Conceptualising Creativity: Three Weeks On

Three weeks into data analysis I am (finally) making some headway and there is now a pinprick of light visible at the end of the PhD tunnel. Discussions with several colleagues directed me towards a much needed Eureka moment; how I am going to assess and demonstrate the bounds of creativity has since become a lot clearer.

In a previous post, I argued that creativity is bound up with conceptual spaces. For a craftsperson, these conceptual ideas are embodied in the ways in which things are done. For a potter this is wrapped up with how to prepare the clay, how to form the pot, how to decorate the vessel and which surface finish to use. Creativity within craft is therefore linked with the agency of an individual, or to put it in better terms, human action.

Previous archaeological approaches to ceramic stylistic variation have often neglected the simple truth that people make pots. Although in more recent years researchers have seen style as active, the focus on communicative qualities and stylistic meaning has meant that the individual and community’s role in manipulating and changing style has been in many studies overlooked and under theorised.

My methodology for exploring creativity is rooted in investigating how you make and decorate an urn, rather than what you decorate it with. In order to demonstrate the how rather than why, I have begun to produce pot maps. These are visual representations of the conceptual entities embodied within the potting process. So rather than getting bogged down in the details of motif variation, the emphasis is on how such motifs were used by the potter. In order to demonstrate this I have included photos of two vessels which are stylistically different, yet typical of Belegiš material.

Vessel 20750

Vessel 20890

When analysed schematically however, we can see that they are conceptually very similar.

Vessel 20750

Vessel 20890

If we were going to classify these two in a traditional manner, they would most likely be placed into two separate categories, primarily according to the difference in motif design. However, the pot maps demonstrate to some extent that they are both made up of similar conceptual entities and as such show that the potters who made these vessels thought about their craft in the same way.

Linking back into creativity, what I want to know is what are the principles by which creativity operates? Does creativity occur within conceptual spaces and therefore is mediated by stylistic rules? Or is it a change of these rules? I’ll let you know!

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Contemporary Craft: Bridging the Gap between Archaeologist and Artisan?

The V&A is one of the most awe-inspiring museums in the country. Full to the brim with exquisite and curious objects, all of the galleries captivate the imagination and demonstrate the extent to which humankind can push boundaries and fashion objects of beauty and desire. Of particular importance to me and my research interests, the ceramics galleries showcase some of the finest specimens of contemporary clay art.

Studying contemporary ceramic craft in my opinion offers us a ‘way in.’ Once we begin to understand the role of ceramic craft and its infinite potential within our own society, we can start to think of how this might have been for past people and social groups.

Signs and Wonders by Edmund de Waal

Two ceramics installations in particular had profound effects on me for very different reasons. The first of these was the Signs and Wonders collection by the renowned Edmund de Waal. Placed in a red circular girder in the V&A’s uppermost cupola are 425 white glazed ceramic pieces which range from tall vases to small plates. The focus here is on the collection as a whole rather than an individual piece and to this effect the installation works well. However, I couldn’t help wondering if placing it as far away from the public as possible was sending out a strong message; that the artisan wants to create physical and metaphorical distance between his creations and the public. Yet this also, perhaps inadvertently, served to create emotional distance. The fact that I could get nowhere near the objects let alone touch them invoked feelings of disengagement. I am left wondering if the artist has something to hide. The pots are neither extraordinary nor accessible. The question that bugs me is: do some contemporary artists hide behind gimmicks as a means to distract the viewer from the materials at hand; the vessels? Is skill no longer the requirement for great art? Does a pot need to demonstrate skill and perfection to be seen as beautiful?

Ai WeiWei's Neolithic Vessel decorated with Coca Cola Logo

The second exhibition which invoked a strong emotional response was that by Ai WeiWei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BC – AD 2010). In this work, the artist transforms (real) Neolithic and Han dynasty ceramic vessels through a variety of different methods including paint, grinding and smashing. A short film installed in the gallery documents the moment at which WeiWei stares nonchalantly at the camera before dropping and smashing a 2000 year old ceramic vessel. The first emotion I registered was pure horror. As an archaeologist, the defacing and intentional destruction of such artefacts is inconceivable and blasphemous. Yet there is no denying that this collection it is a powerful and clever statement about the loss of material history to globalization and modernization (see picture above). Additionally these objects demonstrate how materials can change through space and time depending on their social and cultural context. When thinking in these terms, WeiWei’s exhibition embodies many of the themes that archaeologists are working on today. It seems therefore that contemporary craft may offer us a chance to bridge the conceptual gap between archaeologist and artisans of the past.

Conceptualising Creativity: Methodological Issues

Clarity out of chaos....?

My return to England at the beginning of this week presented me with one inevitability; the need to analyse the data I have so far collected. Prior to this I was blissfully unaware of the pivotal role that elementary analysis will have on my whole understanding of my subject. The site of Surčin initially presented itself as a pilot study for the recording of the Belegiš urns. The preliminary data that I have now offers a chance for experimentation in the dissection of it. Analysis is proving even more challenging and mind-boggling than I anticipated.

 

I have already mentioned that each of the urns is different yet the same. The question now is how on earth can I draw this out of my data without my analysis turning into yet another structuralist study of stylistic variability?

 

The key I think is in the theory. Creativity is bound up with notions of conceptual spaces in the brain/body. It is my job therefore to pinpoint these conceptual spaces by extracting certain stylistic themes from my vessels. These are elements of the vessel that are repeated in their crafting, for example specific motifs or the presence of symmetry. These components I believe act as cognitive visual anchors or reference points for the potter to return to and/or deviate from. Currently, I’m still not entirely sure how this works and so for the foreseeable future will be scrutinising my photos/ drawings and written notes for each urn in the attempt to figure out how such visual anchors shift and what it is exactly that makes each urn different; it is not enough to just state that it is! For the moment I am ignoring the chronology of such stylistic elements; this will be incorporated at a later stage once I have my head around what it is that I’m doing.

 

I’ll let you know how I get on. In the meantime, any comments, suggestions or ice cold beverages would be much appreciated!

Research Trip to Zagreb: Day 1 – 3rd October 2011

Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, Croatia

This afternoon I arrived at the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, Croatia, tired (no-one likes waking up at 4am) and hungry but full of anticipation. As my second visit to this beautiful city, the aim of this trip is pure and simple; data, data and yes, you guessed it, more data.

 

The Archaeological Museum here in Zagreb houses an assortment of different archaeological material, from prehistoric to post-medieval. The group of artefacts that I am here to analyse are Bronze Age funerary urns from the necropolis site of Surčin, situated in modern day Serbia. These mortuary vessels of Belegiš type date from Middle to Late Bronze Age and are quite distinctive in shape and decoration.

 

I began analysing the Surčin assemblage in May, the whole time thinking in terms of craftspeople, specialisation and how the concept of creativity fitted into this. What became apparent throughout the preliminary analysis was that these urns symbolised much more than craft and technology. They symbolised a way of life for the people who lived and died during the Bronze Age. Each urn was different and yet similar. In essence, each urn had a unique personality. So what does this tell us about Bronze Age attitudes to ethnicity, identity and personhood in this part of the world?

 

During the next week here in Zagreb, I will attempt to finish analysis on the Surčin assemblage, and will carefully document each of the remaining vessels in accordance to my methodology. What is so great about the assemblage held in this museum is that looking at these funerary vessels side by side really fires up the archaeological imagination. This allows for dynamic, thought provoking and above all, captivating interpretations….Watch this space!

Imitation: the sincerest form of flattery?

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

Albert Einstein once famously quoted that ‘the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.’ Psychologists and sociologists have since proven this to be the case; they argue that creativity is the linking up of existing knowledge in an original way. In that sense, novel combinations are a result of various social interactions in which knowledge and ideas are adopted and transformed by the individual. Being creative is thus very much a social mechanism. Arguably, an unravelling of past creativity has the potential to reveal its origins and therefore aid in the investigation of past social relations and interactions.

 

The Bronze Age in Europe was a patchwork of different social and cultural practices which we are amidst trying to disentangle through analysis of the material culture these people left behind. Just as countries in modern day Europe have obvious differences in cultural traditions, Bronze Age material culture also displays dissimilarities and similarities. What were the reasons for such similarities and differences? Why would one community favour a decorative motif or technique over another one? Similarly, why would a social group adopt a particular motif from a neighbouring community and incorporate with their existing ornamentation and techniques?

 

Too often decorative ‘influences’ and the spread of ideas are explained in terms of diffusionism and mechanisms of social mobility where cultural groups migrate, taking their culture with them. Although there is evidence that proves individuals in the Bronze Age did travel to acquire knowledge (think Otzi and the Amesbury Archer), diffusionist approaches to Bronze Age Europe negate the role of the individual in imitation and transformation of material culture. Individual craftspeople were intentionally or unconsciously adopting and transforming motifs and techniques from a variety of sources indicative of various social interactions. What was the nature of these interactions? Were they peaceful or a result of conflict? Were they within or between communities? What was the social function of such imitation and transformation? With so many questions to answer, it seems we have only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to really understanding social relations in the Bronze Age.

Archaeology should be less about coming up with the right answers and more about asking the right questions.

A few months ago I began the laborious (and downright frustrating) task of writing a history of research for the Bronze Age in Croatia and Serbia. The majority of literature is culture-historical in orientation. This means that the primary focus has been on establishing a chronological development through a discussion of artefact typologies. Quite frankly I find this all extremely dull, not to mention infinitely complex and in some cases almost incomprehensible. Often when reading the extensive descriptions of pottery vessels and metal objects I am plagued by the question: ‘so what exactly is this telling me?’ Frequently this is left unanswered.

Many archaeologists in this part of the world are what I would term ‘culture happy.’ By this I mean that all objects and sites are designated to a cultural group based on appearance, style and their date. In some cases though using this approach is nonsensical; Bronze Age material culture in this area is so complex (and in some cases just plain weird), and often researchers are left stumped and even more confused. By trying endlessly to place artefacts and sites into precise little groups, are we as archaeologists completely missing the point?

There seems to be an incessant pandemic, not just in central Europe, where academics are fearful of ‘getting it wrong.’ Perhaps this is a product of the academic system itself. Yet it is just not enough anymore to think that the material speaks for itself, and provide safe answers to the same safe questions. As archaeologists, we need to concentrate more on the questions we ask as opposed to the answers we generate. Questions that incite imagination, exploration and encourage us to think outside of the box open up all sorts of possibilities. It is possibility that enables fresh thinking, making our wonderful discipline even more exciting and dynamic.

Some thoughts on conformity

Different yet the same....?

All of us conform. This may of course be to a fuller or lesser degree, but the truth of the matter is that we all conform; the clothes we wear, the colloquial expressions we use and the way we act in various situations. As a teenager I hit a rebellious stage. I made a conscious effort not to conform to how I thought society wanted me to be; I wore alternative clothes, gained piercings, shaved parts of my hair, and generally did everything my parents told me not to. Ironically through these actions I was conforming. My friends and I (who were also going through the same phase) dressed in similar ways, listened to the same punk music and yet all of us thought of ourselves as ‘individual and original.’ Each of us was creative and unique in our punky style and yet looked remarkably similar. Our material culture screamed conformity! When I think about the role of creativity, I often look back to this (rather embarrassing) chapter of my life. It demonstrates perfectly that individual creativity is influenced by our environment and our social interactions. Thus originality can only truly be understood within its context. This has ramifications for archaeology. Just as we cannot truly isolate the individual from the collective, we cannot isolate the artefact from its group. Without the group, meaning is lost. Therefore in order to understand creativity and the novel, we need to look at the wider context in which the object existed; nothing is made, said or done in isolation.