The Disgusting Side of Creativity

I’m going to try to write about disgust without being disgusting. Is that possible? Let’s find out!

I can’t remember what triggered the thought (probably something disgusting that I am now repressing), but a few weeks ago I began wondering if being more creative means being more tolerant of things that other people find disgusting. I think it does, at least in some ways, and I’m not the only one to think so.

I’m reading a book called “Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion” by Susan Miller. I’ve already read and re-read the chapter called “The Creative Individual and Freedom from Disgust.” She references some famous works that people have found disgusting — the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and the painter Chris Ofili, whose painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” had elephant dung and pictures of penises on it.

Disgusted at just the mention of Mapplethorpe’s name? Some people certainly are. Disgusted at the mere idea of Ofili’s painting?  Yes, some people certainly are.

(So, no, I couldn’t write about disgust without being disgusting.)

Miller says, “Good art will at times expand the range of what we tolerate.” One of the most important parts of that sentence is “at times.” We could easily add, “and at other times, it will not,” because Miller is implying that good art doesn’t always expand our range.

Range is an important word there — disgust is all about boundaries and where we draw them. If you draw your boundaries close to where I draw mine, you’ll find this fun — there’s a thing called “The Disgust Scale” that you can find online, which asks you to respond to statements like the following: “I might be willing to try eating monkey meat, under some circumstances.” “It would bother me to be in a science class, and to see a human hand preserved in a jar.” “It bothers me to hear someone clear a throat full of mucous.”

For me, the top two make me curious, interested, and my face doesn’t register disgust so much as my eyebrows raise a little. The third — ACK! I can’t even.

It’s not that I’m meeting students and others who are disgusted by creativity, not exactly. But there is resistance sometimes, and I often find that baffling, since I love creativity so much. I had a first-year student once rant to me in an essay draft about people asking him to be creative in college. He’d had enough of it, all through school, and he was tired of it.

I see some possible causes now I didn’t then. Miller says, “Innovation — the creation of difference — indeed is often regarded as repulsive.”

One analogy might be the toddler who doesn’t want to try a new food, saying with great certainty, “That’s yucky.”

But on another level, I need to understand that when I’m asking people to be more creative, I may be asking them to shift their boundaries in ways that seem new and alarming and uncomfortable to them, and I need to respect that.