TAKEAWAY: Art and innovation are not separate but rather symbiotic, and originality in both must be fostered by society.
Innovation as a pursuit of improved utility has advanced culture since prehistory. But that innovation rarely is completely separated from artistic expression.
Are you a tech lover who develops a jones for every new Apple product? An iPod or iPad is functional but also has intrinsic beauty. Not every aesthetic detail is essential to the device’s functionality — one detail might even cause your call to drop if you hold the device in a certain way — but form and function are as one.
So why is it that in today’s society, we celebrate innovation but sometimes dismiss art? Innovators are rewarded with venture capital, artists expected to seek handouts. From the perspective of one fascinated by creativity, this distinction is arbitrary and dangerous. The history of art is intertwined with the history of innovation.
Let’s go back to the earliest recorded art. As R. Keith Sawyer notes in Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation (note his pairing of “creativity” with “innovation” in his book title), painted objects have been found in South Africa that date back 77,000 years, with hand-carved, aesthetically pleasing stones found in Africa dating back two million years. (!)
It’s hard to know the full utility of those stones. But we know that cave paintings, while at times hauntingly beautiful, also provided ways to share stories, give advice, or offer spiritual instruction. Pottery by definition served a practical purpose, yet became an expression of art from the start.
Archeologists track a given civilization’s growth over time, and find simultaneous advances in the innovation of products and the artistic inspiration accompanying those products.
This really comes to life at the Iraklio Archaeological Museum in Crete, which I had the pleasure of visiting five years ago. The exhibits are displayed, room by room, in chronological order. First you see ceramics and tools from the Minoans, simultaneously practical and beautiful. The Minoans were part of an advanced Greek civilization that was wiped out, most likely by a volcano (Santorini) and war. The art that followed was produced by new settlers who did not have artistic training and merely imitated – poorly — the pieces of art left behind by Minoans. Over the centuries, the copies get better and better but still didn’t match the Minoans in quality. Then, fairly suddenly, there is a shift, as the settlers of Crete began developing an entirely new, and stunning, style of art all their own. Art and innovation advanced through pursuit of both creativity and originality.
There are several lessons there. One is a bit obvious, that art and innovation advance with time. Another is that original thinking is critical in both art and innovation. The creative has to be revolutionary, not just evolutionary.
Combine those two lessons, and we can see the importance to society of fostering both art and innovation. Whether you’re a mayor managing a local budget or a school board member selecting textbooks, remember that art and innovation are not isolated fields of creative expression. They are symbiotic. Furthering the arts furthers innovation, and vice versa. Everyone wins when both are celebrated, and supported.