Spring 2008: Letter from the President

James W. Wagner, President, Emory University

Ann Borden

Creativity and the Arts: Intellect and Imagination

By James W. Wagner

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It’s odd how a small conjunction can fasten one’s focus in a single direction, to the exclusion of so much else. That word “and,” for instance, in the phrase “Creativity and the Arts”—how tempting it is to hear that phrase (one of the foundational elements in Emory’s strategic plan) and to assume that the word “creativity” merely rounds out our notion of the arts and gives the phrase heft. How easy to see a redundancy, as if creativity simply were “the arts,” or as if artistry were the whole sum of what we mean by “creativity.”

But of course that conjunction is not intended to work that way. It is intended to open the door to a realm of possibility through which all disciplines are invited to step and play—not only the arts but the sciences, the humanities, the social sciences, law, theology, medicine, business. The phrase suggests that, while the artist may be the poster child of creativity, there is more to creativity than art, and more ways of being creative than through “the arts.”

One might assume that my training as an engineer would lead me to give greater weight to the artist in thinking about this phrase. After all, for most of us there is something deeply mysterious about how music moves from the mind of a composer to a page and then into performance. For those of us who don’t draw well, there is something almost miraculous about the way a painter translates 3-D vision into a 2-D image by daubing brushes in pigment.

But what of the creativity of the inventor, the tinkerer—the engineer? It may be that the process of, say, building a bridge or developing software is a “simple” matter of moving through a series of steps—sometimes very complicated steps, granted, but manageable, discrete steps nevertheless.

And yet—the marvels of engineering have something in common with works of art, revealing the human capacity to make something utterly unthought of before. They are works of technology that solve a particular problem, yes—how to get from one side of the river to the other, for instance. But they do so in a way that both points to solutions of other problems and leaves an indelible cultural imprint—the Brooklyn Bridge or the Internet, for example. Many architects can design a house by formula; but the creative genius of a Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater and made a home where creativity is expressed through both art and engineering.

It is that conjunction “and” in its joining work that is most remarkable about our strategic foundation—not only “the arts” academically (the study about art) but also the arts actively, through which our students and teachers create new concepts and energy. And it is not only the creativity of the arts themselves that we celebrate but also the potential for all disciplines to be similarly creative and energizing.

In 1979, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of our Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Emory hosted an international conference titled “Intellect and Imagination.” Nearly thirty years later that title might still be our guide for this strategic focus on “Creativity and the Arts.” Because it is imagination as the driver of intellect that constitutes creativity; and it is intellect at the service of imagination that makes art. Indeed, it’s possible to see these twin twosomes—intellect and imagination, creativity and the arts—at work over and over through Emory’s life.

It was the ability of C. Vann Woodward 32C to take stock of his native South in a new way that opened the eyes of historians to a different understanding of the region. It was the synthesizing mind of John B. Cobb Jr. 43OX that applied process philosophy to Christian thought and made theology meaningful for many postwar believers. It was the persistence of our own Dennis Liotta and Ray Schinazi that allowed them to visualize a molecule with unique properties, so that a drug could be developed to control HIV. And it was some combination of the poet’s ear and the scholar’s hard-bottom tenacity that led the late Woodruff Professor of Law Harold Berman to stake out a new field like the study of law and religion.

It’s odd how one little word can stir up so much.

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