The Present and The Box

Enrique Martínez Celaya, The Harvest, 2017, Oil and wax on canvas, 92 × 118 inches, Private collection, London. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Judin. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

Books and discussions about creativity and the notion of the creative class tend to encourage “thinking outside the box,” a confused metaphor for original or unconventional thinking. This confusion exemplifies a common misunderstanding about what creativity might be. The box is all there is, and those who presume to be thinking outside of it, misunderstand both the box and their own capabilities. The people who bring about changes and revolutions in science, art, technology, and ideas do it by thinking deeply about the box itself: its contours, its limits, its texture. Only then—with a fine understanding of the box and a sharp impression of things as they are—a few extraordinary thinkers, warriors, artists, and doers can imagine a different box within which to work. The history of thought doesn’t consist of swarming from one box to the other, but of opening one box to find it was nested in another, and another, and so on.

The urgent need then for the fostering of creativity is not a new model for novel thinking, new desert gatherings for entrepreneurs and artists, or a stronger dose of peyote, but that increasingly elusive condition of presentness, which allows for the possibility of understanding the box and what it contains. The capacity to be present—the quality of receiving the most accurate and complete impression of things as they are—is the foundation of creativity. The revolutionary work of art or scientific theory surges from awareness of the present, and it is in the present, and not in the future, that innovations and revolutions have their birth.

Enrique Martínez Celaya, The Invisible (or The Power of Forbearance), 2015, Bronze sculpture, mirrors, resin and bird seeds, Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Jeff McLane.

Awareness is distorted and limited by our resources and by our interests, so it is helpful if we don’t distort and limit them further with agendas or hallucinations. Our critical apparatus is always burdened by historical scaffoldings and filters that impede our capacity to see what is in front of us, and this is especially true at a moment like ours when gadgets and speed distort and strain our perception. This suggests that the goal of an art practice, a scientific endeavor, or an educational program that hopes to encourage creativity should concentrate on stripping away agendas and flourishes rather than adding new ones. In creativity, as in many other things, being present is the means as well as the end.


Enrique Martinez Celaya

ENRIQUE MARTÍNEZ CELAYA is an artist and author who during the early part of his career also worked as a scientist. His work has been exhibited and collected by major institutions around the world. He is the Provost Professor of Humanities and Arts at the University of Southern California, a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College, and a Fellow of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities.