A number of years ago, when I was at the Tate Modern in London, I was attacked by a sticky mist of water and the glare from a giant Day-Glo bulb of orange-yellow light in the museum’s Turbine Hall. Confused at first, I just squinted my eyes into that searing ball of light. Then I glanced at the floor and saw of bunch of people lying there as if they were at the beach for the day. Yeah… right, I thought. Crazy art people. And then I saw the sign: Olafur Eliasson. "The Weather Project." Epiphany. I immediately lay down on the floor and basked in that light.
I thought of this on Feb. 25 when I attended the inaugural lecture of René Redzepi’s MAD Mondays, a public lecture and discussion series based on his wildly popular annual summertime MAD Symposium. How did Eliasson's concept spring to life? For that matter, where did Picasso’s "Guernica" come from? How did James Joyce create his stream of consciousness for Ulysses? And where does René Redzepi come off serving ants and cricket paste at dinner at his "world's best restaurant," Copenhagen's Noma? The answers to all these questions lie in the nature of creativity.
An understanding of the creative process was what Redzepi attempted to get at, at the first MAD Monday, by moderating a discussion, held upstairs in the book-lined chefs' common area at Noma, between four different people who all have stakes in the creativity game: chef Paul Cunningham, formerly of the Michelin-starred The Paul in Copenhagen; Danish author Knud Romer; Danish-Israeli artist Tal R; and the grand old man of Danish gastronomy, chef and cookbook author Erwin Lauterbach.
Starting with his own failure to understand the creative process, Redzepi declared, "Why creativity? Since 2010, we’ve tried to answer that. And we have no clue." Then, turning to the panel, Redzepi asked about their own challenges with creativity. For Lauterbach, the seeming paucity of fresh ingredients forced creativity upon him. "In the '70s, it was all French cooking," he said. "But I was in Sweden and I needed to be creative making food with just four products, like beets and potatoes."
For Paul Cunningham, the challenge was more mental than physical. After he garnered heaps of accolades for The Paul, the pressure of running a successful restaurant, writing cookbooks, and promoting his own "brand" eventually exacted a huge toll. "I was afraid of saying no," he said. "The stress of creativity created a monster." That monster was a nervous breakdown that led him to close down his restaurant at the height of its fame in order to find his mojo again, leading him to the rural coast of Jutland to cook at the resort inn Henne Kirkeby Kro. And with a new sense of freedom, not only did Cunningham find creativity, he also found happiness. "Creativity and happiness go hand in hand," he added. "And for me, they have to be that way."
But can anyone be creative? "I think the conventional idea of creativity is wrong," Knud Romer told the crowd. "That it is something immediate. It’s nonsense." But if our romantic notion of creativity is not what creates the newest dish or the critically acclaimed novel, then what is it? For Romer, creativity does not come from "nowhere," it’s the product of discipline and sweat. "To be creative is hard work," he said. "You have to have a goal. You have to learn about your craft, whether it is cooking or art. And you have to have knowledge.
Artist Tal R didn’t see creativity so much as an issue of knowledge but more in terms of process: "What is creativity?" he asked. "It is the free-fall of an idea." And falling free means that sometimes "you have to break something." That process is not necessarily one of originality, but one that involves a social push from others, whether it is from competition or from mimicry. "There’s a lot of stealing that goes on in creativity — I steal all the time." But does that make one less of an artist? Tal R says no, "It’s not the clichés or the stealing. It’s the desire that makes creativity."
And with respect to cooking, Redzepi sees begging, borrowing, and stealing in the same light, but in the end, he believes, it’s still the individual who determines creativity: "You can feel the creativity of the individual in the dish," he said. "Recipes are just a guideline." When the session ended, as the audience filed out the door, the Noma staff distributed chocolate chip cookies and Mikkeller beer to everyone. Each cookie was different — a vivid (and delicious) symbol of what it means to be truly creative.