The twelfth and final episode of the Charlie Rose Brain Series aired October 29, focusing on the topic of creativity. Charlie and co-host Eric Kandel welcomed the sculptor Richard Serra, artist Chuck Close, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, and Ann Temkin, curator of the painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Charlie concluded the episode by asking, “what’s the takeaway here about creativity?” I found these remarks insightful.
Ann Temkin: The takeaway is, for me, there’s a lot we can know by circumstance, behavior, psychology and so on, but way, way more we can’t know, understand at this point.
Chuck Close: I’ve known Richard for a long time and have never seen him more excited than when he’s explaining an idea. I’ve been with you when you’ve taken some lead and rolled it up and shoved it in the sand and explain how this bisects the shape. And you light up in a way, and your desire to share — artists are very generous people. We’re also narcissistic and self-involved, but we … there’s a desire to share this. And there’s a little bit of the child in all of us saying look at me. I am here, I am somebody. Let me take you on a little voyage. I’m going to show you something. I’m going to take you somewhere. I’ll make an experience for you and I hope you enjoy it.
Oliver Sacks: I want to understand how the new can come into being. And this — I want to give a concrete example, and it was said earlier about imitation being bad. I think imitation may be an essential preliminary to achievement. For example, with a poet like Alexander Pope. His first published poems were called “Imitations of English Poets.” And he is first concerned to get the technique or to develop the language as you said, Richard, and only when it’s developed he then infuses it with his imagination. But you can’t have anything new until a great deal has become automatic. But I think it is the spontaneous , spontaneity and novelty that are the most challenging problems in the world.
Eric Kandel: You make a point, and that is, in addition to having ideas and selecting a problem, you have to have competence. And one way to develop competence is learning the task. And see how other people solved the problem.
Ann Temkin: Chuck has a great comment about how you made more De Koonings than De Kooning, right?
Chuck Close: I said to him when I finally met him, I said it’s very nice to meet someone who’s made a few more De Kooning’s than I have.
Ann Temkin: But I think what it says is it’s not just newness but greatness, because unless the new-ness contains what came before it’s not going to achieve that stature.
Chuck Close: And the systems and limitations free up intuition. When I was free to do anything I wanted to do I did the same things over and over. Once I constructed a situation in which I couldn’t do certain things I found that those limitations, rather than constricting me, and rather than limiting what I could do, on the contrary opened things up and I was far more intuitive than I ever had been without those limitations.
Eric Kandel: I think there are two other points that emerge from this. One is that on a variety of levels we know very little about creativity. And it should inspire people look into this, new areas to investigate and look into this. And number two is the two of you give a remarkable example that we’ve seen in other contexts, and that’s the social determinants of creativity. You were a wonderful generation of students. You must have had a faculty that encouraged, at least permitted this. And to think that the environment so much encouraged your creativity, two outstanding artists to come out of one class. [Close and Serra name other artists from the class.] That’s amazing that there are social determinants that encourage the outburst of creativity. That’s very important.
My selected highlights are excerpted below. (18:21) The full program can be seen online here.