thought:

The role of the composer is other / is no longer / is being / is free / is a wild goose chase / full circle back again / to piano & dry fungi / direction (no stars) / woodpecker solos & a startled moose

Our poetry now is the realisation that we possess nothing

Out of a hat comes revelation / & a pianist / on the way, she said she would play slowly / on the way she would play slowly / she said on the way she would play / play slowly. Everything, he said, is repetition / slowly she would play / she would say playing slowly she hoped to avoid making mistakes, but there are no mistakes – only sounds, intended & unintended / a glass of brandy

I was in the woods looking for mushrooms / after an hour or so Dad said, “Well we can always go & buy some real ones” / Mother said, “I’ve never enjoyed having a good time”

There are already so many sounds to listen to. Why then do we need to make music?

We must work at looking with no judgement, nothing to say / all art has the signature of anonymity

Sounds take place in time/ dance takes place with one foot in the grave / we’ve paid our bills / [art] is a job that will keep us in a state of not knowing the answers

Bill Viola
In Tree of Life (1977) Bill Viola illuminated an oak tree with a powerful spotlight from late afternoon (when it was still light) until several hours after sunset. This simple act of drawing attention to one tree out of many, on one day out of many – using a spotlight which has no noticeable effect while the sun is out, but itself becomes a sun as it gets darker all around – is recorded in a few memorable photographs. We attend to the tree as if it’s on fire. Our peripheral awareness of the abstract generality of “trees” is briefly replaced by a single entity. And the illumination makes us aware of the tree as a field of energy and as an organic processor of light. The image of the spotlighted tree has great beauty. A creative act realising a simple idea.

Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys was one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century. Like John Cage he had a radical philosophy which he realised in a distinctive approach to creative living and artmaking.

Here are some of his own words, which give a flavour of his ideas:

My objects are to be seen as stimulants for transformation ~ they should provoke thought ~ SOCIAL SCULPTURE ~ how we mould and shape the world in which we live; sculpture as an evolutionary process; everyone an artist .

His view of the artist as healer, activist and agent of transformation was translated into his role as a teacher in which he aimed to release the creativity inherent in everyone. He argued that we are all creative beings. Our creativity can either be repressed (by ourselves for all sorts of reasons – habit, fear, ignorance, etc.), oppressed (by others – including individuals, groups, the state, commercial powers, etc. – who wish to limit or channel our creativity in ways which serve their social, cultural, political or economic interests), or realised in our actions, statements, relationships and constructions. The artist’s job was to realise the creativity in him or herself, and, just as importantly, to help others to realise the creativity within themselves.

As one of the founders of the green movement and the Free University in Germany, and as an itinerant teacher, speaker and political activist, he carried his “message” far beyond the usual confines of the artworld.

Here are a couple of short texts about Beuys:

Beuys I

In the beginning, laboratory: swans, hares, & frozen grass ~ then resurrection: a furnace of birds ~ fishhooks for lost souls, torn, already used, lost paradise, small fleeting hat, old grey felt ~ one hand continually searching

Beuys II

Towards infinity ~ incomplete & open ~ one hundred roses dragged a body, grand piano & bandaged little feet ~ wounds of wax & water come to life again ~ standing stone incomplete & open ~ thinking body every human chaos to standing stone & back to open incomplete ~ thoughts to infinity ~ piano thinking little bandaged roses come to life ~ healing water standing chaos incomplete

ee cummings
Here are two poems by e.e.cummings that demonstrate both his distinctive perspective on life and nature and his creative use of verbal materials:

when god decided to invent
everything he took one
breath bigger than a circustent
and everything began

when man determined to destroy
himself he picked the was
of shall and finding only why
smashed it into because

And another, in playful mood:

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her trouble

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

Subcomandante Marcos, the Mexican Zapatista thinker and activist, tells this story:

Once upon a time, there was a little seamstress who sewed mightily on his sewing machine.
The other machines in his neighbourhood laughed at him, and shouted:
“Fairy! Only old women are seamstresses!”
So the little seamstress sewed shut the mouths of everyone who made fun of him. That’s why, to this day, we don’t know how the story ended, because no one could tell it.

Note the creative twists & surprises even in such a short tale: the seamstress is male; machines ridicule him; he uses the skill they laugh at to silence them; and the indisputable logic of the ending.

Rachel Whiteread became famous for a project called House, made in the East End of London. At the heart of Whiteread’s work is a simple but creative inversion that has complex implications: the transformation of an ’empty’ space into a solid object. So Ghost, 1990, is a cast in plaster on a steel frame of the inside of a room with fireplace, skirting board, doors and windows. The ‘space’, air and emptiness of the room becomes a pale, opaque, solid object. Inside becomes outside. Negative becomes positive. Absence becomes presence.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
There is a tension in the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins between his conformity to the orthodoxies of his roles as academic and Jesuit priest, and his need to construct extremely unorthodox poems full of creative wordplay and musical inventiveness. His poem Pied Beauty begins with these lines:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

In his Journal entry for September 17th , 1868 he notes that he has seen: “Chestnuts as bright as coals or spots of vermilion”. 9 years later, in 1877, this passing observation is creatively intensified and transformed into the memorably odd rhythm and the surprising image of the next line: “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls;”….

To end, I’d like to put everything I’ve just said in another form:

Fresh turn again to ideas familiar strange ~ immeasurable
dance of action being chance surprise ~ one-shot rhetoric,
bulls-eye, just came to me, made a mess, tried this, tried that
~ give up, go home ~ turn again to dance with chance
~ unfolding rhetoric of surprise ~ full circle to chase wild goose
~ one thing after another after another, after crafter grafter
til sudden light


Standing thinking, every human chaos ~ sewing shut to open
smooth round stone ~ illogical leap to incomplete, as small
disturbed bird on twig in dappled mind all stippled calls to
trout that fresh-firecoal chestnut falls ~ watery sparks ~
~ everyday rainbows ~ lucid elusive river-run, unfolding
immeasurable creativity

© 2007 – John Danvers

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