Discovery and Creativity

Discovery and Creativity

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned origami in this column, and shortly after I thought I had finished writing about it I discovered an origami pattern of startling simplicity. Buried deep within a tome full of intricate and virtuosic folding patterns, I came across a page devoted to a design called “the arrow” that requires only two folds; in fact it’s so simple that I can easily describe how to fold it in just a few lines:

  • Start with a square piece of paper (preferably one with different colors or finishes on either side).

  • Orient the paper on a table so that one corner is pointed directly at you and the opposite corner directly away from you.

  • Take the two corners I didn’t mention and fold them towards the imaginary lines that connects the two other corners I mentioned in step 2; only don’t fold them all the way to the center line, fold them about half way and make sure that the bottom edge forms a neat 90 degree angle to the imaginary center line.

  • Congrats, “the arrow” is pointed directly at you!
  • Clearly, this design is no paper crane—it has no moving parts, it’s 2-dimensional, and most of all it seems to provoke the snarky accusation that “a child/idiot/hack could have done it.” (Take your pick!) Similar accusations, of course, have been flung at everything from the art brut movement in painting to pretty much any unfamiliar musical composition.

    But what really interests me about “the arrow” is the peculiar way in which one imagines it was discovered more so than “created.” It’s not so much the kind of design that its anonymous creator(s) would have arrived at as the result of a deliberate effort, as I imagine the “lotus” pattern that occupies the facing page of the book I was reading probably is. To the contrary, it was most likely only a matter of time before some origami enthusiast noticed this clever way of folding an arrow symbol; maybe several people happened upon independently, even. If this indeed was the case, we might rightly ask why it even makes sense to credit that “discoverer” of the arrow pattern with auteur status; what has he or she contributed that any one of us couldn’t have accomplished left to our own devices?

    As it turns out, the “author” of the arrow pattern did make one very important contribution, one that in my mind certainly meets the criterion for authorship of this extremely modest aesthetic achievement. A thousand people might have happened upon the design either by fooling around or by accidently screwing up the “bird base” that forms the fodder for most common origami bird forms, but the author (or the person who gets credited with authorship) is the person who decided that the design was worth writing down. In this case, what distinguishes the “author” from all the other hypothetical arrow-folders is not superior creative ability or technique, but rather an ability to value something that others might have considered too insignificant. I have always been fascinated by pieces of music that share this same quality of having been discovered, because these works often reveal the unique perspectives and values of the composers that created them. John Cage’s 4’33”, for example, is like “the arrow” an extreme example—sooner or later, someone was likely to compose 4’33” or something very close to it; it wasn’t that the requisite theory and technique were lacking to a composer working in the 1850s, just that no one before John Cage had thought about sound and silence in quite the same way, or thought to claim that block of not-quite-silence by naming it. On the surface, 4’33” seems to many about as silly as the above-mentioned origami trifle—yet how different the 20th century would have been without Cage’s contribution, and how many “proper American symphonies” from the preceding decades did comparatively little to advance musical thinking.

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    4 thoughts on “Discovery and Creativity

    1. Lisa X

      I think 4’33” was genuinely ahead of its time. Decades before bottled water and reality TV Cage figured out that you can sell anything to the emptily affluent, even the free and abundant, if you put it in the right package.

      In this case, what distinguishes the “author” from all the other hypothetical arrow-folders is not superior creative ability or technique, but rather an ability to value something that others might have considered too insignificant.

      I think it would be more accurate to replace ‘ability’ with ‘power’ in the above sentence.

    2. rskendrick

      Cage’s importance
      I always think of Cage’s importance more in terms of the encouragement of improvisation by the performers. Of course his prepared piano works are second to none as well

      Ralph Kendrick

    3. Chris

      Your discovery concept is a great analogy for the aesthetic. It’s nice without oversimplifying. I think Cage was brilliant for pushing the definition of music in a more conceptual way while “traditional” symphonies were pioneering new musical feeling. I’m wondering if music has to be called “avant garde” for it to encourage thinking. I’m hoping that it’s just a phase… I really want something cool to happen soon.

    4. tcweller

      Re: bottled water
      Lisa X: I sense a pretty strong whiff of crass commercialism in your response to this thoughtful article. Viewing 4’33” as a musical commodity is just about the least relevant way of looking at the piece. 4’33” was not a commission, or an entry to a contest with a big reward. I seriously doubt, based on my readings of Cage, that he ever expected to make a cent off the piece. It was a gift. Everyone seems to have an opinion about Cage – not surprising considering how unquestionably influential he was to how we experience music today. But, love him or hate him, to suggest that Cage was somehow rubbing his palms together as he hatched a plan to profit from selling something abundant to a bunch of chumps is kind of ignorant.


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