Friday, April 13, 2012

Understanding Creativity Through Calvin and Hobbes

Understanding Creativity Through Calvin and Hobbes
By: Grant David Anderson II
For Kaneko: Open Space For Your Mind

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.” said Picasso, famously.  When talking about creativity, it is a valid point; as a society, we look to children to study the spirit of pure creativity, their developing minds embody the infinite potentiality of what is possible. In many ways the rigors of adolescence and adulthood places limitations on the behaviors conducive for creative thought. To recognize these behaviors we need to first understand what creativity is and how we utilize it.
Sir Ken Robinson, an international leader on the subject of creativity describes it as: “The process of having original ideas that have value.” The beauty of an original idea is that sometimes it takes us completely by surprise, because it approaches a problem with an unexpected solution. The effect is very similar to that of comedy, where a joke sets up the expectation and breaks it to cause laughter. Comedy is a very powerful tool for disseminating new or controversial ideas. It allows ideas to be shared in a manner that promotes open-minded comprehension and bypasses the natural tendency for people to be defensive about concepts with which they have little understanding, because they can laugh with them.
Calvin and Hobbes, the serially published comic strip created by Bill Watterson in 1985, seamlessly combines humor and childlike mentality to form an intuitive commentary on creativity. Calvin, the main character, is perpetually six years old, stuck in first grade and engages the world on his own terms with the help of his imaginary friend Hobbes, a stuffed tiger who comes to life with the help of Calvin’s imagination.  Together they go on adventures, often transcending the immediate confines of their “real” surroundings to explore a fictional world of their own making.  Calvin and Hobbes is where modern universal problems facing society are translated through the carefree play of a child into a format, which disarms and informs the viewer. Though this comic strip was designed to entertain, it has quite a lot to tell us about the subject of creativity.
One of the key aspects to creative thinking is the willingness to experience failure; Sir Robinson puts it like this, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” As adults, we have spent most of our lives trying to avoid situations where we experience failure, and the system we have in place does not allow for the acceptance of failures as well as successes. Adults are constantly growing more and more cautious, making them less likely to take risks that might result in embarrassment or being wrong.  In direct contrast, children have no qualms about failure; they will dive in and explore a new medium without consideration for the possible negative effects. This often leads to scraped knees, flushed faces, and an amazing amount of fun.
Calvin demonstrates an unashamed familiarity with failure throughout the run of the comic, particularly when embarking on a journey in his red wagon.  In the excerpt included below, Calvin attempts to test the theory of relativity, using of his wagon and a watch. He does not consider the potential failures of the experiment or let them limit his need to explore and understand the world. Calvin has been at the bottom of the hill in a heap on several occasions, yet even though the trip may foster the same result, he is not afraid to try again. 

            Adults are not faced with the scenario of a cliff and wagon very often, but instead struggle with the notion of forced creativity, working to a deadline, or meeting a requirement. An illustrative example of this is the following excerpt where Calvin rants about his homework assignment:

Adults often consider the end results ad nauseam, before the project has even begun. Simply being aware of what could go wrong is enough to stall a creative endeavor. They’re too worried about “ending up in the psychologists office” and have completely forgotten about having fun with the process of creating; (where here the “psychologist’s office” is a stand-in for the social consequences for being wrong.)  In order to foster creative thought we need to put the preconceived notions of how a project will turn out aside, and simply work on it.  Inevitably something new and exciting will develop out of the accidents or innovations inherent in the creative process.

Creativity is a constantly evolving process, which can be stifled by a concrete framework. Creative individuals tend to operate outside of a set structure and are continuously striving to fabricate and integrate their own systems.  It is that old adage “Think outside the box.” put into more descriptive terms. Calvin and Hobbes show us this in the form of “Calvin-ball”, a rambunctious uproarious amalgamation of rules and running, which uses any and all materials handy.

The rules are made up as they go along, often ending up in wild shouting matches about confused regulations; which both players acknowledge is more fun than playing one set game. Like many children, Calvin enjoys creating his own rules and games more than following the rules of others. Creative thinkers can learn quite a bit from this simple activity. Running with that idea, “Calvin-ball” becomes a micro-case study for the creative process, the “winner” is more successful based on the new and original ideas they come up with to suit a given situation; and the possibility is only limited by the scope of human imagination.
            Creative thinkers are more open to the utilization of unconventional possibilities. They are less concerned with what something is meant to do and more interested in what something might do, with its emancipatory potential.  This mentality is a mix of practical knowledge and imagination, for which children at play are the best example. Children have no reservations about using something with little or no consideration for it’s actual purpose.
It has been said that when presented with new toys, children end up playing more with the boxes than the toys themselves.  In many cases this is actually true, because the box is a veritable “blank canvas” of possibility that acts as a metaphorical “projection screen” for creativity. Children naturally consider other possibilities as a way of understanding and supplementing their world and a box becomes the perfect conduit for whatever they need at the moment. Throughout Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin employs a cardboard box for all manner of adventures. When turned upside down it becomes a “transmogrifier” with the ability to transform him into a dinosaur; on its side the box becomes a duplicator, making copies of Calvin to assist in chores; and when right side up, the box becomes a time machine.

Calvin’s versatility with such a limited material illustrates the boundless capability of a creative mind and his “matter of fact” insistence only further demonstrates the inherent intuitive nature of creativity in youngsters.  As practitioners of creativity it becomes important to consider the practical and imaginative capabilities of all things, the same way Calvin finds uses for his cardboard box.
            While there are a myriad of lessons to be gleaned from the pages of Calvin and Hobbes, the prominent underlying theme is that human creativity is limitless. It allows Calvin to fabricate his own world and allowed Bill Watterson to breathe life and personality into his characters. Watterson’s work stands as a testament to the capability for comics to enact widespread, positive change on the world. Calvin and Hobbes has inspired countless young artists, writers, and illustrators while still maintaining the ability to delight viewers, both young and old, prompting them to consider poignant social issues in a clever digestible way.  The messages present in the dialogue between a young boy and his stuffed tiger form a succinct commentary on the “human condition”, and like great literature provide us an expanded lexicon with which we can further understand and live our lives. Readers are forever drawn to Calvin and Hobbes, perhaps with the hope that upon turning the last page they will be reunited with the creative, precocious six-year-old they used to be.

All images are the intellectual property of Bill Watterson and are used for educational purposes.

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