Bohm on creativity, order, art, and mediocrity

Epistemic status: these thoughts are based on a book that I’m still in the middle of. I’m more trying to work out my thinking than I am trying to tell you what to think or how to make movies. Also, I have taken three physics classes in my life and none of them had a lot of math.1

I’m reading On Creativity by David Bohm, which I discovered through Guillaume Wolf’s You Are a Message.

I’m only on page 34. It’s one of those read-a-page-and-then-think-for-10 minutes kind of books.

Bohm starts by talking about how the physical universe is ordered. It’s a structure of many ordered objects or systems within a hierarchy of orders.

Newton discovered truths about the order of physical objects in our universe, and then Einstein came along and discovered another truth about an order that supersedes Newton’s. The theory of relativity doesn’t invalidate Newtonian physics, but it does transcend it — it creates an understanding of the ordering of the universe that Newtonian physics fits under.

One part of creativity is being able to see the world as it is or to see a thing as it is, like a child would — with total attention to the thing and no preconceived notions. Einstein had to understand Newtonian physics on the one hand, but he also had to keep an open mind and be open to the possibility that there was something more.

As an adult, this is not easy, not because of the math, but because you’ve been conditioned to think mechanically.

You have to see the thing as it is in reality and then see how it could be different, without your pre-conceived, ‘mechanical’ ideas.

Anyway, I started thinking about order and the beauty of order and how it relates to art, because this is a book about creativity in science and art.

I thought about film and writing and I do think there’s something to this structure, this hierarchy of orders.

Dramatic Structure

Most screenwriting gurus charlatans2 talk about the three-act structure.

I believe that this structure evolved because there is something pleasing or beautiful about it: the character’s world is ordered in act 1, the world comes undone in act 2, the world is set back in order in act 3.

But there’s nothing magical about three acts. Hamlet is five acts and seems to do alright. You could also take each of the three acts and break it into three sub-acts and call it the 9-act structure. Why not the 27- or 81-act structure?

The important thing is that there is a beginning, middle, and end — you can break each one down into many different smaller pieces.

Going down from the act level, you get the scene. A scene also has a structure, a beginning, middle, and end (at least traditionally it does).

And a scene can be broken down into beats.

And beats can be broken down into mini-beats, the actions or words that comprise a beat.

When the beats don’t work, when they are not well ordered, the audience can feel it. When the beats repeat, the audience gets bored. When they are purposeless, they get bored. When they don’t make sense, they get bored. Etc.

And I think you can go down another level below mini-beat, to the micro-moments that play out in an actor’s gestures or their face, or in the camera movement or notes in the score or the heightened sounds of the glasses clinking at the breakfast table in Phantom Thread.

The Structure of the Whole Film

The dramatic structure is just one kind of ordered system within a movie, although it’s probably the most important (a bad or dull story usually isn’t improved much by great sound design).

There are other components like: cinematography, art direction, sound design, music, graphics, VFX, etc., all of which can be broken down into a series of smaller ordered structures.

I think we can sense when these other components are not working well or when they are not in harmony with the whole piece.

Imagine Casablanca shot on an old video camera instead of 35mm film. It’s not that old video cameras can’t make good movies, it’s just that it would break the order of Casablanca.

In a human body, we can think of the various organs and systems working together in harmony, each a collection of lower-order systems, going down to the cells and then electrons, and then whatever other particles there are because I’m not a phsyicist.

When one of the organs breaks down or becomes cancerous, the body is still in equilibrium, but it’s a diseased equilibrium, unhealthy.

With a movie too we can see when it’s not ‘healthy’ because one of the components is not working with the others: “I wanted to like it but the acting was terrible.”

I think that when movies break their internal rules, they are breaking an order that is desired by the audience. We don’t want reality, we want internal consistency.3

Mediocrity and badness

Bohm talks a lot about mediocrity, in comparison with the creative. A mediocre work of art vs. a creative one.

I used to think of mediocre as something that was just not good. But I think mediocre is not quite on the scale of good or bad.

A thing has to be good to be mediocre. It has to be well-made or ordered. Think of a mediocre television show. Is it bad? Like is it actually the result of poor craftsmanship?

Usually the answer is no — usually the mediocre television show is done by hard-working professionals who are very good at what they do. A bad TV show, one made by craftless amateurs would look very very different from a mediocre one.

This is possibly related to premium mediocrity.

Mediocrity and badness are not the same thing.

Mediocrity doesn’t lie on the good/bad scale, it’s not a matter of quality. Mediocrity is itself the left pole of the creative scale. Mediocre is the opposite of creative.

I think that Bohm would say that creativity is required to transcend mediocrity. A creative film comes as a revelation. There’s a feeing to seeing one. Just as there’s a feeling that comes with discovering something new, something previously unseen, or previously seen but unnoticed.

Transcending mediocrity is not a matter of craft (although craft may be a prerequisite), it’s a matter of seeing or saying something new, or seeing/saying it in a new way, seeing and revealing something new about human life or relationships or whatever it is that we care about.

If it’s something deep or essential, something that was always in front of you but you never noticed, then the experience can be really powerful.

I remember the feeling I had when I was a kid and I watched Monty Python or The State. They were new ways of seeing the comedy in the world, of laughing at the world, and they really did feel transcendent.4

A truly creative work might see something new and find a new way of telling that story, in a way that all its component parts are used in harmony, in a new way that serve the new way of seeing.

Conclusion

I love books like this, books that get me to see something that was there all along. As I get older, it’s harder to find these things… you can only discover economics once in your lifetime.

Like I said, I’m still trying to figure this out so let me know if you think I’m wrong in small or big ways.


  1. In college I took an intro to physics class. The one memory I have is of the professor looking up to see a kid leaving in the middle of his lecture. In his thick Russian accent, he asked the student “where are you going?” and the student said “I have something important to go to” and with a bewildered look, the professor said “more important than Newton?” and I thought that was just the funniest thing. 

  2. They’re not charlatans because they talk about 3-act structure, they’re charlatans because they take money from desperate people in exchange for a false promise of teaching them how to write million dollar screenplays or unlock the secrets of writing, or whatever. 

  3. Some of the anger over the last season(s) of GOT is probably related to this. True Blood is interesting to me because it seemed like every season they created new rules in the world, each more fantastical than the last. The first time they did it, it was off-putting, but then as they did it with every new season, the rule-breaking formed its own kind of order and became part of the larger story structure. 

  4. One of the not great things about devoting your life to comedy is that it gets harder and harder to see something completely new, which leads to a lot of comedians having a pretty fucked up sense of humor. 

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