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What Criminals, Artists and Inventors have in Common

Did you hear Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4 this morning? Damien Hirst was chatting about his life and the music that inspired him. To be honest I only caught 10 minutes of the show, but it was enough to realise that I knew nothing about his world. Although my home is littered with modern art, none of the art itself is by a 'name' - at least as a far as I am aware. Perhaps when me and the Mrs have shuffled off our mortal coils (what is a 'mortal coil'?) and our kids put our stuff up on ebay, someone somewhere will shriek "it's a Bill Plonkworthy... a genuine Bill Plonkworthy!" and bid a fortune for it along with the 500,000 other twitter followers of said Bill P. Well I've never heard of the Bill Ps that Damien and his fawning interviewer fondly and respectfully name-checked throughout my 10 minutes of casual attention, so I can't claim I was enthralled by the programme, nor did I want to catch the 20 minutes I missed (his choice of music was, to say the least, as odd as his art). But one story and related comment he did make, made me think.

It would seem Damien Hirst had a troubled upbringing. Who'd know? Most normal people brought up in loving families experiment with pickling sharks, don't they? OK, so he was bound to have had some weird shit in his past which included trouble with the law. Burglary, shoplifting, joy-riding etc. "Minor stuff" as he recalls. Not to the people he robbed, I can assure him. And then he made an extraordinary point. He suggested that the criminal mind has a lot in common with creative art. His point was that most criminals simply don't care what effect their actions have on other people. They only care about themselves. Artists behave in similar ways when they paint, sculpt or generally create effects intended to please themselves, not their audience or even potential buyers. They want to be different - or, more to the point, they don't care about not conforming. Most would rather be respected for being avant-garde, than applauded for being a perfectionist in some technique. Being creative, in other words. Doing something new because they could and because they wanted to explore their own emotions. Push their boundaries. Create something personally exciting. Their ambition is to stimulate themselves... and if they manage to stimulate others who will buy their works, so much the better. They are creative because they too don't care what other people think.

There's another person I listen to. Sir Ken Robinson, a leading educationalist who has given a couple of highly amusing and powerful TED talks. This is his most popular. He talks about how traditional schooling the world over (but especially in the US) stifles learning (as opposed to teaching) which is based on stimulating curiosity and, above all, creativity. Bashing creativity out of kids by forcing them to digest monotonous facts and methodologies deadens their enthusiasm for learning, and ultimately putrefies their brains - like religious faith (my words). Encourage them to ask questions and to express themselves in new ways. Don't force them to adopt 'tried and tested' methods of teaching. Exploit the child's natural creativity and enquiring mind. Don't streamline it. Don't mould it. Fertilise it. Let it breath. And let their teachers' minds do the same thing. Help them find expression for their understanding of topics by harnessing their own creative instincts rather than forcing them to adopt strict processes and proscribed methodologies.

There's another TED talk you should watch by the delightfully named Alison Gopnik. She is an expert on child development. In her talk she demonstrates how incredibly inventive young minds are. She makes the point that 'children aren't defective adults'. In fact they are far better at imagination and creativity than adults give them credit. Better than us in fact. You might also bear in mind, considering the theme of this post, that children also don't care about the effect of their behaviour on other people and that all they care about is themselves. A visit to Tesco or any Easyjet holiday flight will quickly confirm this. Battles with teenage daughters are testaments too.

So the intriguing point I'm making is that in order to find solutions to problems, we need to stimulate creative thought - and that the best source for creative thought is in minds that don't care about other people. Freed of stigma, morals, fear and open to experimentation. Criminals, children and the crazy people. Should we therefore value and stimulate their potential in different ways than we currently do? Can we harness their unfettered brains to find solutions and discover new ideas that the rest of us have had bashed out of us from early childhood by parents, schools, governments, police, churches and the like?

I'm greatly intrigued by the potential of crowdsourcing. Throwing a problem into the internet and seeing what emerges. We've only just begun this incredible journey for our digitally connected species. Imagine what power lies untapped when we get the hang of how to do this properly, and especially using the imagination of unfettered minds.

Sir Ken and Ms Gopnik talk persuasively about changing our educational systems to better empower young brains. But what about the potential locked up in our prisons and asylums? These are institutions packed with people who usually 'didn't care about the effect of their actions on others'. These are creative brains, locked away, doing bugger all, costing society a fortune, and achieving absolutely nothing for us or, more importantly, for themselves. Rehabilitation seems to be the only semi-positive opportunity for their incarceration. But maybe, if this theory holds water, criminal and psychotic brains actually have special powers that the rest of us have lost. Maybe they could collectively be harnessed in some way to exploit their creative potential. Who hasn't been impressed by some of the 'capers' invented by these socio- and psychopaths to extort money or other personal gains from their victims?

Our national art galleries are festooned with the works of manic depressives and the autistic. Maybe these aren't 'useless' brains we otherwise pay to rot away as some form of social retribution or to hide us from people behaving 'oddly'. Yes of course we need to prevent these people from creating victims and harming themselves  Of course we need to find ways for them to understand the pain and suffering they inflict and to help them find peace with their psychoses. They, just like children, need to become aware of the effect of their actions on others. But, just like children, they need to achieve self-respect too. Only when they respect themselves will they begin to respect others. Otherwise, who cares? Certainly not them.

So perhaps one idea is to ask for their help in finding creative solutions to problems we 'normal folk' struggle to solve. Perhaps we should encourage them to express themselves to invent new art forms. Don't you love street graffiti? It used to be called vandalism.

Where might this take us? Maybe it will take us to uncomfortable dark places. I'm not sure I'd want to advocate more blood and gore on our screens, for example. Unlimited cinema horror, video nasties, pornography and the likes are approaching the sadistic and licentious excesses our ancestors so adored in coliseums. Today's PG certificates would shock our grandparents, let alone our kids. But this is a topic for another post perhaps. However, surely there's also an opportunity for a brighter more positive imagination to flourish here to exploit and develop this untapped potential.

Let's not force minds to all think the same way (North Korea, Iran?!). Invention comes from thinking out of the box. Let's open boxes, especially the ones with the wackiest contents. Only by exploring the unknown will we expand what is known.

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