Madmen, Oddballs, and Visionaries

The LEGO Movie embodies this paradox, presenting three conflicting models of creative LEGO play, illustrated by the Master Builders, Finn’s father, and Emmet. The LEGO Movie winks knowingly at pop culture and LEGO fandom, so that I have to believe that the movie’s creators were deliberately playing around with conflicting popular conceptions of creativity: creativity as madness, creativity as thinking outside the box, and creativity as vision.

Quite a lot of philosophical writing focuses on the experience of being creative as a kind of madness. The imagery is violent: we are seized by the Muse, or possessed by the Gods. The artist becomes a passive conduit as the madness works through him to produce something wholly novel.

In the Platonic dialogue Ion, Socrates likens the creativity of lyric poets, or rhapsodes, to divine possession or madness. When rhapsodes perform in front of an audience, the breath of the gods literally inspires (“breathes into”) the poets so that they become a conduit for the brilliance of the Muse.3 Centuries later, Kant argues that creativity resides in the free play of the imagination, consisting of the capacity to produce wholly original ideas. Yet, according to Kant, creativity remains mysterious to even the creative genius.4 Likewise, Coleridge’s preface to Kubla Khan describes creativity as coming unbidden to an artist, possessing him, and leaving him bewildered, as if coming down from a drug high, marveling at the work he has created.

In The LEGO Movie, the Master Builders depict the madness model of creativity, represented as unfettered recombination. The Master Builders work to thwart the nefarious President Business, who plans to fix all of the worlds of the LEGO universe in place with the Kragle (Krazy Glue) so that they may never again be taken apart and recombined to make new things. President Business is the bad guy; he stifles creativity because he wishes to have all of his LEGO worlds neat and tidy. Pirates sail on the ocean; citizens stay in the cityscape; the Old West never need fear an invasion by laser guns and spaceships.

The creations of the Master Builders transcend mere instructions. In psychedelic Cloud Cuckoo Land, Unikitty builds mad rainbow- colored creations and insists that there are no rules (or consistency!). The heroine Wyldstyle repeatedly saves the day by constructing elaborate vehicles out of spare parts on the fly; the movie visualizes her as seeing the exact pieces she needs in piles of discarded city bricks meant to represent junk. She is an inspired genius, and when she exhorts the citizens of Bricksburg to rebel against President Business’s plan, they do so with whatever bricks they have at hand. We next see a plucky citizen attempting to insert a croissant into a steering wheel.

The second conception of creativity developed in The LEGO Movie lies with the hero Emmet, who in the early scenes devotedly follows not just instructions for building but all rules. He is a conformist. Yet the movie also suggests that the roots of creativity lie in the simple act of thinking outside the box. Emmet is an oddball, the Special with nothing special about him. Emmet’s first original creation is a double-decker couch, roundly mocked by his new Master Builder friends because it does nothing more than fill a much-needed gap in conceptual space. Emmet thought outside the box, but badly. Emmet is redeemed, however. Not only does his double-decker couch, which floats, rescue his friends from the destruction of Cloud Cuckoo Land, but he eventually manages to save the day not by designing a new spaceship but by building an ordinary Octan corporation transport. His most creative moment lies not in the development of something new but in recognizing that building an ordinary ship according to the instructions is the last thing that their enemies will expect. He uses the ship design creatively, even though it is not itself a creative design.

If these were the only conceptions of creativity open to us, then clearly LEGO’s claim to creativity would be nothing more than clever marketing. Madness has no aim, yet to develop one’s own creation, whether it is something as simple as a DUPLO pie, as unimaginative as a double-decker couch, or as complex as Richter’s Sitting Bull, with 1.75 million pieces, requires having a goal in mind, and some idea of how to accomplish it. The builder will adapt her plans as she works through the challenges that arise as she builds, of course; no plan completely survives first contact with the studs. But she will not be astonished or mystified at what she has produced. Moreover, merely thinking outside the box would not be sufficient reason to bother with LEGO, because the creativity demonstrated by Emmet in using his creations is completely divorced from the utter conformity he exhibits in building his creations.

Fortunately, the madness model has been challenged by psychologists and philosophers who have a more workmanlike focus on creativity. Even in ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle argued against his teacher Plato that poets did indeed possess a skilled art, and were not merely the subjects of divine whims. According to Aristotle, the poets have the skill to produce rhythmic and rhymed verse directly calculated to provide catharsis of negative emotions. It may sound obvious, but Aristotle’s point is that provoking catharsis is an identifiable, repeatable process. It can be taught; it can be mastered. So much for waiting for divine inspiration!5

Much more recently, the psychologist Robert Weisburg goes so far as to call the creative genius a myth. No genius is born; all are fired in the crucible of hard work. Simon Blackburn quotes with approval Thomas Edison’s quip that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, as well as Thomas Huxley’s wry remark concerning Darwin’s brilliant theory of evolution: “how extremely stupid not to have thought of that.”6 Scientists and engineers can be creative, but their genius sometimes lies in nothing more than having done the work necessary to be able to see the path for which everyone else is searching. Even Coleridge himself wrote drafts of Kubla Khan, and drew his inspiration from books that he read rather than the drugs he consumed. His preface is nothing more than conscious self-posturing, to advance the myth of the genius at the expense of the truth.7 Creativity lies not in madness but in extraordinary vision.

In The LEGO Movie, the vision model of creativity is represented by Finn’s father. Toward the end of the movie, we learn that Emmet’s adventures are the work of the imagination of eight-year-old Finn, who is furtively playing with his dad’s LEGO creations, immense vistas that correspond to the vibrant LEGO worlds visited by Emmet.

The movie implies that his uptight dad, who wears a coat and tie that eerily match those of the evil President Business, should recover his spirit of creativity and play by breaking down his meticulous yet static vistas and permitting Finn’s free-for-all LEGO construction.

It’s tempting to interpret the movie as implying that Finn’s father isn’t creative at all, merely following instructions, and that his future redemption lies in committing to unfettered recombination. Yet that’s too quick.8 The elaborate vistas, arguably consisting of millions of bricks, lie far beyond even the most expensive and intricate LEGO kits. No set of instructions could have guided Finn’s father as he painstakingly constructed the roiling ocean in Pirate world. If you were to encounter one of these displays at Brickfest or Brickfair, you would never think: what a waste! If only he’d had the vision to put a croissant on a steering wheel!

The movie criticizes Finn’s father, in other words, not for his lack of creativity but for the lack of joy and spontaneity in his creations. He wants to glue the bricks so they can never be enjoyed as building blocks again. Some philosophers have argued that even if we set aside the madness model, any theory of authentic creativity must account for the subjective experience of being creative.9 Being creative does not feel like running mechanically through a series of algorithms; it feels like flying without a net, dangerous and thrilling and pregnant with expectation. All creative experiences share this feeling, for it is this feeling that separates working through a problem mechanically, as a computer might, and working through a problem as a fully creative being.

We might think that the subjective experience of creativity requires the cessation of conscious thought. Like Emmet, we must empty our minds if we are to become truly creative. Yet when solving a scientific or engineering problem, or even constructing an intricate LEGO display, we cannot afford the luxury of emptying our conscious minds.

Fortunately for science and LEGO, recent research indicates that the subjective experience of creativity does not require our conscious mind to be disconnected or idle. When guitarists are asked to engage their conscious minds by counting while they simultaneously are instructed to improvise a jazz composition, their creations are judged to be more creative than those of guitarists who were simply asked to improvise without also engaging their conscious minds. Artists who are instructed to count the occurrences of the word “time” in songs that they listen to while sketching produce drawings that are judged to be more creative than those who had no additional cognitive load. We do not need to empty our conscious minds in order to be creative, but instead, we need our conscious minds to be focused.10

This tantalizingly suggests that states of creativity bear striking similarities to flow states, intense states of concentration in which time seems to slow or stop. A baseball player in a flow state might experience the baseball as moving slowly and growing to the size of a pancake. For a brief flicker, he feels invincible; he knows that no matter the curve of the pitch, the ball will soar over the center field wall. In a flow state, we become like the master butcher Cook Ding from Daoist tales. Ding’s skill at carving oxen is so great that he has never had to sharpen his knife, because he expertly slides his knife into the hollows at the joints. Yet at difficult points, Ding describes himself as focused, sizing up the situation, and proceeding carefully.11

According to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we may find these flow states anywhere, but particularly in areas where we meet a highly difficult challenge with a high level of skill. We do not reliably achieve a flow state by disengaging our minds, but by engaging them so fully that we become fully absorbed in the task at hand. It is pure concentration, not pure dissociation; we can think of it as concentrating so deeply that we lose even the feeling that we are consciously concentrating. In those moments, we may become truly creative.

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