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Two researchers from Rutgers University, Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh, have created an algorithm which — they claim — can quantify creativity. Their computer algorithm, they say, can judge which paintings are more creative: Vermeer and Lichtenstein rank rather high, while Durer, Ingres, and Rodin receive low marks. (Here are a few articles about the algorithm, in case you want to read more: Hyperallergic. Slate. Wired)

Picture from Rutgers University
Picture from Rutgers University

Like many art-types, my first reaction to the story was — well — disdain and anger. How dare scientists try to quantify creativity using an algorithm? They don’t understand creativity if they are trying to measure it using a computer! That is ridiculous…!

Okay. Calm down.

I think we can ALL agree that the answer to the question, “Can a computer algorithm measure creativity?” is a resounding, “no.” A computer program cannot measure emotions, beauty, or the all important question “Do I — the individual — like it?” I could spend DAYS debating the relative creativity of Michelangelo versus Van Gogh, and never come to a conclusion — how could a computer answer that question by adding up a few zeros and ones? It can’t.

Even the scientists who developed the algorithm admit their program cannot replace human subjectivity when judging art. So, we don’t need to argue this question.

Besides, focusing on THAT question misses a more interesting one, I think:

Why do we humans feel such a NEED to try to measure creativity in the first place? 

After all, these Rutgers researchers are not the first people to try to understand creativity.

I’m as guilty as anyone — I’ll read any book that promises to help me get a better grasp on creativity. Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) has a new book coming out this fall about the roots of creativity called Big Magic — and it’s already on my wish list of things to read. I love The Artist’s Way, any book where a writer writes about writing (think Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead), and all of Malcolm Gladwell’s writing (which at its core is trying to help us all understand how we think, succeed and create).

I want to know: What makes up creativity? What is the root of inspiration? How can I capture it, recreate it, harness it? How can I CONTROL it?

We all want someone — anyone — to give us a quick and easy answer to how to achieve the brilliance of Leonardo da Vinci or Jane Austen or Bob Marley. It doesn’t matter if that answer comes from our morning pages, or an inspiring read, or, yes, even a computer algorithm (perhaps, especially a computer algorithm: “Buy this ap! You can be creative just by opening your iPhone!”), we want it.

But that’s the whole point of creativity, isn’t it? We can’t understand it, quantify it, harness it, or control it. It’s out there — wandering in the wild. Besides, if we could control it, we’d probably ruin it, wouldn’t we? We’d probably control all the creativity right out of creativity.

It’s better that we have to keep grasping at something that can’t be grasped — that we all must keep TRYING (but failing) to capture it, recreate it, harness it, and control it because it’s the messiness of the effort that makes creativity… magical.

So, everyone, keep on struggling. Keep on fighting. Keep on trying to understand… Even you, Rutgers scientist guys. Keep drawing up those algorithms… Because sometimes, in your search to understand creativity, you might just experience it.