On the Origins of Creativity: What Makes the 'Juices' Flow?

PBS miniseries looks for clues to the elusive mystery of the mind

WITH film stars and cartoons and lots of money, public TV has launched a major two-front campaign to pin down the unpinnable: creativity itself.

The bigger push comes in September, with the premiere of "Behind the Scenes," a series for children about how the visual and performing arts are actually created. Already six years in the making, it has received big funding from business and foundations, as well as $1.5 million from the National Endowment for the Arts - the largest grant yet awarded by the NEA for a TV series.

The other front opens tonight with the first of a four-part weekly series called "The Creative Spirit" (PBS, 8-9 p.m., check local listings). Unlike "Behind the Scenes," the current effort is not limited to the arts but lumps everything from business theory to housework under its catchall and slightly amorphous concept of creativity. But it does so convincingly, with a lively production style that manages to be engaging without trivializing one of the most easily trivialized of subjects. "Creativity," li ke "art" and "philosophy," has traditionally eluded airtight definition by philosophers and scientists, so you can't expect it suddenly to be nailed down by TV.

Yet the opener, "Inside Creativity," does establish a new respect for the brilliance and commitment of people in many pursuits. Even if you don't learn what creativity actually is, you'll know what it feels like to a sailor, for instance, who tells of guiding his small craft through dangerous seas by deciding "not to think about" what he was doing, by letting his skills merge into instinct.

The best moments, in fact - the times you feel closest to sharing the experience of creativity - are when people tell of entering and returning from this non-logical zone of the mind without quite being able to describe it. You discover where a jazz musician like Benny Golson looks for inspiration - in the darkness of his thought, which he says he must face to find lurking ideas. You hear animator Chuck Jones talk about facing the monster, the darkness, as he does his best work. And in next week's show, "Creative Beginnings," you learn a little about how creativity works in kids, and how easily it can be smothered.

It's all part of a deftly integrated format of talking heads, abstract animation, and lots of glimpses: a college classroom, a doctor's office, and a spectrum of other places where this production, resourcefully and with rewarding open-mindedness, finds the creative spirit at work.

This postmodernist pastiche of devices, sometimes funny, sometimes gimmicky, includes, typically, a parody by Bernadette Peters of those sleazy TV commercials for "intimate" phone conversations: "Call the Creative Hotline, 1 (800) INTUITION and listen to your thoughts. You'll find something wonderful going on in that wonderful mind of yours." The almost anxious flurry of cuts ranges from statements by psychologists and artists, to quick takes of Ally Sheedy and James Earl Jones, who recites poetry and of fers little aphorisms ("Creativity is ... singing in your own key").

If the fragmentary style lacks an obvious structure, it probably shouldn't have one. The subject can't really be "developed" - people don't know that much about it. Instead you are shown revealing facets of a mercurial and elusive theme that is more evident, ironically, in the very creativity of the show itself than in the exposition.

A lot of that exposition is done in animation. Let someone say the best ideas can come to you in the shower, and there's a cartoon of someone showering. Wile E. Coyote from Chuck Jones's "Road Runner" cartoon is used to symbolize the dogged spirit of invention, since Wile E. bounces back no matter how often he's blown up or rolled over.

Cementing the pieces of the show together is an obligato of swirling, whimsical lines and colors reaching for the look of creativity, sometimes with an almost Calderesque playfulness and meaning.

If there's a central finding, it's that the moment of creativity (athletes and others sometimes call it "white space" or the "flow") can't be actively achieved on the conscious level. It comes after skills have been learned, active thought has been turned off, and the inner mind is allowed to find a solution, often coming to a thinker after sleeping on a problem overnight. Creativity is much more widespread, apparently, than people suppose, although a few of the show's guests counter the prevailing egali tarianism. Everyone may have a little creativity, but as Steve Allen puts it, some people "aren't doing a heck of a lot" with it.

To see creativity actually happening, though, watch Jones as he draws the word "JOY," talking his way through the process. You can all but see the juices flowing, the creative energy leaping from head to hand. At that moment you know why this TV series was made in the first place.

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