Thursday, 25 November 2010

Creative Juices

Richard Feynman is one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century. He won a Nobel prize for Physics in the 1960s; he was involved in the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos when only in his early 20s; he helped to compile the report which unearthed the reason for the disaster on the space shuttle challenger. That's all pretty impressive. Perhaps even more special than all this is the fact that he was a brilliantly clever man who was able to inspire every person that he talked to, from fellow Nobel-prize winning scientists to interested laymen. The Horizon documentary in which he is featured is the best programme ever made about science, and I challenge anyone not to find themself drawn in and fascinated by his view of the world. And yet there are things he claims to find difficult to explain: he states that at one time he was trying to explain to his father the emission of a photon from an atom as it moves from a higher state to the ground state. His father asks whether the photon was in the atom ahead of time, and he states that it was not, and it is the moving between 2 states that allows the photon to be emitted. He likens it to when his son told him that he could no longer say the word 'cat' because his 'word bag was empty'. We do not have a 'word bag', i.e. a finite number of words we can use, nor is the number of times we can say any particular word limited. The words are not in our bodies ahead of time; we form them, just as the photon is not in the atom ahead of time.

If anyone is still reading this, I think this is an example of why Feynman would have been such a brilliant teacher - his use of analogy is so good, which is why he can explain even difficult concepts to anyone who is willing to listen.

All this serves to introduce what I was really thinking about, and that is the limit to one's ideas and creativity. Is there a limit to this, just as we might have a limit to the number of times we can say the word 'cat'? I've been a teacher for 12 years (just starting my 13th) and it's a good job that I have moved around from School to School and between roles in these Schools. I've felt that each of my moves has co-incided with the time at which I felt my creativity in that particular role was on the wane. After 5 years as a Head of Department that my creative output was on a downward slope. I'd had a lot of ideas, but I'd rather exhausted them over a 5 year period. But it seems like I'm not alone. Many hugely creative artists (note that I'm not comparing myself to these people) seem to run out of steam after a certain amount of time: Paul McCartney once changed the face of British music, now he churns out instantly forgettable pop pap. You can include Mick Jagger here too. There's the notorious '3rd album' problem faced by singers/bands, and it's often at this stage that later songs just sound like less good versions of what's gone on before (hello Oasis). Salvador Dali was a real artistic original (though Bosch was doing the same thing about 450 years earlier), though when you look at Dali's work, the same themes/ideas come up time and time again. Francoise Sagan - wrote Bonjour Tristesse at the age of 19, and precious little of note afterwards, and there's many authors in the 'one masterpiece' club (Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell).

Some ideas clearly run their course, and there's no need to keep flogging a dead horse, whilst others are cut in their prime, and leave you desperate for more (12 episodes of Fawlty Towers, and 100 of Birds of a Feather hardly seems fair). To keep being creative takes a very special individual, or ones that are able to reinvent themselves. I'm not sure that many would compare Leonardo da Vinci and David Bowie, but these are the two examples that came to mind first, and I do like to write these blogs in a stream of conscious-esque manner. Da Vinci is probably the greatest Polymath of all time, and he managed to remain creative all his life, and Bowie is one of those artists who seems to be willing to produce total tosh at times (Tin machine) in order to maintain his creative streak - this provides us with genius such as 'Heathen' and 'Hunky Dory'. Only one idea is needed to make us rich, but it's those people that retain the ability to be creative right through to the end that I find most impressive.

Here's some classic Feynman (may need watching twice!):

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Man of the People

I'll start with a 'snob disclaimer', in that the following musings are not intended to appear snobbish or judgemental, although I guarantee that they will.

I've just been staring, dumbstruck, at an X-factor medley of 'Shut Up' by Pink (I presume the irony was lost on the show's producers). It was worse than bad. The desperation in the performers faces bordered on the insane, as Simon Cowell smiled smugly like some modern day Pontius Pilate. There was a jovial black chap, a few pre-pubescent teens, a couple of pin-up boy-banders, some old fat woman and a mahogany-tinted man who looked as though he had been doused in cuprinol. This, I have since found out, is Wagner, which explains a lot of recent tweeting. When did TV stoop so low? Even the 'light channel', ITV, which has always pandered to the lowest common denominator looks to have hit rock-bottom. It's ostensibly an old-fashioned talent show, a la New Faces, except minus the talent. There's nothing original, bearing in mind that all the songs are covers, and the performers looks like a mixture of earnest School revue jazz-handers and working man's club lags. I remember Take That getting a whole load of stick in the early 90s because they played on their looks and were seriously stylised, but at least they wrote and performed their own music; they are now hailed as demi-Gods for doing so.

We seem to have lost all interest in the product (ie the music) somewhere along the way, and have become more interested in the process of making someone a star; this contrived manufacturing of an individual merely to sell records is exactly what used to be seen as a kind of cheating. The 'journey' of the wannabe star, the tough family background, the 'I've wanted this, like, forever' tearful speech. This is what we pay to see, because once we've got the star, we tend to forget about them (McManus, Sneddon, Parks, Gates, Leon something, anyone?, anyone?). It's a music show, but with little focus on the music. Get the song out of the way, and then let's boo or cheer the judges, depending on whether they chastise or praise. 'That's your best performance' (cheer), 'I didn't really feel that performance' (boo).

So no interest in music, and no interest in finding real talent. But let's examine the alternative. Let's say that we are after real talent, and we take the most original, exciting, dynamic musicians out there, and judge them against each other for a record contract on a saturday night. I'd hate it. Why? Because it would make ITV (or ITV1, now) credible, and I wouldn't have anything to rant about. I also don't want to see genuine musical talent being mentored, going up in front of judges and being told about image and choice of song. I'm interested in the music, not in the process that gets the music to the people. Real talent should come to the attention of people through the quality of the music, not through the over-blown production and stories of troubled childhoods.

There's also always something pleasing about knowing the masses are wasting their time with such tosh as X-Factor, whilst I'm watching something about British Art on channel 4. Orwell was fascinated by the working classes, and even noted a certain nobility in them. But even he said that 'the problem with the working classes, is that they smell', so man of the people he certainly wasn't. I loved chatting to a nice old couple in the pub last saturday, just before the Palace-Swansea game, but that was enough of a dip into working class life for me thanks, and I'd prefer to leave them to their X-Factor and KFC mum's night off bucket saturday night treat. If everyone gained some taste, and stopped watching Eastenders and Strictly Come Dancing, I wouldn't be able to feel superior in my niche intellectual interests. If everyone started listening to Nick Drake or The Smiths, I wouldn't be able to bemoan the lack of interest in proper music; I'm not sure we need a music show for people who don't like music, but if it keeps them happy on a cold winter night, who am I to criticise.

It's still better than watching Dean Gaffney eating a dessicated Kangaroo penis.