Often, artistic creativity is romanticized as the lightning strike through which a never-before-seen idea strikes from out of nowhere. However sexy this may seem, the reality is almost always quite different. As Steven Johnson details in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, “good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts.”
Take Gutenberg as example. Yes, the printing press guy. Gutenberg’s breakthrough came through his ability to combine. “Each of the key elements that made the printing press– the movable type, the ink, the paper, and the press itself– had been developed separately well before Gutenberg printed his first bible.”
“An important part of Gutenberg’s genius, then, lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology from scratch, but instead from borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem. His radical breakthrough relied, instead, on on the ubiquity of the screw press in Rhineland winemaking culture, and in his ability to reach out beyond his specific field of expertise and concoct new uses for an older technology. He took a machine designed to get people drunk and turned it into an engine for mass communication.”
Much of musical history can be traced through similar moments of artistic alchemy (see also: Run DMC and Aerosmith, mash-up culture best captured by Girl Talk, Reggaeton, Moombahton, Dubstep… you get the idea).
Though both elements existed before, watching them come together is exhilarating.
Anyone out there want to offer additional examples?