"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Messy Rooms–Laboratories For Creativity?

Bart Hendricks had a messy roommate.  Whenever he came back from class, not only his room, but all the common living areas were strewn with clothes, piled with books, littered with yoghurt containers, half-eaten pizza slices, and cups of stale coffee.  No matter how much he asked him to clean the mess up, he refused.  “It’s a given”, he said.  “I’m messy”.

Bart had too little stuff as a child to be messy – a few comic books, a transistor radio, and a desk lamp.  Yet his  mother always complained that his room was a mess. He said that he would simply close the door so she wouldn’t have to see it. “I’ll know it’s there”, she said. “Clean it up”.

As an adult Bart was a very neat person - everything in its place and in order; “How can you possibly work with all that…junk…hemming you in?”, his wife said one day.  “You have no room to work”.

Of course he  had plenty of room, and the dried flowers, postcards, photographs, whitened beach bones, Chinese magic paperweights, Celadon bowls, cutouts of the Dutch masters, Shakespeare’s plays, souvenir tryst keys from Grosvenor House and the Hotel Palace in Sinaia, soapstone, an Orthodox icon of St. Nicholas, were pleasant and necessary distractions.  Bart could never work in a super-modern steel-and-white space. He was a fan of Phillip Johnson, and although at his happiest in a ryokan in Kyoto, could never work there.


Bart was at his most creative in public spaces – coffee shops, cafeterias, and restaurants. The noise is consistent and masking, and there is always something to look up at – the fat man at the corner table eating his bagel, the feather boa on the East Side matron, the jittery girl with the frappe. They are not distractions, but creative clues. His  own brain was too jumbled with running toilets, crabgrass, and the bad neighbor to give him any imaginative space.

The odds and ends on his desk did the same job.  He could look up from the computer screen, scan the pictures of his son in the Himalayas, Winslow Homer’s  girl in a white dress blowing a horn, his silver Soviet cigarette case, a kindergarten ashtray, and the glowing green light of his speakers, and formulate articles on regression, debt, gender, and Tea Party politics.

However, his office was not messy, nor cluttered.  Every piece had its place.  The photograph of his young son with Halloween cat whiskers belonged to the left foreground. Degas’ summer ballet class went in the back behind the dried thistles.  There is nothing out of order, nothing scattered indifferently.  Bart was at his most productive and creative in this environment.  Trash, litter, unorganized scatter distract me.

A number of years ago, not long after college, Bart thought he would give his roommate’s model a try. All the mess never seemed to bother him.  On the contrary, he did far better than Bart at Yale, and went on to advanced degrees at Harvard in a room that was even more messy and disgusting than the ones they shared.

Bart decided to throw order and discipline to the wind, and let clothes, books, dishware, and street art fall where they might. As the clutter piled up, and as the classic Mies van der Rohe curtain-walled simplicity of his apartment became just another New York place to live, he  felt increasingly uneasy.  The first exhilaration of throwing things, climbing into an unmade bed, rinsing off a spoon from the pile of dirty dishes in the sink – a royal fuck-all – didn’t last.  After a month of this disorder, Bart couldn’t think.  He felt as disordered as the apartment, loosed from his moorings.  He cleaned up and restored the apartment to the order that Mies himself would have appreciated.

Kathleen D. Vohs, writing in the New York Times (9.14.13), cites the results of her own research which showed that people who live in messy environments are more creative than those who live in neat, tidy, and ordered ones.
We found that the subjects in both types of rooms [messy, tidy] came up with about the same number of ideas, which meant they put about the same effort into the task. Nonetheless, the messy room subjects were more creative, as we expected. Not only were their ideas 28 percent more creative on average, but when we analyzed the ideas that judges scored as “highly creative,” we found a remarkable boost from being in the messy room — these subjects came up with almost five times the number of highly creative responses as did their tidy-room counterparts.
Now, Ms. Vohs does not provide the criteria used for determining ‘creativity’ or explain what ‘highly creative’ ideas are, so she might have been after ideas as mundane as using a timer to avoid burning the eggs or putting your shoes on after your pants (she chose smoothies and ping-pong balls).  No one said that the research subjects had to be smart. 

Yet one of the greatest creative minds of the 20th Century, and the man who transformed the stodgy, monumental buildings of older ages into glass, crystal palaces – Mies van der Rohe – never was cluttered.

Nor was Phillip Johnson

Perhaps only mathematicians are creative in messy work environments:
One might conclude from all this that dumb people extract ‘new’ ideas from dimly-lit brains in a messy environment; or that theoretical mathematicians operate in such an other orbit that they could work anywhere, neat or messy, but take the easy way out when they are close to a Unified Field Theory and let things pile up; or that architects who create buildings that don’t fall down need as much mental discipline and order as the buildings they design.

When messy people are chided by tidy ones and asked “How can you possibly find anything in that mess?”, they invariably answer, “I know where everything is” and can prove it. There is an entire branch of science which is devoted to discerning order in apparent disorder.  Chaos is an illusion, researchers say.  It is only a matter of time before a discernible pattern will be found. Messy rooms are not messy rooms, therefore, but have an underlying order.  The minds of the messy roommate or the chaos theorist are not messy at all.

Traditional Hindus believe that order and discipline are necessary for spiritual evolution.  The more we can control the mundane elements of life – when to get up, make love, eat, marry, have children, defecate, and go to bed – the more our minds are free to contemplate the One and hasten our journey to Enlightenment.  The essence of Gandhi’s philosophy was based on this simplicity and order.  Although he is best-known for his non-violent protests that helped bring down the British Raj,

Gandhi was also a Gujarati ascetic who took Hindu order and discipline to its logical extreme.  Live with nothing and nothing can confuse you on the path of spiritual evolution.

There is a funny scene in the Jeff Goldblum remake of The Fly.  Goldblum’s girlfriend, Geena Davis, asks him why he never changes his clothes.  “You wear the same thing every day”.

“I do not”, Goldblum replies and opens his closet to display a long rack of identical suits, shirts, and ties. “I put on new clothes every morning”.  The brilliant scientist whose mind is filled with innovative ideas about transmigration and brimming over with inventions, cannot be bothered with the irrelevant choice of what to wear.  Very Hindu indeed.

In other words, order and discipline seem to be behind creativity – and I include spiritual enlightenment in that category.  There is no way to find a personal vision, a solution to a complex problems, or a new way of configuring a building if you are overloaded with mess, unnecessary choice, and environmental noise.  You may be messy, but you most definitely have found an order in that disorder.

Perhaps it is artistic creativity that flourishes in mess and disorder.  Here are photos of Stravinsky, the author of The Rites of Spring, the opus that revolutionized music and dance. He doesn’t look messy to me.


Vohs concludes with a worry that the move to minimalist work environments can be detrimental to innovation:
At the same time, the working world is abuzz about cultivating innovation and creativity, endeavors that our findings suggest might be hampered by the minimalist movement. While cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.
This is a pretty big conclusion for one based on so little evidence.  It may be, for example, that a minimalist, Mies van der Rohe – Phillip Johnson, environment may be exactly what is needed for those people whose mind in naturally ordered and disciplined. Others, like Bart, who need environmental diversity, might fill their cubes with pictures of Manet’s Dead Toreador, or a spray of heather.

The intervening variable in this tidy-messy equation is order, the sine qua non of creative enterprise.  Even Jackson Pollock had a vision, a purpose, and an order to his work.  His abstract expressionist paintings did not emerge from a disordered, undisciplined mind. He had to start somewhere, as images from his early sketchbooks show.

Even the supposedly light-bulb insight is a product of order:
We may wake up in the middle of the night with the solution to a problem, an idea for a short story, or a better way to mow the grass; but that solution has evolved over time. Our mind-computer may be in sleep mode, but it is still on.  Consciously or unconsciously we have sifted, ordered, categorized, and defined random thoughts so that they make sense; and out of that sense comes innovation.

Each of us it seems needs some measure of order for creativity.  Mies' and Phillip Johnson's work environments mirrored their architecture.  Stravinsky's personal formality (order) had nothing to do with the dissonance, abrupt changes in tempo and rhythm, and seeming disorder of his works.  Einstein's creativity was so cerebral and interior that his environment meant nothing.  Bart needed an ordered disorder in order to center his mind.

When it comes to order, environment, disorder, and creativity, one size most definitely does not fit all.

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