It's a Great Day When One and One Don't Add Up To Two

Portrait of Jonathan Fineberg, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Creativity is an elaborate game of connect the dots where you can’t actually see the dots, you have to infer them. Moreover, these dots are charged with emotional and autobiographical significance. From a psychoanalytic perspective we might say that you keep yourself from seeing them. I asked ten remarkably creative and accomplished people in a wide range of professional practices to write down a few thoughts about creativity. Where does it come from? Does it apply to any realm of endeavor? Can we teach it? Are our institutions nurturing it?

Cynthia Oliver, a choreographer and dancer, describes in one of the following essays how it feels for her to find creative inspiration. The installation artist Christo talked to me about “the journey” that has attracted him and his life-long collaborator Jeanne-Claude to realize their unprecedented art projects: “I need them, almost like a crazy person. I need them to happen.” Josef Helfenstein, a scholar and curator, talks about how a drawing by the artist Louise Bourgeois reveals the obsession behind her inspiration.

The unpredictable free radical of a creative thought is an open molecule promiscuously seeking to bond with anything and everything. It combines into an unexpected other, motivated by the promise of a polymorphic sensuality in each new configuration despite the discomfort and effort of the process of getting there. “I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all,” E.B. White remarked.1 A creative idea is unstable, it’s mysterious, and even when you connect the dots the outline is still likely to be rationally unrecognizable.

Zhang Xiaogang, The Stage, 2017. Oil on canvas, 280 × 940 cm, © Zhang Xiaogang.

I spoke recently with the painter Zhang Xiaogang about the figures and objects in a magnificent new painting in his studio called The Stage. The figure in the mirror is himself. The beds were inspired by displays in a provincial museum showing the decadence of capitalism; the common person’s bed, the opulent bed of the landlord (the museum’s villain), and Chairman Mao’s bed, stacked with books. The exposed electric wires connecting the television submerged in a bathtub to the mosquito repellent on the floor in front of Mao’s bed in the adjacent panel, then to the worker’s simple bed and the plaster statue of the child, recoiling from the landlord’s lash (a reference to the famous Chinese tableaux of The Rent Collection Courtyard). The wires—resembling the bloodlines in Zhang’s famous paintings of The Big Family from the 1990s—the chair and a dangling light bulb connect inextricably to memories of Zhang’s austere military father. The elaboration of each element is so specific and so redolent with meaning in the artist’s previous work and biography. Yet when I asked why a particular image was there the artist said quite honestly that he didn’t know; the painting is a profoundly moving evocation of something ineffable.

In my book Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain (2015) I made the argument that works of art develop our ability to creatively formulate and adapt concepts quickly and that it’s a survival trait. The neuroscientist Semir Zeki writes, in the essay that follows here, about finding the nuanced data for his research on the brain in art and literature. Indeed it was reading Zeki that inspired me to put the late work of Dubuffet together with Dubuffet’s own description of his thoughts while working as a way to understand creative thought. In the collection of essays titled Asphyxiating Culture (1988), Jean Dubuffet seeks a method for the “Demagnetization of Brains,” by which he means freeing the mind of preconceptions.2 Enrique Martinez Celaya, a painter who began his career in quantum physics, underscores the centrality of clearing away preconceptions and training in order to make oneself alert to how things really are.

Creativity is often collaborative, and the movie director Rob Cohen has laid out a glimpse of the complexity of collaborative work in making a feature film. I asked the entomologist, May Berenbaum, to write about creativity in the practice of science; David Yager, an artist and arts administrator, demonstrates the pervasive reach of creative thinking in his essay, explaining how he used art and design to innovate hospital practices in the children’s unit of the Johns Hopkins hospital. The essay by J. B. Milliken directs us to the institutional infrastructure for creativity. Drawing on a distinguished career of innovation in higher education, he asks big questions about what creative people come looking for in institutions of higher learning and how successful those institutions are at providing it. This collection of essays ends on an inspirational note with remarks by the arts patron and philanthropist Agnes Gund talking about her Studio in a School program. Committed to the belief that creative experience is not just for the famous few, she took matters into her own hands and invented a program that encourages children in the public schools to strengthen the creativity with which they meet the world.

Some years ago I interviewed Ed Ruscha, sitting in front of a then new painting, Hurry Up Schedule (2002), that he had leaned against the wall. “Sometimes when I’m painting I’m not really painting a mountain,” he said, “I’m just painting some sort of idea of a mountain, or an idea of an idea of a mountain... I’m reducing the importance of the individual elements in the thing to create some kind of end result, to which I’m not always privy… It’s a kind of a stumbling process that’s made up of loose ends… falsehoods and realities, and so it’s a very gray area that you step into. I mean you’re stepping into smoke when you say ‘I’m gonna make a work of art.’”3

Ed Ruscha, Hurry Up Schedule, 2002. Acrylic on canvas, 54 × 60 inches, © Ed Ruscha.


  1. .E. B. White, “E. B. White, The Art of the Essay No. 1," an interview by George Plimpton and Frank H. Crowther, The Paris Review (issue 48, fall 1969), 72.
  2. .Jean Dubuffet, “Demagnetization of Brains,” Asphyxiating Culture and Other Writings, trans. Carol Volk (NY: Four Walls Eight Windows,1988), 101.
  3. .Ed Ruscha, in the artist’s studio, Venice, California, August 8, 2002. In Imagining America: Icons of Twentieth Century American Art (PBS television, 2005), a film created by John Carlin and Jonathan Fineberg.


Jonathan Fineberg

JONATHAN FINEBERG, University Professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, writes broadly on modern art and visual thinking. He and David Yager have just launched a radical new Ph.D. program for the University of the Arts focused on creativity as a foundation for doctoral research ( Fineberg's newest book is Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain.