Creativity in the Blue House

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Creativity in the Blue House

I began attending a “Creativity Academy” at a university every Wednesday night. My boss told me my writing was not as good as it used to be and my survival instinct kicked in. I was also curious about the new Park Geun-hye administration’s concepts of “creative economy” and “creative education.” Maybe the class would give me some insight.

On a late evening after work, my tired body often dozed off during class. And it’s hard to get a sense of what creativity is really about. I am not so sure how we can foster creativity. During the past month of classes, what I have learned are lessons from two cases.

The first is the creativity of the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli. His best-known work, “The Birth of Venus,” is a masterpiece of the Renaissance period. But in 1485, it was nothing but a painting hung on the wall of a rural cottage. At the time, Florence was captivated by Raphael’s classical realism and Botticelli’s works were not competitive.

Even though he covered sensitive parts of the body with blond hair, female nudity was still taboo. His style of pagan painting taking themes from mythology - not the Bible - and the unrealistic proportion of the goddess, which ignores perspective, failed to win the respect of art patrons.

According to Professor Choe In-soo of Sungkyunkwan University, the piece was stored for more than 350 years in a wine cellar. A new appreciation for it came from English art critic John Ruskin. He was enraged that the masterpiece was trapped so long by the forces of ignorance and negligence. Soon, it was displayed in a prime place in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and tourists queue every day in front of this icon of the Renaissance.

“Is Botticelli creative or is Ruskin creative?” Choi asked. As the creativity of an individual artist is important, so too is the process of evaluating and appreciating a work.

Another case that inspired me was the story behind the development of Post-its, the varicolored stickers used to write reminders on. The wildly popular product by the U.S. stationary maker 3M came from a failure. A researcher mixed ingredients wrongly during an attempt to create a strong adhesive and ended up with a weak one. The gunk sat for five years in a storage facility. Another employee was looking for a low-tack adhesive to be used as a bookmark. The two combined their projects and the humble Post-it was created. If it was not for 3M’s culture of sharing the experiences of failures, it would never have entered our lives.

3M has a unique policy of “permitted bootlegging.” All employees are allowed to spend 15 percent of their work hours for their own research. They don’t have to get permission from their bosses. They can even continue research secretly that was ordered stopped by an upper chain of the management. The company encourages its workers to fail, but makes sure that the experiences of the failures are shared with others in case it leads to epiphanies.

Recently, controversy has flared over ideas of a “creative economy” and “creativity education.” A senior secretary to the president and the nominee for minister of science, ICT and future planning were criticized by the ruling Saenuri Party for having failed to clearly explain these concepts.

But creativity itself is an ambiguous concept about developing something new that can prove to be useful or of beauty. “It is wrong when a student said he or she understands what creativity is after receiving education for creativity,” said former Yonsei University president Kim Woo-sik. “It’s right when they say they are not sure what creativity is the more they study.”

The problem is whether the new administration, which claims to be promoting creativity, is actually creative itself. The first condition of creativity is listening attentively. You have to be a good listener, even if an idea seems ridiculous, and it is important to assess matters accurately, like Ruskin reevaluating the unconventional painting of Botticelli.

To this end, it is no small matter that the presidential chief of staff pressed senior secretaries to “point out shortcomings and make recommendations to the president instead of just writing down her words.” It’s also no small matter that the president is giving a long list of orders and actually numbering them. Top-down orders and shipshape responses do not mix with creativity. Only when a staff can say “no” to the president will the government have the kind of room for creativity it needs.

I wondered if the experiences of failures were shared among Blue House aides after a slew of appointments to the new government went wrong. A 17-second apology read by a spokeswoman last weekend suggested not. When failures are shared bravely, they are less likely to be repeated.

We must listen to the words of William McKnight, who made today’s 3M. “Mistakes will be made,” he said. “But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs.”

A creative organization can be possible when you have courage and trust.

By Lee Chul-ho

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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