Playful fancies as a stimulus to creativity

Having fun with creativity

The last but one chapter in my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity” illustrates how indulging in playful fancies can stimulate creativity. The chapter as a whole has been described by a friend as “very Postmodernist” and is by far the longest in the book. It demonstrates how even the silliest ideas can spark a ragbag of speculations and, thereby, lead along unimagined routes, to all sorts of thoughts, in all sorts of domains. In this chapter, some of the ideas turned out to be a bit frivolous, but all of them have an underpinning seriousness, and all lead on to another batch of speculations.

Right-minded or wrongheaded

The title of the chapter is “Having fun with creativity”. In it I let my hair down and enjoy playing with ideas from a wide variety of domains. Many of them have direct relevance to creativity in drawing and painting, while many others stray into a multiplicity of other disciplines, including scientific and philosophical ones. The point being made is that, whatever the long term focus of interest, it is difficult to be sure which of these could be of relevance to the current domain of interest  For example, whether right-minded or wrongheaded, or whether in the realms of science, philosophy or anecdote, a great deal of what is to be found in this chapter could turn out to have an analogous relation to the making of drawings or paintings as did:

  • The Neoplatonist ideas that were so important to Michelangelo and Paul Cézanne.
  • The Theosophical beliefs had such an influence in the work of Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky.
  • The science-based propositions that inspired Piero della Francesca and Michael Kidner.

In all cases, except perhaps that of Piero della Francesca, with his interest in the more arcane aspects of linear perspective, the origin of the ideas lay in philosophical speculation, rather than in artistic production, but how creatively they were used by the different artists and how difficult to imagine the same ideas coming out in such different works of art.

playful fancies
Michelangelo and Cezanne, both seeking to get below the ephemeral surface of appearances


playful fancies
Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, both following the ideas of Mme Blavatsky


playful fancies
Piero della Francesca and Michael Kidner both obsessed with mathematics

A not very serious suggestion

I start my chapter with a not very serious suggestion. I deliberately chose this evidently silly idea because one of the key propositions of this book is that almost any point of departure, no matter how trivial, misguided or crackbrain, has the potential to lead to significant creativity. My belief is that as long as it is followed up with serious intent, with an open mind and with a good dose of positive motivation, it can lead by one route or another, however circuitous, to interesting new ideas and creative actions. When I chose to start the chapter with a lighthearted youthful fancy that I could never have taken seriously, I had little idea where it would end up. But I decided to put my trust in it and see where it would take me. In the event, it proved to be a catalyst to all the other ideas in the remainder of the chapter, some of which I have already Posted (for example, The story of the potato” and “On being a On being a Flat-Earther”)

The silly idea

As an adolescent and young adult I spent an inordinate amount of time listening to opera records. Among them was Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg“, and I remember an idle fancy relating to this particular work that gave me a frisson of lighthearted pleasure. It was based on the kind of extremely improbable idea that can pop into my head in moments of relaxed reverie and spark playful mind games. It started with my admiration for anyone who could have the degree of self-assurance necessary for conceiving a plot which hinges on reaching a climax with a song to excel all songs with its perfection, uniting the old and the new in perfect harmony (“The Prize Song” ).

Although it must be every composer’s dream to finish with something extra special, what caught my youthful  imagination was the sheer bravado of making explicit the intention of finishing up with “perfection”, and to do so from so early on in the story. As someone with a taste for lighthearted idea-games, building on the proposition that the prize song represented the composer’s idea of the very best, I imagined Wagner determining to keep this perfection in reserve and hold his audience’s attention with over three hours of deliberately less-than-perfect music.

Giving playful credence to such not-to-be-taken-too-seriously possibilities is of the essence of the seemingly inconsequential, but very enjoyable “private pleasures” of the imagination, which seem to bubble up as part of the creative process, and which so often turn out to have the capacity to animate it in interesting directions. Lighthearted idea-games can push us into unexpected reveries and stimulating speculations.

Deliberate imperfection

Thus, the not very serious possibility that Wagner might have written second-class music on purpose can lead naturally to thoughts about definitions of “good” and “bad”, and from there, both to the medieval wood sculptors, whose work adorns so many of our cathedrals, churches and public buildings, and to the Middle Eastern carpet makers.

I realise that these two subjects might not be ones that would jump to everybody’s mind. But that is grist to the mill of the argument I have been making throughout this book, namely that it is the uniqueness of each individual’s reaction that pushes ideas in a maximum of different directions, thus increasing the possibilities for the evolution of the sum of human creative thought.

I learnt about the wood carver’s, along with my lesson about the truth, from, my medieval history tutor, Bruce McFarlane. Apparently, prospective buyers could go to a workshop and demand a first, second or third class production and these supreme professionals had neither qualms nor aesthetic problems in obliging their customers accordingly (at first, second or third class prices).

The case of the carpet makers is more generally known. Their Islamic convictions insist that they must always leave a flaw in their handiwork, so as not to compete with the perfection only attainable by the Almighty. But, hold on a moment, doesn’t the very fact of considering themselves capable of choosing imperfection imply the very knowledge of the perfection which their contrivance is intended to deny? Surely the All Knowing One would see through their ruse and condemn them for their double-bluff pride?

Nor is that the end of the matter for some theorists proclaim aesthetic virtue in imperfection. For example, it is not easy to explain why a blemish on a woman’s face should set off her beauty, but, in the past, there have been poets and the fashion houses a plenty, who have made much of the belief that it does. If they are right, where does that leave the Islamic carpet makers? Could it mean that the flawed pattern may be more beautiful than their idea of the perfect one and the flaw be the very reverse of a defect? One can only speculate as to what Allah might think of such a possibility. And, remember “Les Incohérents“, who proposed that what had hitherto been widely accepted as “bad” might actually be “good”. It would seem that the more the imagination is allowed to wander, the more confusing and, at the same time, the more intriguing the situation becomes.

More playful fancies

With these thoughts in mind, it is time to move on to insights from Antoni Tàpies, who also advocates playful fancies. But for that we shall have to wait for a later Post which starts with an extract from one of his writings.

Other Posts from “Having Fun with Creativity”, Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”

Other Posts from “Fresh Insights into Creativity”

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10 thoughts on “Playful fancies as a stimulus to creativity”

  1. Very thought-provoking, Francis! But the Prize Song in Meistersinger isn’t about perfection, so much as refining and reworking the first attempt at the song and ironing out the mistakes until it’s much better — good enough to get Walther admitted to the guild of master singers, which is his aim. The learning process, in other words. A lot like drawing.

  2. I’m not sure I understand the point of this post, but it leads me to think about what ignites ideas of creative endeavors and also the aspect of “good”, “bad”, “complete”, “unfinished”, etc., etc. Those are all subjective experiences of both the maker and the viewer/reader/listener. BUT – I do want to explore what spurs creative ideas in me. I’m in love with the Fibonacci spiral – not sure what it does to me, but it feels wonderful and I love making it. I once lived on Fern Avenue in a redwood forest carpeted in ferns with their spiraling buds – beautiful formations that opened into fans of feathery leaves.

  3. I went to bed wth thoughts of Mr. Pratt’s childhood imaginings and realized I had missed that part – or lost it when he began to compare it to actual intentional mediocrity in woodworking and carpet making. But later got that feeling of childhood reverie that I have had myself – even remembering being sick in bed and finding faces and figures in the ceiling tiles – my childhood mind was uncluttered and fresh. So playfulness and unfettered imagining may lead to creative breakthroughs, but I wonder if after a lifetime of varying limitations on our imaginations if we are capable of that kind of freedom.

  4. Interesting thoughts of creativity. I particularly enjoyed seeing images portraying very different responses to similar ideas.

  5. Thank you Francis, as stimulating as ever.
    “Playful Fancies”; I’d never have described this as you have yet if I understand you correctly, I am 100 % in agreement and regularly use the sort of devices you refer to.
    I’ve heard via Radio 4, so do a number highly creative people including musicians and authors…

  6. Thank you for this post. As I’m working with paint, brush and spatula; ‘playful fantasies’ have led me to create images and yet I find myself, on occasion, though not always confused between ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

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