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Creativity, Perspective & The Threat Of Translegality- This post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist & mathematician.

Creativity, Perspective & The Threat Of Translegality- This post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist & mathematician.


Creativity, Perspective & The Threat Of Translegality


No, this is not a treatise on law. It is about perspective and hidden bias in creative pursuits.

What seems like a long time ago now, on the Ides of March in 2020 with the coronavirus flaring and spreading like a stain across the Earth, we wrote of a remarkable transformation that occurred across multiple areas of human creativity a little over a century ago. 


Serendipitous Simultaneity


Just after the turn of the 19th century to the 20th century, art, literature, music, and science all experienced profound changes, changes that could be summed in the idea of “no universal perspective.”

In physics it was called relativity, in art it was called “Cubism.”

Since there was no preferred perspective, the only way to step beyond individual bias (point of view)  was to account for or depict the existence of multiple points of view, as seen in the famous multi-perspective painting by Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending A Staircase.



Nude Descending A Staircase, Marcel Duchamp


Beyond Law: Translegality


We have wondered why some ideas are so pervasive, particularly in popular culture. This is why Bruce invented the term “translegal.” It signifies an idea so powerful and ubiquitous it as AS IF it were mandated by law, but it isn’t.

In a recent blog post, we talked of certain patterns or tropes that are so common they seem to be required by law, such as the “drum stutter” in almost all rap music.

Fads and fashion often generate translegal behavior, which burns hot and fast and then disappears. High schools are perfect breeding grounds for this– a certain shoe, hair tie, or type of jeans takes over completely for a while, then disappears.

This is in contrast to the Ides of March discussion, which discussed slow, subconscious and deep events that did not disappear but remain integrated in human culture in ways too numerous and subtle to entirely comprehend, even with a century of perspective. 

Both the fast and shallow (re: translegality) and the slow and deep (re: the Ides of March) influences affect your creativity.


Fads & Fashion


Translegality is amplified by the speed of electronic communication, but predates it by far.

An example of translegality in the past is the “tulip mania” in Holland in the 1600s, where people spent staggering amounts of money for single bulbs because everybody else was doing it.

Tulip bulbs had very little intrinsic value, but people speculated in them because they figured they could always sell them for more than they bought them for.

Perhaps the current fascination with digital currencies is something like tulip mania.


Economics is full of instances of bubbles and crashes, it is like a system poised at the boiling point, venting off excess energy, living perpetually at the boundary of a phase transition. 


Field of Tulips



This behavior is obvious by its superficiality and performative nature, as it is often driven by the desire to be seen by others. I think it is fundamentally social in nature.

The interesting thing about translegal phenomena is that they generate a stronger compliance than would be generated by an actual law.

In fact, if there were a law mandating something, there would be a substantial and predictable fraction of the population defying it “just because.” Translegal effects can look almost dictatorial.


The Opposite of Translegality


As if translegality weren’t odd enough, sometimes there is anti-translegality. 

This addresses a phenomenon that isn’t there that by all rights should be, but is not forbidden by law. Consider wheels on luggage. Absolutely obvious. How did we ever manage without?

Wheels for luggage were invented in 1970. I guess that’s why it was originally called “luggage.”

It was certainly possible to have wheels on luggage for decades before it actually happened, if not centuries. And there were lots of people who would benefit.

So we see that this kind of emergent compliance occurs in economics and in manufactured objects, but does it have anything to do with art?



Wheeled Luggage


Translegality & Creativity


How does this affect creativity? Translegality, fashion and fads are everywhere, sometimes even acting on the past, which we tend to think of as immutable.

An old Soviet proverb states,


The future is certain; it is only the past that is unpredictable.


This is a wry comment on the tendency of the Soviet regime to rewrite history, but they’re not the only ones doing it.

As a musician, Bruce watched various composers of the past rise and fall. For a while, Mahler was everywhere, but now less so. But Mahler has always been Mahler.

Bruckner had a moment. J.S. Bach was almost lost until Mendelssohn decreed him great a century later.



Statue of JS Bach- Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany



Creativity Tightrope


In the pursuit of creative inspiration, it is important to be aware of the context of your work, to be schooled by the old masters, but in some sense not to take them too seriously. And to pay attention to your contemporaries as well, but not too much!

For centuries, major discoveries in physics were made by people in their 20s and occasionally 30s. Physicists didn’t have early onset dementia as a group, it was more of a success disaster. They started to believe what they were doing too much, to “read their own press releases,” as it were. Productivity was high while creativity declined.

It seems as if you have to be mature enough to understand the “tools of the trade,” but not so established as to believe everything you’ve done.


The challenge as an artist is to maintain an attitude of provisionality, of nimbleness to be able to step into the adjacent possible. It’s a creativity tightrope act.


Rembrandt van Rijn painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp when he was 25, which put him in the history books.

He fell out of favor later in his lifetime because he refused to follow fads. Ever the rebel, he insisted on continually evolving his art, stepping into the unknown, taking his viewer someplace new.

Bach was dismissed as a “musical mathematician” for the prodigious complexity of his work when the tides turned to simplicity. He carried on nevertheless.

It was left to later generations to appreciate the brilliance of Rembrandt’s and Bach’s creations.



Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulip


Your Unique Perspective


Does this mean ignore what others are doing or have done, including the greats of history?

Your bias is inescapable and important. Your combination of history and perspective is unique. Your path is determined by your context but also your action.

An old proverb sums it up nicely, “Pray to God, but row towards shore.”





In gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. If you enjoy this blog, you’ll love my book The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity



“One of the best Creativity books of all time” – BookAuthority


See the Artist Interview on Book Lover’s TV 


The Artist’s Journey by Nancy Hillis is a transformative guidebook that encourages readers do to away with self-doubt and dive deep into the world of abstract art as a method of fulfillment and self-expression. – Review by the Book Excellence Awards

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