Creative Collaboration by Vera John-Steiner. Oxford
University Press. 2000. 259 pages. $29.95.
Reviewed by Lane Jennings
Two (or More) Heads Really Are Better
The twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented rise in the freedom--and power--of individuals to pursue their own desires without constraint. But by the century's closing decades, people were becoming more critical of unlimited ego fulfillment. As the twenty-first century opens, there is new interest in cooperation, dialogue, and compromise to bring sustainable benefits to communities and individuals.
Creative Collaboration, by linguistics professor Vera John-Steiner, documents examples of successful collaborations in different fields between pairs of individuals, as well as team efforts great and small aimed toward achieving short- and long-term goals.
Writing from a self-declared feminist perspective, John-Steiner draws particular attention to contributions by the female partners in such well-known creative couples as Will and Ariel Durant (who produced the monumental 11-volume Story of Civilization), French intellectuals Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and physicists Marie and Pierre Curie.
The author is interested in discovering not only what brings collaborators together (complementary skills, shared ideals, supportive personality traits, etc.), but also what factors eventually cause some partnerships to end. For example, in the years just before World War I, artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque jointly created the style known as "cubism." They worked individually and together on many paintings and collages; their styles briefly blended so completely that, in later years, neither critics nor the artists themselves could conclusively determine which of them had produced some particular works. However, Braque's experiences as a soldier fighting for France and Picasso's avowed pacifism during World War I brought their friendship to an end. As a result, each artist's later work evolved in very different directions.
Understanding how partnerships work and how they can be strengthened and extended is particularly important in the area of science and technology, John-Steiner argues. Massive projects such as a manned-mission to Mars or mapping the human genome demand concerted efforts over time from hundreds or even thousands of individuals.
Among the author's conclusions:
- Belief in a partner's capabilities is crucial in collaborative work, and helping maintain and restore a partner's confidence is a major contribution to successful achievement.
- Even work that appears to be done alone is in fact shaped in crucial ways by other people. For example, a painter depends on the quality of his materials, on enthusiastic promotion from his dealer, and on the wealth of his patrons to achieve success.
- Collaboration is akin to family membership, in that you give up a portion of your freedom, yet are compensated for this loss by increased stability and power to achieve and grow.
As a scholarly book from a scholarly press, Creative Collaboration is not all easy reading. But the author draws on a wide range of examples from the arts and sciences and includes a valuable bibliography that covers both popular and scholarly works on many aspects of partnership and common-cause endeavors.