Today, a security guard explains creativity to me.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Last night at the art
museum, my mind gradually slowed from its
work-a-day churn, into reflection. Finally, in the
exhibit of modern Texas art, I asked a security
guard, "With all the hours you spend in here, which
is your favorite work?"
"Sir," he said, "as a matter of policy, we don't
express opinions on the art." He paused, then
smiled. "I'm going to break that rule and tell you.
Actually, I like all the art."
I laughed at his self-deprecatory, fool-nobody,
diplomacy. He'd put me in the right frame to enjoy
the good humor of modern art. When we passed again,
I said, "Someday, you'll be president of the United
States." He pulled a long face: "Now why should you
have such a low opinion of me!" Then he said,
Let me give you the real answer to your
question. The finest art in this room isn't hanging
on the walls. It's the people who come through
here. People aren't the same in here as they are
walking through a supermarket, you know. They're
different. They're open. They come here to be
I looked at the man with astonishment. Of course!
That's what art is all about. He'd gone right to
the center of it.
Long ago, Louis Pasteur talked about creativity. He
said, "Chance favors only the prepared mind." But
while Pasteur offered no guidance as to how we
prepare our minds, that security guard did. People
don't move through museums the way they move
through supermarkets. Art is more than just a
product served up for our pleasure. Art is a
trigger to our imaginations.
We all live in need of ideas. We all have problems
to solve. At some point, most of us realize that,
when our problems need creative solutions, they
cannot be attacked with purely methodical tools.
Method takes us down familiar roads. Creativity
means seeing the shrubbery-shrouded side roads that
we ignore by habit.
The hardest thing in the world is to leave the
highway and float above the land. Music, theater,
sculpture -- they all cut us loose from the road of
method and common sense.
The so-called creative leap isn't a leap in the
dark -- without antecedents or stimulus. Rather, it
happens when we find a liminal state, on the very
edge of awareness, where ideas arrive without order
or hierarchy. In that mental world, cowpaths are as
important as freeways. And one way to find that
creative state is to give ourselves over to art.
Inside the museum, we lay aside our shopping lists
of needs to be met. Art serves us when we leave our
supermarket lives to wander the woods, eating the
unexpected nuts, berries, and wild fruit.
That's what that security guard saw. He saw people
without shopping lists, ready to be taken into
alien spaces. He'd seen you and me, ready to be led
onto byroads of thought, ready to wander into
places we didn't know were there -- and so very
close at hand.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds