Inventive creativity vs. artistic creativity

My wife and I watched the film Flash of Genius twice this weekend, though not necessarily by choice. It’s not a good film — the timeline is horribly disjointed — but the subject matter was quite intriguing.

Flash of Genius is based on a 1993 New Yorker article of the same name. I actually took the time to read the well-balanced twelve page article which included interviews and a brief history of patent law. The term “flash of genius” was issued by the Supreme Court in 1941 case to help define what an invention is, something that patent law has never really be able to do in a concrete way.

Discussion stemming from the film, between my wife and I and later with our friends, came to a mostly unanimous conclusion: The creative process of an inventor and an artist are very similar. Just like an artist, an inventor works from a set of cultural, social and technological tools.

Of course, the end results are of a different character. Inventions are generally functional solutions; paintings and sonatas are communicative reflections on an artist’s observations. I suppose this is why inventors’ intellectual property is protected by a different system, patents, than artists who use copyrights.

Both systems are somewhat outdated minefields, however. Copyright has done little or nothing to adequately keep up with digital technology, namely the internet. Likewise patent law, from what I understand, struggled to adjust to a tidal wave of electronics in the 20th century.


As I’ve noted before, creativity comes in different forms and by all kinds of processes. In my own work as a graphic designer I’ve experienced flashes of creative genius, but this doesn’t happen with every project. Other creative acts require patience — such as Alfred Stieglitz waiting three hours in a blizzard for the above photograph — and sometimes outright failures. Edison reportedly made 300 attempts at the light bulb before getting it right.

The New Yorker article quotes Henry Ford: “Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the great forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.” While I don’t agree with everything I’ve read about Ford, these two sentences speak clearly and accurately (although in context, as I recall, he’s essentially discounting individual inventive effort altogether, something I’m don’t necessarily agree with). There is nothing new under the sun.

Image from Wikipedia.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

2 Responses to Inventive creativity vs. artistic creativity

  1. Do you think that it was a coincidence that the Renaissance was filled with unbelievable genius? We have Michelanglos and Dantes living in the US right now who will never know that they are artistic geniuses. The Renaissance was the perfect artistic storm: money, patrons,a culture that cared deeply about beauty, and a competativeness that kept patrons highering better and better artists. We don’t have the same creative climate in the US which is why we aren’t teeming with great art like 16th century Florence.

  2. Pingback: Is genius practice, divine spark, or somewhere in-between? « The Aesthetic Elevator

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