Creativity & Art: Three Roads to Surprise by Dr.Margaret A. Boden C.B.E.

Professor Boden’s threefold theory of ‘creative surprise’ provides a frame for understanding how surprise translates to creativity and how creativity relates to the visual arts. She elaborates on the forms of creativity and their cultural relations to traditional fine art, conceptual and computer art. Her discussions on creativity and computers raise questions regarding our knowledge of human creativity, while also considering how computers might have a creative life of their own. Though her chapter on metabolism stresses the limits to strong artificial life (what she terms A-Life), Professor Boden is open to the idea of computer creativity. She recognizes computers improve our understanding of the cognitive faculties and organizational complexities of the human mind that interact – sometimes with computers – in the creative process.
Professor Boden defines creativity and formulates the groundwork for her threefold theory. Formally, creativity is defined (p. 29):
“Creativity is the ability to come up with ideas or artifacts that are new, surprising, and valuable.”
The connotation of all imaginable ideas and artifacts implies that creativity is open in capacity – encompassing great scale and scope, while entailing both breadth and depth. For Professor Boden, creativity is not a property of an elite faculty, but instead an aspect of human intelligence that enters all aspects of life. She addresses the novel or the new by distinguishing psychological creativity (P-creativity) from historical creativity (H-creativity): something new for a specific person or something new for all human history. A new discovery for a person (P-creativity) is most relevant for understanding the processes of creative surprise. As suggested by the subtitle of the book, she specifies ‘three roads to surprise’ as three different forms of creativity. The first produces unfamiliar combinations of familiar ideas. The other two forms of creativity explore and transform the conceptual spaces of the human mind and the categorical styles of aesthetic possibility. Respectively, she labels these forms of creativity as combinational, exploratory, and transformational. Finally a distinction on cultural values – also norms and beliefs – can affect aesthetic cognition and expression, while also leading to disagreement on whether an idea or artifact is valuable.
Professor Boden’s theoretically concise second chapter “Creativity in a Nutshell” also addresses artificial intelligence with respect to the different forms of creativity. She recognizes that computers are relevant and that AI can map conceptual spaces of the mind to enable hypothesis testing on the structures and processes of thought. She then remains “open” as she fairly addresses the arguments for and against computer creativity. Her line of inquiry follows from a quote:
“If and when I mention creativity in computers I am asking what aesthetically interesting results can computers generate, and how? and Just what might lead someone to suggest that a particular computer system is creative, or that its functioning is somehow similar to creativity in human beings? In that sense, I’m content to leave the question of “real” computer creativity open. And if art necessarily involves creativity – a reasonable, if not a strictly provable, view – then (in that sense) I must leave the question of “real” computer art open too.”
Most directly, she assesses generative art in terms of its origins in cybernetics and general systems theory and its reliance on digital computing and methods of A-Life, while distinguishing different types of generative art by technique and experience. In her distinction between computer-generated art and computer-assisted art she touches on philosophical and emotional concerns about the aesthetic value of art produced by a computer versus art produced by a human being who uses a computer as an aid. She evaluates autonomy, integrity, and authenticity in the contemporary art world – as artists, computers, and audience participants have come to interact. Arguably, the nature of the interactive event itself – mediated by computers – is a new, surprising, and potentially valuable expression of transformational creativity.
The chapter on metabolism are – as she suggests – the most challenging to integrate meaningfully with the book as a whole. It focuses on the concept of metabolism to address the question of whether strong A-Life is possible. Metabolism is a defining feature of life where higher levels of structural order emerge from origins of lesser degrees. She argues that metabolism is problematic for A-Life proponents who believe in a virtual existence. Evo-artists inspired by A-Life research on evolution believe that programed computers can create a genuinely authentic virtual life in cyberspace. For Professor Boden, strong A-Life is impossible because virtual creatures displayed on monitor screens and existing in cyberspace lack the material embodiment and biochemical processes that necessitate metabolism. She does support digitally coded information processes that evolve and adapt, but do not metabolize. As nothing is intelligent if it is not alive prospects for an intelligently self-replicating but non-metabolizing cosmic computer life remain doubtful in her view.
Perhaps most interesting is the category of interaction art. Countless questions of computer autonomy and aesthetic authenticity emerge from observations on the computer-mediated interactions among artists and audience participants. Aside from the differing valuations of the actual art objects, the basic interaction is a creative experience. The sociology of values and the social psychology of mind are relevant for understanding the nature of the interaction event. They also hold the potential to explain how aesthetic valuations of computer art vary in the minds of different groups of artists and audiences.
Professor Boden references values with other concepts of cultural sociology throughout the book. Whereas ‘new’ has two meanings and ‘surprising’ has three, values vary between and within cultures over time. For Professor Boden, this openness is important to the contemporary disagreements on aesthetic quality and the potential changes in audience appreciation for computer art.
She highlights the traditional cultural distinction between the aesthetics of fine art and the affordances of craftwork, which are practical and grounded functionally in evolutionary biology. The standards observed in the crafts make them useful within a wide range of cultural contexts, but render them less surprising and arguably less creative minded in comparison to fine arts. She recognizes the cultural distinction in the professional and occupational boundaries that separate the fine arts from craftworks. Yet, she emphasizes that such boundaries lack conceptual clarity because the categories of reason are difficult to define. For example the Bernini fountain sculptures of Rome are symbolically valued illustrations of visual beauty that also had practical functionality in the history of the city. A more modern example of unclear categorization might be the Red House located in outer southeast London, England – an arts and crafts movement home designed by William Morris who with architect Philip Webb and art critic John Ruskin placed quality value on handmade craftworks, as opposed to those mass produced by industrial machines of the modern age. She acknowledges a history of shifting identity in arts and crafts, while avoiding any imperative for static categorization.


The chapter on conceptual art addresses specifically the shocking challenge to the romantic view of art as an aesthetic expression by an elite few. A value-laden elitism forsaken by connoisseurs and artists alike when the culture of modernism reacted against romanticism and postmodernism eventually proclaimed death of the author, or artist. Professor Boden elaborates on the cultural and psychological tensions that underpin the unorthodox values suggested by several modern to contemporary conceptual artists who – for better or worse – have changed the nature of art itself. The fountain toilet sculpture and other ready made objects of modern social criticism by Marcel Duchamp are shocking in their exploit of disgust when compared to the Baroque beauty of a Bernini fountain or to the high renaissance and versatile mannerist aesthetics of say a Michelangelo. Claes Oldenburg’s “The Hole” that was quickly dug and refilled in Central Park of New York City challenges the conventional orthodoxy on the basic stuff of artwork – where the stuff of the hole seems to have been the philosophically absurd absence of stuff. Professor Boden draws on these examples to acknowledge that the combinational creativity of the unorthodox conceptual art has had a qualitative effect on changing societal evaluations and mental perceptions of art in general.
Her discussion of autodidacts is meaningful because the self-educated are from separately identified subcultural groups, such as the unschooled or the defiant. These groups are similar in some standard regards (i.e., self-educated instead of formally educated), but differ culturally in terms of value orientations, normative expectations, and belief systems. She points out that there are complex interrelationships between auto-didacticism and creativity that make it hard to say in a clear cut manner whether autodidacts are more or less creative than he formally educated. She suggests further that creative capacity is partially contingent on psychological processes and mental resources that may exist among members of some autodidact subcultures but not others. The factors of cognition inferred from observed behavior of the defiant autodidact reasonably differ from those of the unschooled autodidact who exhibits the determination to improve life chances through disciplined education of self. In all, the focus on autodidacts illustrates the complexity of creative thinking in general.
The book elaborates further on the creative topics involving the relational qualities of values and mind. However she does not scientifically explain or sufficiently model the interactive effects. While recognizing that science does study cultural values, she stresses their elusive quality and the difficulties encountered when explaining or justifying them. As for the human mind, she addresses computers in terms of machine mapping of cognition and suggests that AI has improved our knowledge of conceptual spaces and mental processes involved in thought. She even acknowledges that the images generated by the AARON software of abstract painter Harold Cohen has helped Cohen to model his own cognition in the creative process, while initiating aesthetic-minded changes in audience evaluations of the computer drawing and coloring program. Yet, the book does not focus primarily on science and modeling as such. Readers with social psychology backgrounds may appreciate deeper conversations using mental models to address the interactions of cultural values and the human mind – and the contemporary effects that computers have in mediating those interactions.
Emile Durkheim argued for a science of society to observe functional institutions of value that represent norms and beliefs of the collectivity, which differ when comparing the solidarity and consciousness of a traditional community to that of a complex modern society. Durkheim observed social facts, such as marriage or suicide rates, as measured representations existing external to an individual, but exercising influence on an individual. Also in ‘functionalist’ tradition, Talcott Parsons later wrote on social systems and structures of action to emphasize cultural values and conditions of random wants and ends that distinguish voluntary action from the base utilitarian calculus.
Concerning the mind, George Herbert Mead – also before computers – had established grounds for symbolic interactionism in the study of meaningful communication. Mead’s social behaviorist inquiry in ‘Mind, Self, Society’ addresses questions of how and why respondents of differing values and status group backgrounds respond differently to a certain stimulus and how the mind reconciles those differences in the organization of the self within society. Accordingly, the mind is a process of imaginative rehearsal that connects the self to society through participatory role taking, which allows a person to converse in symbolic meaning with many others and to see the self as an object through the eyes of many others – in philosophical agreement with the “looking-glass self” of Charles Horton Cooley. Through the process of imaginative rehearsal, the mind can develop a stable conception of an organized self and a sense of a generalized other that relates the self to the full community of group attitudes that constitute society.
Professor Boden might have enriched several section of her book with conversation on these sociologists and social psychologists. She could have elaborated on Durkheim and Parsons as she recognized values in her definition of creativity – where the patterned yet open-ended nature of value diffusion through distinct cultures and subcultures can breathe creative life into the imagining of ideas and artifacts. Her discussions of autodidacts then might have referenced Durkheim and Parsons on deviance or convergence in values and norms – as those sociological arguments couple with Professor Boden’s psychology to distinguish by process the defiant autodidact from other autodidacts. Finally, a background conversation on Mead would perhaps inspire comparative inquiry on the effects of computer mediations between artists and audience participants in contemporary interactive art. How do predictability and unpredictability of roles and identities in computer interactive art today compare to the symbolic interactionism of Mead – where imaginative pre-computer minds had used symbols to designate objects, rehearse actions concerning objects, and select alternative decisions to make on objects while considering the roles of others that influence the organization of self in actively coordinated social environments?
Of course, other sociologists and psychologists have contributed to our understandings of culture and art. Pierre Boudieu theoretically encapsulates the dynamic relations between social systems and social actions by focusing on the internalization of the system in the embodied person of practice who resourcefully uses forms of capital (cultural, social, symbolic, economic) in assorted fields of action. His “Rules of Art” is an exemplar on the genesis, structure, and change of production and preference in the literary field. Wendy Griswald in “Cultures and Societies of a Changing World” conceptualizes cultural objects as expressions of shared meaning that are audible, visible, or articulated. She illustrates a cultural diamond with representations of input and output boundaries that account for creation and reception of cultural objects and that enhance knowledge of links connecting cultural objects to the larger social world. Sherry Turkle at MIT focuses in psychoanalysis on human-technology interactions to argue that computers change what we do and how we think about what we do. The point here is that these scholars have contributed to conversations on the relational quality of cultural values and the human mind, as experienced interactively by members of different groups and – as socially studied by Turkle – mediated by computers that are tools, but also more than tools in their effects on our personal cognitions, emotions, and interactive lives.
The deep conversations on cultural values and interactive mind breathe life into the definition of creativity established by Professor Boden where – philosophically in tune with the corroborating limits to the logic and epistemology of science itself – cultural values are the vital open factor and interactive mind is where discovery of the new takes place on the roads to surprise. Yes, advanced computer technologies indeed have mediated human communications in the contemporary world of culture and art. After all, computers have had interactive effects on our minds as we have reorganized ourselves to communicate free of spatial constraint through global social media. Computers, however, do not have the strong AI capacity to sustain a life of their own – even though they do mimic and influence our reasoning capacities, while expanding our social networks to interact with members of other cultures and subcultures.
In my read of ‘Creativity & Art’, the interactive computer art is the focal interest with the most potential to creatively transform our aesthetic cognitions and expressions. We must remember, nevertheless, that the social psychology to the interactive event itself is the foundation of the creativity and that the mediating computers are the props that initiate the new forms of the basic human interaction. For art and creativity more generally, mediated or not by computers, an interactive mind that is open to distinct cultural values leads to a more pleasant aesthetic discovery than does the inordinate closure ensured by the absence of self-organizing metabolism in the strong A-life platform – as she concludes (p. 252):
“Without independent grounds for doing so, we should not drop metabolism from the concept of life. Nor should we weaken our (third) interpretation of it. On the contrary, we should acknowledge it as a fundamental requisite of the sort of self-organization that is characteristic of life. In sum: metabolism is necessary, so strong A-Life is impossible.”


George Touche’

George Touche’ earned his sociology PhD at Texas A&M and worked full time as a research associate at George HW Bush Presidential institute.

Margaret Ann Boden, OBE, (born 26 November 1936)[1] is Research Professor of cognitive science at the Department of informatics at the University of Sussex, where her work embraces the fields of artificial intelligence, psychology, philosophy, cognitive and computer science.

Volume 30 number 2 November / December 2015 pp 34-38

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