Creativity is a Response

Postmodernism came about fifty to sixty years ago to insist that the only way that artists could be truly free to create was to tear down every obstacle, tradition, convention or interpretation. Prevailing wisdom had to go, centuries of understanding about art, founded by brilliant men like da Vinci or Rembrandt, was junked because there was no way those guys could have had anything relevant to say to people as advanced as ourselves. The artist was finally free to create whatever they wanted. The direct result is that modern art is terrible.

What happened?

Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic: The Gathering, the world’s most popular card game, has a little saying he frequently shares with the people who ask him for advice. That saying goes, “Restrictions breed creativity.”

This saying suggests that having limits placed on what you can do leads to more creativity, not less, and if it’s true then the very notion that someone seeking to be creative must have no limits is not only wrong – it’s counter productive. And if all that’s true then the postmodern conception of art and creativity is directly responsible for the decline of the quality in creative endeavors postmodernists undertake.

All this is not to say it’s bad to toss all restrictions to the side and think about ideas in the abstract. It’s part of how we drive human thought forward. But art is meant to be shared with other people, that’s why there are museums, galleries and showings, to say nothing of the lessons, classes and even schools dedicated to the arts. There are a lot of very good, useful human processes that aren’t meant to be shared with others and personal naval gazing is one of them. The personal background that underpins such introspection makes it difficult to relate to in any format short of a dissertation when it is entirely based on personal epiphanies, which seems to be all that postmodernism leaves the artist to work with.

In short, it may not be a coincidence that postmodern art has such a bizarre fascination with human excrement. One of the boundaries it’s lost seems to be what should be public and what should be private.

Moving on.

Let’s talk about how restrictions help us be creative. Human beings are fundamentally lazy creatures, if we can make a straight line from Point A to Point B we will. But put a wall in the way and all of the sudden what a person does to get from Point A to Point B can be any number of things. Go around the wall, climb over it, cut through it or dig under it. This creativity is engendered by the limitation put in their way. It’s not even possible to climb or cut without a wall in place to act on. Yes, a person could still wander around or dig without a wall, but they’re not likely to go to all the work if they don’t have to.

And as I said before, having restrictions placed on you can give you new ways to look at the problem. Instead of going about things the way you always have, restrictions can force you to look at an issue in a new way and create whole new ways to problem solve – or to express yourself.

And a person could say to themselves, “Well, I’ll get where I want to go without using any straight lines.” But guess what? As soon as they’ve done that they’ve set a rule they have to follow in order to help them be creative. The restriction breeds creativity.

You see, rules don’t have to be limitations set on us by society, or physics, or human nature. They can just be guidelines we create for ourselves. When confronted with the seemingly limitless possibilities of a blank piece of paper it helps to have guidelines to help determine where you’re going to go with it. Are you writing a story? A poem? Painting a landscape? Or drawing a cartoon? All of those things are limits on what you are creating. Without them the possibilities would be paralyzing.

Beyond that, many rules exist to tell us what has been tried and found wanting. Yes, we could try and reinvent the wheel. But doing so is neither groundbreaking nor helpful. To go back to the original analogy, by throwing out all the rules in art postmodernists not only threw out years of conventions, that admittedly may have hindered artistic expression to an extent, they threw out all the rules built on an understanding of what makes a thing beautiful to see and easy to understand. While the occasional modern artist will stumble across something that makes their ideas accessible to others they won’t bother to share it for fear of limiting their peers. And so they keep badly reinventing the wheel when artists like Michelangelo were the artistic equivalent of interstellar flight centuries ago. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Too often people who want to be creative look at a restriction on what can be done as a block to creativity. But the truth is, creativity expresses itself however it can, overcoming obstacles and reveling in the things that should undo it. It responds to the idea that a thing should be difficult by showing how it’s a delight. Without structures, creativity is dead.

Christmas is coming up, and this is my last post for the year. So I’d like to leave you with a little gift. Here is a list of ten creative endeavors, complete with things restrictions, that you can try out. Hopefully they’ll give you a new appreciation for how your creativity comes out in response to them.

  1. Write a haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry with three lines where the first and last lines have five syllables and the middle line has seven.
  2. Write a short story in one hundred words or less.
  3. Write a review of the last movie you saw without adjectives or adverbs.
  4. Build a LEGO house using no pieces smaller than 2 x 8.
  5. Describe your day without using colors or numbers.
  6. Prepare a hot meal without using a knife.
  7. Draw a self portrait without using a pen, pencil, brush or crayons.
  8. Write your next five Facebook posts or texts without using the letter ‘u’.
  9. Film and edit a music video using nothing but your phone.
  10. Draw a portrait of a friend but lay out every line using a ruler.

Hope you’ll chose to share a few of your endeavors with me. See you next year!

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The Reading List, Act Four

See previous reading lists here, there and everywhere!

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Doomed by Cartoon by John Adler

Genres: Nonfiction, Political History

The election was tense. A controversial candidate was running for office, backed by the corrupt New York political machine and partisan journalists, only to find the way blocked by a ragtag conglomeration of other partisan writers. The final thorn in the side was a constant barrage of stinging pictures aimed to highlight the ridiculous, corrupt nature of the Democratic party. In the end, they were swept from power.

It was 1871 and Thomas Nast, father of the American Cartoon, had won his greatest victory.

After three years of campaigning “Boss” William Tweed and the Tammany Hall political machine that had bilked New York for millions of dollars was driven from public office. Doomed by Cartoon is a history of how it happened and includes every cartoon Nast drew against Tweed and his conspirators. As much a record of the formation of modern political cartooning – Nast is credited with inventing or popularizing both the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey – this book analyzes each of Nast’s cartoons, their themes and what context led him to draw them. It’s a fascinating look at an era of politics that, lets face it, we still live in.

It’s also a study in ironies both delicious and tragic. A must for anyone who loves politics.

Irredeemable by Mark Waid

Genres: Comic Book, Superheroes

Volumes: Ten in total

Comic writing legend Mark Waid wrote this tour de force to explore the question of what happens when the man the whole world counts on goes bad. This series isn’t tied to either DC or Marvel’s comic universes, although it takes strong cues from the lore of DC. It focuses entirely on the central conceit and never shies away from the idea that sometimes people who have legitimately earned our love and respect can be come reprehensible villains. The question we must answer is, are they irredeemable?

Not to spoil anything – it’s never a plot point in much debate – but the Plutonian, who was the Superman of his world in both power and moral character, doesn’t go bad because of mind control or coercion. He just makes a choice to stop being a protector and start being a destroyer. Worse, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy with why he did it.

But the Plutonian’s swath of destruction takes a horrific toll and the people who used to support him are faced with hard questions. How far do you go in fighting a friend? When is he no longer the person you knew? Is there a point where mercy for a criminal is the greatest crime? And how do you take the measure of a man who is both the world’s greatest hero and it most despicable villain?

Incorruptible by Mark Waid

Genres: Comic Book, Superheroes

Volumes: Seven in total

The companion to Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, Incorruptible gives us Max Damage, perpetual anarchist. Few people on earth hated the Plutonian as much as Max. To Max, he was the symbol of everything keeping the little guy down – morality, social acclaim and order. Unfortunately for Max, he was there the day the Plutonian went mad.

If the Plutonian was the world’s greatest pillar of order his fall from grace was the world’s greatest moment of chaos. Max saw that and it doesn’t look like he enjoyed it as much as an apparent hardcore anarchist should. After a month off the scene Max comes back, burns all his illegally obtained cash, turns his gang in to the police and sets himself up as the new protector of his home city of Coalville.

People are naturally skeptical. For a long time he was a vicious and self serving man. Worse, Max’s superpower makes him stronger and tougher in proportion to how long he’s been awake. While the nature of his unique metabolism spares him the physical fatigue of staying awake his mind still goes loopy – and who wants a superhero suffering chronic sleep deprivation?

Still, Max is sure he can handle it. He was one of the world’s supreme supervillains for years. All it takes to be a hero is to do all the villainous things in reverse.

…right?

Pegasus Bridge by Stephen E. Ambrose

Genres: Nonfiction, Military History

Bridges are probably the most important structure in warfare. Without them it is difficult, if not impossible, to get all the things an army needs where they need to go. In medieval times a bridge could be held for hours or even days by a handful of people with the right armor, enough supplies and strong nerves. In modern war they can be taken by the same. Only a few people have done both in the same day. If you’ve ever read about Operation Market/Garden (a recommend book on the subject is A Bridge Too Far, mentioned in one of my other reading list posts) you know how badly it can go when an airborne division paradrops into enemy territory to do just that.

But you probably haven’t heard the story that proved that, as badly as Market/Garden went, what they were trying to do was more than plausible. It happened successfully just months before.

Operation Overlord was the turning point of the battle for Fortress Europe, the beginning of the fall of the Nazi war machine. The first stage of the journey was called Operation Deadstick, a simple operation by the British 6th Parachute Division. All they had to do was precision land their gliders full of gear near a river, rush across a bridge rigged to explode before anyone blew it up, kick the Nazis off and not let them drive their tanks up and get the bridge back.

And the Sixth did just that.

Pegasus Bridge is the story of how they did it and how the people in England and Normandy helped. It’s the story of courage under fire. And it’s an explanation of why a bridge came to be named for a flying horse – the same flying horse the soldiers who took the bridge wore.

Angelmass by Timothy Zahn

Genres: Science Fiction

Sequels: It stands alone

Premise: A handful of worlds in the galaxy lie clustered around a microscopic black hole from which emanate unique particles called angels. These worlds work together to harvest these particles and distribute them to as many people as they can, particularly leaders in politics, military and law. Why? Because angels make people nearby good.

Nothing sinister to see there.

Okay, there’s probably something sinister there. To the point that the government outside has sent in a military ship to seize the black hole, known as Angelmass, and deal with the local government. Meanwhile, a physicist has gone in to study the angels and try and figure out how they work and a down on her luck drifter takes a job with an angel harvesting crew in the hopes she can pick up an angel and make a quick buck. By the time the dust settles, nothing that people thought they knew will hold true.

Angelmass is a fun, fast tale about free will, morality and the ways people get in touch with their better angels. While hardly a home to Zahn’s most inventive ideas or his twistiest plots, it is a great introduction to the work of one of SciFi’s most prolific and zany authors.

Frequency – A Show Don’t Tell Masterclass

Make no mistake – Frequency is not a perfect show. It’s not the best show airing right now. But it might be the best new show of the season. The actors are not going to win awards, although they’re solid enough, and for the most part I think the writers take the show more seriously than anyone else ever will.

But it does one thing right, and that’s – you guessed it – show don’t tell.

The basic premise of Frequency is that detective Julie Sullivan, a modern day NYPD detective, lost her father Frank Sullivan, also an NYPD detective, at an early age. Then an old HAM radio is struck by lightning, allowing it to communicate with itself 20 years in the past. More to the point, allowing Julie to speak with her father shortly before he dies. The two quickly set out to use cross-time communication to save Frank’s life and fight for justice!

The wonkiness of the plot was enough to intrigue me into watching the pilot. The ability of the pilot to pack information into a single episode convinced me to stay, at least for this season. Frequency manages incredible information density through show don’t tell in three specific areas. First, in establishing the show’s split time periods. Second, in establishing that the linked timeframes are synchronous (and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second). Third, in showing causality and chaos there. And it does all of this without an exposition dump or unwieldy “sciency” character. Not that such characters are always bad, but putting one in this story probably wouldn’t have served the plot very well.

Let’s start with the way the show frames itself. The story has two timeframes, 2016 and 1996, both of which are established before they cross paths. The modern era is established by just showing us things that we take for granted – modern cars, smartphones and current music. The past is a little trickier, but still pretty easy to do. We see Frank watching the 1996 World Series as he’s first introduced and, a little while later, we see former President Clinton on TV at some kind of official function where the announcer introduces him as the leader of the free world – implying that he is, in fact, the president at the time. Add in little things like CRT TVs and out of date cars and it’s pretty easy to make a rough estimate of the time period. Of course, there’s also Julie herself, who we see as a young girl in this era, and who’s birthdays – eighth and twenty-eighth – are mentioned as touchstones to hammer down the exact timing shortly before the first father and daughter cross-time talk.

The second thing established is how events in 1996 and 2016 are synchronous, and until Frank does something new in his era Julie won’t see the results of it in hers. We see this in two separate incidents. The first is probably the most ingenious. When Julie and Frank first speak Frank is so weirded out he sets his cigar down and misses the ashtray. It burns a hole through the wooden top of the HAM radio – a hole Julie sees appearing in her time in real time. The hole has not always been there, as it would be in some time travel stories, it appears before Julie’s eyes as she’s watching and she asks about it, prompting Frank to pick the cigar up and put it back in the ashtray then brush the coals off the top of the radio. The hole stops growing in Julie’s time period. In much the same way, Julie labors under the impression her father is dead until the moment that history changes and her father’s life is saved.

Finally, the show demonstrates causality and the “butterfly effect” not by having someone explain it to Julie but by having her live it. After saving her father’s life she hurries to keep a date with her fiance and his parents only to find that he doesn’t have any idea who she is. Then she discovers that her mother is dead – the result of her going to the hospital to visit Frank there after he survives the shooting that should have killed him. In the process she becomes the target of a serial killer rather than the victim he had originally selected. Again, this is a sequence we see happen and it drives home that this is the consequence of what Julie and Frank did far more than just hearing about it.

With all this basic, world building exposition happening along side of the character building dialog the first episode of Frequency does an amazing job of establishing the world, it’s rules and the people who we’re going to watch play by them in the confines of the forty three minutes most network TV shows have to work with. It’s worth watching for the pure craftsmanship even if you don’t like time travel or police procedurals. What’s more, most of what the show does would only work on the screen, meaning the writers were giving careful consideration to how best they could use their medium, which many writers neglect. All together this makes the pilot alone worth watching, even if you choose to pass on the rest of the series. Don’t deprive yourself.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Saitama doesn’t enjoy life.

He used to. Three years ago he set out to become a part time hero, saving people to get an adrenaline rush that would let him shake off boring everyday life and really live, if you know what I mean. Problem is, after three years Saitama has become so good at fighting evil he always defeats it in a single punch. It just isn’t satisfying anymore.

Then he bumps into the cyborg Genos while swatting a mosquito (long story) and suddenly finds himself with an aspiring apprentice. Like most people suddenly faced with unexpected responsibilities, he tries to walk away. The problem with people (or cyborgs) is that they can follow along with you.

One Punch Man is the story of Saitama’s search for fulfillment. After three years of winning difficult fights against every stripe of evil you’d think he’d have made some progress on that front, but nope. He’s still living in a small, rundown apartment by himself in a mostly abandoned part of town. He joins a hero team and chases fame but satisfaction eludes him. The fights still aren’t challenging and most of the other heroes are jerks. Saitama gets that being a hero means fighting to protect people but he doesn’t seem to grasp why that’s important, just that it is.

The heart of the story, the moment when Saitama starts to see a glimpse of what’s wrong, comes with the appearance of the Sea King. It’s a neat bit of symmetry, we first got a full understanding of why Saitama was so frustrated in his brief  encounter with the Earth King, now the Sea King offers us the solution to the problem, but I digress. The Sea King could serve as a master class in how to build up a villain, as most of his story arc is dedicated to his ascendancy, but the part that’s important to us comes at the very end of his story.

The Sea King has defeated heroes of every type and level of power and is about to wipe out a shelter full of bystanders when he’s brought up short by Mumen Rider. Basically an over glorified bike cop, Mumen Rider is technically Saitama’s superior, although the only category Mumen might outclass him in is book smarts. The chances that he could defeat the Sea King are nonexistent. Mumen fights anyways, throwing everything he’s got at the Sea King. In turn, the Sea King brushes him off like a gnat.

As Mumen falls to the ground Saitama catches him and lays him out gently.

Of course, with Saitama on the scene the fight is essentially over. The Sea King is defeated between animation frames with a punch so hard that it blows rain clouds away and the day is saved. The twist comes after the villain is dead.

Remember that Mumen Rider is considered to be a better hero than Saitama, although the only aspect Mumen is ahead of Saitama in is book smarts. In all other categories Saitama is, by the rules of the story, the most powerful being in existence by a wide margin. As a result, Saitama’s easily defeating the Sea King makes Mumen Rider – and all the other, much more powerful heroes who confronted the Sea King – look pathetic. So Saitama throws himself under the bus, saying that the Sea King seemed incredibly weak after fighting all the other heroes in rapid succession in order to salvage the reputation of his fellow heroes.

Later, Saitama gets his first piece of fan mail, thanking him for saving the anonymous sender’s life. With it comes a couple of other letters, calling him a fraud for stealing glory from other heroes who did all the work for him. Later, Saitama stumbles across Mumen at a food stall and we learn that Mumen Rider was the source of Saitama’s one piece of positive mail. The two heroes, one the best of the weakest the other the best in the world, pause to share a moment of camaraderie and for the first time in a while Saitama finds something he’s been missing – a sense of satisfaction.

Many young people set out to do something for their own satisfaction but the fact is, most humans find satisfaction not when they’re focused on themselves but when they’re focused on others. Fiction rarely tackles the challenge of showing how that particular aspect of a coming of age comes about. But under the over-the-top action, slapstick humor and biting satire One Punch Man tackles that question with surprising gusto. While the evolution is by no means complete it is an interesting story to watch.