The Modularity of Creation

Any explanation of the creative process is sure to be filled with generalizations and weak attempts to infiltrate the mind of the artist and others. As I thought about this essay, I found myself hitting wall after wall I attempted to navigate through this world and searched for a portal through which I could move to a level of understanding – of the process and, more importantly, the mindset of the artist as he or she contemplates the corporeal, aesthetic and spiritual world in which they live.

In thinking this over, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a couple of ways to look at this.   First, there is the singularity of the idea.   In a recent conversation regarding the repetitive nature of the Agnes Martin retrospective at the Guggenheim, my friend Russ D’Italia made this point by quoting Marcel Proust: “The great men of letters have never created more than a single work, or rather have never done more than refract through various mediums an identical beauty which they bring into the world.” I think this concept applies not only to the catalog of literature but to visual, spatial and musical arts as well – and is supported by the development of technology and artificial intelligence as we move to a post-information society and toward an environment of simulation and rationality of machines.

Consider the career of painter Jackson Pollock. After being mentored by Thomas Hart Benton, Pollock spent the early part of his career painting expressive but figurative art that seemed to languish. However in the mid 1940s a convergence of influences, including various forms of totemic art, Native American sand painting and, in 1946, a viewing of the paintings of Janet Sobel, brought Pollock to a new place and surfaced the idea of “action painting”. This style of drip painting eschewed the use of an easel (the canvas was laid on the floor), and eliminated the use of traditional brushwork.   This work was called “all over painting” by art critic Clement Greenberg, and was characterized by constant movement by the artist and the utilization of the force of the whole body to paint.   Pollock offered the following description: “I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”   The body of work that resulted was emotional and energized and it solidified Pollock’s place at the foundation of Abstract Expressionism.

However, it this single idea and revelation that propelled the creative process of Pollock and that we see replicated through his work and through the arts in general.   Other examples abound in historical works as well as inside the current manifestations.   Turner, for example, as he evolved toward an abstract and impressionistic view of Nature, seemed to replicate his technique and use of color and light. Mark Rothko, in turn, , with his large contemplative paintings, like Pollock, provides subtle yet profound variations on a central, recurring theme. Other examples include the stories of John Cheever and Edgar Allan Poe with their use of settings, milieu and, in the case of Poe, emotional; and visceral response.


In the current music scene, there is little in the way of what I would consider artistry, some hip hop notwithstanding, with the possible, notable, exception of Trent Reznor.   Through his primary vehicle, Nine Inch Nails, and other projects (including Oscar winning film scores), Reznor and his collaborator Atticus Ross have created a catalog of music that, on the surface, transcends genre and form.   However, reviews of their latest EP, Not the Actual Events, observers have concluded that they have reverted to a place that is reminiscent of the formula that was developed in their 1990’s work.   Reznor himself acknowledges this “ We allowed ourselves to become self-referential, look back at some of the things we have done and write a song like something else, which has never been the starting point, But it was listening back to some mid ‘90s stuff that sounded pretty exciting having not listened to it in a while. ‘Lets make something that is referencing that’ “. The ‘90s LPs that Reznor refers to include The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, both featuring lyrics of angst and despair, coupled with structured music, augmented by dichotomous sound that served to add the element of aggression while reinforcing the gradual layering of melody and electronic accompaniment.   While he has,, through other vehicles, experimented with other forms, it is the self referencing nature of the current NIN work that brings to mind the use of a formula – even with an artist as self-aware as Reznor.


Secondly, there is a slightly different twist on the notion of a single idea that, interestingly enough, is shown quite convincingly in the gestalt and strategies of business – particularly those in the forefront of technology.   The variation is found in the creation of platforms as the basis of future corporate growth and strategic layering of products. The word platform is traditionally used in the area of software development, but has evolved to refer to the forming of a base that provides the ability to add and variate offerings in an almost modular fashion.   These platforms offer companies a variety of avenues that can be pursued to push the logic of growth and the provision of continuing value to their customers.

AT&T for example, has recently announced the development of a 5G wireless network platform with gigabit content delivery capability. That platform, known as Network 3.0 Indigo, among other things, will leverage and provide the support for big data, cloud processing, machine learning, artificial intelligence and open source software development.   And in a more accessible way, it is also will be the platform for delivery of Direct TV video streaming, which then, in turn, provides the vehicle to deliver a wide variety of content under acquisition in the company’s bid to buy Time Warner. 3.0 is a massive investment that is designed to provide such a wide range of variation that it has also created a workforce skills transformation as the company rebuilds itself as one that is clearly software driven.   In other words, AT&T is constructing a total reinvention that is designed to drive them into future growth and prosperity.   And it is the concept of a sophisticated platform that is the fundamental underneath it all.


Singularity of the idea and the development of a platform that form a basis for variation and expression are only two ways to look at the process of creation.   But it is the inherent use of modules that brings the concept into focus – the convergence of the artist and businessman as they look to keep themselves current and reflect the continual need for self-expression and individual and institutional growth.