3 Theories of Creativity

“Bleeding Heart Forest” (2019) by Ira Gardner
Platinum-Palladium print

Recently I was attending a workshop where a global data engineer listed creativity as the top job skill needed for success in the current economy. As a photography and digital media production professor I have often been asked “Can creativity be learned?”

If creativity is a job skill then we need to examine whether or not it can be taught or whether or not it is a gift reserved for the true artists in the world. In this essay I would like to present my argument for why I believe creativity is something that can be taught to anyone and that people with natural creative talent may need to be educated about creativity the most in order to improve their productivity and overall happiness in life.

There are many theories of creativity. Most involve an examination of mental illness while still others look at self actualization and personal agency. Out of all the theories of creativity I have found three that are the most important for us to consider. These are:

  1. Psychoanalytical Theory
  2. Humanist Theory
  3. Flow Theory.

I believe these three models are useful for developing a successful creative practice because these three link the origins of our creativity with the choices necessary to develop a career as an artist and the levels of productivity necessary for sustaining a successful career.

The subconscious origins of our creativity (Psychoanalytic Theory of Creativity) are something that we can return to over and over to mine for new ideas. The Humanist theory of creativity allows us to look at the external factors that impact our ability to be both creative and productive and help us see the need for making life choices that are in alignment with our creative goals. Finally, we can achieve peak productivity that is necessary for career success by attaining a level of engagement described in the Flow Theory of Creativity.

“Reaching Beyond” (2019) by Ira Gardner
Platinum-Palladium Print

Psychoanalytical Theory of Creativity

Developed from the works of psychologists Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Ernst Kris, Otto Rank, and Alfred Adler, the psychoanalytic theory of creativity proposes that creativity comes from our subconscious motivations that are primarily derived from traumatic life events.

Behaviorist Psychologists like B.F. Skinner deviates from this theory slightly in thinking that creativity is born from an innate instinct to procreate and that artistic expression is a release of sexual tension.

Freud and Jung would agree that sexual drive plays a part in the desire to be creative but would place more emphasis on the emotional identity and personality of the individual as opposed to environmental and biological influences.

From the psychoanalytical model of creativity we can see that most creativity in a person’s life stems from a need for sense making of the emotional world and finding a way to express repressed emotions.

Freud suggests that repressed emotions are the driving force for creating fantasies and he defines creativity as being the means of giving tangible shape or form to those fantasies.

The artist, having experienced something profound retreats from the social environment and finds a creative means of expressing their repressed emotions in a harmonious way which re-establishes a sense of equilibrium in their emotional life AND enables them to reconnect with the social world.
Therefore the audience plays a central role in the creative process and is necessary for its completion.

Psychoanalytical Theory: Levels of Consciousness

The other major facet of the psychoanalytic theory of creativity is that it recognizes that up to 90% of our responses to the world occur in our subconscious and that the process of art making is a healthy one that allows an individual to gain personal agency.

The psychoanalytical theory addresses the different levels of consciousness and proposes that the subconscious and unconscious levels are where creative ideas come from.

With this theory we can recognize our ability to tap our innate creativity by raising our awareness of the subconscious by entering into what is known as a hypnagogic state which allows you to see all of the potential creative solutions to a problem.

Entering into a hypnogogic state to tap your creativity

The hypnogogic state is like that moment you wake up from a dream and are able to still remember it. It is also like being in a daydream or in a “Zone” where you are empowered to imagine great things and see potential in everything.

The psychoanalytical theory of creativity also acknowledges the importance of your life experiences and your individuality which is critical for producing original works of art. You can use your understanding of this theory as a continuous resource for new ideas by learning to enter into a hypnagogic state.

It also recognizes that creativity is an important life skill that is a vital in order to avoid developing a neurosis or mental disorder. From this perspective we can see why it is so important to encourage children to express themselves in the arts and why it is also important that we continue to do so in adulthood.

Levels of Consciousness

With the psychoanalytic model there are essentially five levels of consciousness in the human psyche that all work together. In descending order they are:

  1. Conscious – The rational mind that is aware of thoughts and perceptions
  2. Hypnagogic – The lucid dreaming that draws out the imagination or Mushin “no mindedness” that is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego
  3. Preconscious – The top of mind memories, stored knowledge from the past as well as social knowledge about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors (experience), and unrepressed emotions
  4. Subconscious – Fears and emotions related to childhood and a sense of belonging.
  5. Unconscious – Repressed emotions and fantasies, archetypes, as well as primitive emotions and sexual drives

Techniques for accessing a hypnagogic state

Over the years I have found several consistent techniques for accessing the creative wellspring of the
subconscious. Here is my go to list of activities that encourage access to the creative subconscious:

Sacred music – Listening to spiritually awakened music of all genres can allow me to gain access to my imagination. Sound waves penetrate the body in ways that light waves do not. Putting headphones on and listening to Gregorian chant, rock opera, or new age music really
helps put me in the right frame of mind to be creative.

Walking Alone – Thoreau, Nietzche, and Kant all maintained a practice of taking long walks alone. Much of my own creativity has come from taking long walks in nature or in urban environments. For me the trick is to take a small notepad with me to jot down ideas as I walk. I also use my cell phone camera as a visual sketchbook.

Travel – Getting away from your ordinary life can help access your creative self. When I ran my full time photography studio I found that I experienced greater success creatively and financially when I could get out of town every 4-6 weeks. Travel gives you that 40,000 foot view of life that allows you to reimagine your next steps towards success. It also has the added benefit of allowing you to see your studio and your work with new eyes upon your return.

Meditation – A variation from a walking meditation practice is to sit still and be fully present in the moment. Meditation allows you to access Mushin in Japanese and Wuxin in Chinese (無心 “no mind”) which is a state of being without anger, fear, or ego which is extremely important to
creating expressive artwork. Daydreams might seep into your meditation but it will be productive dreaming that helps you pre-visualize your next steps. Meditation also involves adopting a “beginner mind” approach to your art.

Journaling – Getting in touch with your subconscious through dream journaling and reflective journaling allows you to become aware of patterns in your thinking and recognize the problems you are trying to solve artistically.

Community of Practice – We need people to bounce ideas off of and to inspire us to produce creative works. My own creativity has skyrocketed during the past three years since I joined an artist collective and moved my studio there. It has also been nourished for years by teaching
and working with amazing students like you! The more positive like minded people I come into contact with the more creative ideas I generate!

How to benefit from understanding the psychoanalytic theory of creativity

The purpose for us looking at the psychoanalytic model for creativity is to see that our creativity originates from our own individual emotions formed from life experiences. In order to imbue photography with creativity we have to first recognize that each image is a translation of our emotions.

Connecting with our subconscious emotional selves allows us to access an unlimited source for creative ideas AND allows us to define the problem of translation in order to choose the best technical path forward in the making of new works.

I share this with you as an important concept because early on in my career I made what could only be described as my first masterpiece and it paralyzed me. Prior to gaining this understanding of creativity I felt that a great work of art was a matter of luck and that if I ended my career with 10 great works of art I would have had a successful career. During this time I also felt that creativity was not a skill that could be learned but was rather a divine gift that others seemed to have all the time while I only seemed to have it once in awhile.

After making that first great image all others afterwards were painful
disappointments and I begin to photograph less and less. I put that image in my portfolio and continued to show it for years. Finally one day I watched an interview of Dorthea Lange where she responded to the question about what her best image was by saying, “the next one!” and I realized that I needed to
let go of that image and discover my own creativity.

The psychoanalytic theory of creativity allowed me to tap into my own creativity and now my only concern is about having enough time to manage all of the images!

Understanding this model however did not immediately result in me producing a lot of great work. I still would find large gaps of inactivity in my work. I was always too stressed to pick up the camera and create something. In a nutshell “life happened!”

As I further expanded my research into creativity I realized that the Humanist Theory of Creativity had an important role to play in my career.

“Each individual’s philosophy of life is his own creative achievement, for which in his self-esteem he finds either his reward or punishment.”

“Every style of life that we encounter is a unique artistic achievement that carries its own individual stamp.”

“As to the influence of the environment, who can say that the same environmental influences are apprehended, worked over, digested, and responded to by any two individuals in the same way? To understand this fact we must assume the existence of still another force: the creative power of the individual.

We have been impelled to attribute to a child creative power, which translates all the influences on him and all his capacities into movement toward overcoming an obstacle. The child feels this power as an impulse that gives his striving a certain

Alfred Adler
Founder of Individual Psychology

Humanist Theory of Creativity

Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs


In order to make a career as a creative artist you will need to produce great work on an ongoing basis at a consistent interval. When I was starting out as a professional photographer the challenge was that I started to work for myself as a photographer too soon without understanding all the variables that needed to be in place in order for me to achieve my full potential as a business owner and as an artistic human being.

Looking back I can see that I was not producing very creative work because I was under tremendous stress to pay bills and meet my basic needs. As the technology of photography became more affordable and accessible for the general public I could no longer hide behind technical skill. I had to generate innovative and creative work.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a survival job or a safety net. I was self employed and had the pressure of trying to support myself and later a family which led me to dry up creatively and prevented me from achieving the level of personal or financial satisfaction I had hoped for. Simply put, if you don’t like what you are doing you won’t do well at it and eventually you won’t do it at all!

It was only after an extended period of soul searching and understanding how my subconscious emotions affected my actions more than rational mind and my and studying creativity that I was able to fully access all of my creative talents and achieve my full potential. This is what Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs is about!

In Maslow’s humanistic theory of creativity we see how individuals need to have all of their basic needs met and become a fully self actualized person in order to be able to express ourselves creatively.

Another way of thinking about this is that we can’t be free to create unless we have our basic biological, safety and community needs met, and have enough self esteem to not be worried about what other people think of our work!

Understanding this theory can help you see how all the parts of your life are interconnected and affect your creativity. It will also help you make better life choices that will cultivate a sustainable creative practice rather than having long periods of inactivity.

I am convinced that the “starving artist with artistic angst” stereotype is directly related to a failure to understand this model of creativity.

Without this knowledge we are left to only being creative when there is enough pain in our life to compel actions. In fact most choices are made based upon a two choice dilemma that is solved by choosing the path of least resistance or pain.

3 Creative Skills for Meaningful Work

There are three creative skills that must be balanced in order to create meaningful work.

They are:
Synthetic ability: The ability to generate novel and interesting ideas by making connections between diverse subjects and materials.
Analytic ability: The ability to apply critical thinking to evaluate ideas and discern what is better or worse.
Practical ability: The ability to translate ideas into tangible expressions. The ability to develop workflows that achieve results.

Creative Happiness and Your Life’s Calling

The humanist theory of creativity also goes beyond trauma into the realm of happiness and productivity.

It helps you to see who you really are at the core level which enhances your ability to be creative in an authentic manner by making all of your choices and actions in alignment with your individual personality and abilities.

Whereas the psychoanalytical model says that “content people don’t create”, the humanist model illustrates that “creative people can become content” and thrive as happy individuals and happy communities.

Another way of thinking about this is that if you are not working in accordance with your core being you will self sabotage the work and continue to fail until you align your work with who you really are.

Lynn Taylor has made it his life’s work to research Maslow’s top pyramid of self actualization and has developed the Core Value Index as a tool to help people reach the pinnacle of success.

Lynn Taylor developed the CORE VALUE INDEX to help people grow in their self actualization.

I feel this is an important part of your education because so often artistic education is strictly focused on techniques and art history that explores other people’s ideas and successes while leaving a wide chasm that can never be crossed by the student who is left frustrated and not understanding why they can’t be as successful.

A major component of this theory of creativity is the discovery of your life’s calling. By finding out your life’s calling you are able to map out a path for your creativity and add value to your work.

The importance of finding your life’s calling has become an important part of business education for anyone getting ready to launch a company. By understanding this model you can recognize when you are working against your best interests and gain insight as to the best path forward in your work.

Creativity is now recognized as the number one skill needed for any entrepreneur looking to run a successful business.

The humanist theory of creativity allows you to gain insight into how to work in alignment with your intellect and talents and to express yourself in a truly spontaneous and authentic way.

It is an important precursor to the third and final model of creativity that we looked at this past week which is the FLOW theory of creativity.

Flow Theory of Creativity

Having recognizes the origins of our creativity in the subconscious (psychoanalytic theory) and recognized the need to integrate all aspects of our life into a self actualized and thriving creative life (humanist theory) we now reach the point where we have to maximize creative production. For this we need to build a creative practice that is sustainable at a peak level of productivity.

Here is a list of emotions that illustrate the level of engagement that occurs based upon the factors of challenge and skill.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed a theory of creativity that does just that. He defines a five step creative process that includes:

  1. Preparation: Engaging in conscious thought about problems that are interesting and arouse curiosity
  2. Incubation: Letting ideas churn about in the subconscious
  3. Insight: The “aha!” moment of epiphany
  4. Evaluation: Determining whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing
  5. Elaboration: Translating the insight into the final work

What is most interesting about the Flow Theory of Creativity is that it focuses on the criteria necessary for peak engagement by looking at the relationship between skill and challenge. According to Csikszentmihalyi there are 8 factors that accompany the experience of flow.

  1. Complete concentration on the task;
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
  5. Effortlessness and ease;
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills;
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.

Building a sustainable creative practice

To summarize the value of the FLOW theory of creativity I would suggest that we use this knowledge to develop our individual creative practice that is based on these key processes:

  1. Pre-production – research that is driven by living an interesting life that is immersed in creative ideas and explorations of our world. Pre-production involves acquiring new skills, journaling, research into art history and social issues, and having meaningful social engagements and life
    experiences.
  2. Production – This is the daily practice of doing photography and developing workflows that remove the doubt and uncertainty that is associated with the creation of anxiety and the loss of FLOW engagement.
  3. Post Production – This is the stage where you evaluate your work and develop insights on how best to finalize the work.
  4. Publication – The creative process doesn’t end until we share our work publicly and gain feedback on it which in turn provides the brainstorming step for future creative works.

Flow is about recognizing that the confused mind always says “no!” and shuts down.

In order to stoke the fires of creativity we have to first define the scope of the creative problem that is in alignment with our current skill level and only slightly beyond in order to keep us fully engaged.

From this perspective we can see the need for setting reasonable goals and developing a plan of action that removes the doubt and uncertainty from the equation.

Effective planning includes listing out the new skills necessary and the sources of information available for acquiring those skills as well as defining a workflow that empowers you to work consistently without having to extend too much mental bandwidth on worrying about how you are going to do something.

Flow also addresses the need for repetition in order to gain deeper insights. Photographic Artist Del Lusk once spent two years photographing department store mannequins for a project. When asked why it took so long he responded, “I had to work through all of the cliches in order to get to something new and creative.”

Creativity deepens with repetition. This is why it is important to find your calling and to define your creative question so you can immerse yourself in producing work over an extended period of time that is long enough for you to expand that domain of knowledge through your artistic scholarship.

The Artist Entrepreneur

In addition to this Csikszentmihalyi describes the relationship between the individual creative and the domain they work in. He developed a creative practice theory that recognizes that there are social, cultural, and economic factors that affect the creative practice of the individual.

In this model we see that the creative individual is affected by their position within a larger structural system.

From a practical perspective this model highlights the limitations of the individual artist and the need for developing a collaborative and entrepreneurial approach to your creativity.

The productive artist has to be the CEO of their life and form a creative team that supports their art practice. The forces of economic, social, and cultural capital will shape the individual and their are gatekeepers that need to be brought into the idea in a supportive way starting with your friends and
family.

In Conclusion:

Theories of Creativity help us gain personal agency through empowerment that comes from knowing ourselves at a deep level and learning to organize our life around our creative pursuits.

Learning to access the levels of consciousness below the conscious mind allows us to tap into our imagination as well as generate original content that is based upon the intensity and frequency of our life experiences.

Recognizing that our biological needs as well as our safety and social needs must be met in order for us to thrive and become self actualized is important to building momentum towards a sustainable creative practice that goes beyond the realm of emotional trauma.

Finding our calling and becoming self actualized helps us lock in our goals and creates a guiding compass for the choices we make, and finally we have looked at the ways in which we can set up our creative processes to allow us enter into a peak state of flow which will yield the kind of creative productivity necessary to sustain our career as
a visual artist.

Ira Gardner has been a professional photographer for over 30 years and teaches photography, multimedia, and documentary video production at Spokane Falls Community College.

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