The following guest post is from Sam Franklin, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Brown University, who is working on a dissertation that looks at creativity in its various complexions and iterations in post-1945 America.
On May 9th TIME magazine published the results of a poll that found 94% of Americans value creativity in others, more than they value intelligence, compassion, humor, ambition, or beauty.[a] In 2012, for the second year running, the adjective most used by members of LinkedIn to describe themselves is “creative.” The most viewed TED Talk video of all time is Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Here in Providence, Rhode Island, the self-appointed Creative Capital, as in much of the country, we talk a lot about creativity.
But we didn’t always talk this way. The graph below, representing the occurrence rate of the words creative and creativity in books in American English from 1800-2008 suggests that both words really took off in the twentieth century, especially after World War Two.
There are several ways one could read this trend. It could be that creativity is simply more important than it used to be. (The n-gram graph for computer looks about the same as the one above). Richard Florida, in his seminal The Rise of the Creative Class, claims that “the real driving force (behind the massive social change of the last fifty years) is the rise of human creativity as the key factor in our economy and society.”. For that to be true, we would have to assume that creativity is a thing that transcends historical time, and that we can have more or less of it in different moments. That’s a popular thing to do. Florida, echoing countless other writers on the subject, claims that creativity is “what sets us apart from all other species.” In a similar move, Scientific American, reporting on newly discovered cave paintings older than all previously known, runs a cover story called “The Origins of Creativity.” . Fifty years ago, they might have gone with “The Origins of Art,” “The Origins of Genius,” or what about simply “The Origins of Cave Paintings”?
Is creativity just a new word for something that’s always been with us, or does it represent a new bundle of meanings, priorities, and values? It’s clear to me that creativity, in all its definitional slipperiness and protean flexibility, has become more than just a buzzword. It implies particular theories of human behavior and psychology. It draws new boundaries and obliterates others (as between art and technology, or high and low art). And, as the TIME poll suggests, it is the closest thing to a universally accepted virtue we have.
How did we get here? What would a history of the idea of creativity look like? Could one make a dissertation out of this, I wonder as I enter my third summer of graduate school?
In our age of creativity there are some who have seen “it” not as a transhistorical phenomenon but as a historically situated construct. Some cultural critics from the academic left, attentive to the ideological work that words do, have warned that creativity discourse is often a Trojan Horse for neoliberal economic restructuring. They argue that creativity individualizes, even biologizes, the site of production, and, especially when uttered along with entrepreneurialism and innovation, suggests individual solutions to systemic problems whilst subsuming all artistic and cultural production to economistic logics, often under the alibi of anti-elitism. Moreover, the aura of romantic bohemianism that creativity imparts can induce a kind of false consciousness, or, at best, serve as a coping mechanism for people facing the daily demand to produce novelty–aesthetic, technical, or otherwise–while living more and more like starving artists every year under a regime of precarious labor. Interestingly, the story told by champions of creativity differs only in attitude: Florida, for example, argues that the new creative ethos proves that the tensions of the 1960s were resolved, not simply contained. The hippies got their flexible hours and bean bag chairs, and declared the revolution won.?This helps put creativity in historical context, or at least it explains why the word may resonate today in ways it didn’t before. But it doesn’t tell us how that discourse emerged, how the definitional parameters of creativity were set and by whom. This research would involve first following a specific string of letters–c-r-e-a-t-i-v-i-t-y–like a genetic marker or an MRI imaging agent, through the ecosystem of information. This is like what Raymond Williams did in his keyword study of creative in 1973, when he found that since the Renaissance the word had secularized and broadened in usage considerably, a poignant tracing of the humanistic turn. . Today, if we choose to pick up where he left off, we can do it faster and on a larger scale, using text mining tools on large corpora to find creativity where it lies.
Surely if I focus on one little word I can keep this dissertation doable and finish in six. Then again, it’s not really a word I’m interested in but an idea. Well, ideas. Well, the constantly shifting meanings that constitute a discourse. And if that’s the case I should be looking at not just creative and creativity but also innovation, imagination, invention, genius, entrepreneurship, art, content, technology, oy! One minute you’re looking at creativity, the next you’re contemplating all of Creation.
So what’s the key to any manageable dissertation? Case studies, case studies, case studies. I do believe that the discourse of creativity has just enough coherence that it should be possible to detect a genealogy, or, if not, to isolate a few key moments, texts, individuals, or sectors that set definitional boundaries and stocked the connotative storehouse from which we now draw. Some of those might include:
- The emergence of Creativity Studies in American psychology in the 1950s-60s. Drs. Guilford, Osborn, Torrance and others set out to study creativity, but to do so they had to invent it, even devising tests by which it could be measured. It’s easy to see this as tautological, but their notions of what they were after came to them from outside of psychology. Their research makes sense in the context of the space race and in a larger intellectual climate anxious about conformity. Insofar as creativity today denotes a mental function, its ascendance as an idea may be tied to the increasing importance of the psyences, and eventually neurobiology, in how we make sense of the world.
- It might be fruitful to map the flow of ideas between the psychology literature and the more humane management literature of the 1970s, as well as on the flood of creativity self-help books (and now blogs) that we might consider the self-management literature of the creative class. This might yield an interesting case study of the ecosystem of popular ideas.
- Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” and its impact on business culture and on theories of management. The notion that endless novelty, not efficiency, was what powered capitalism challenged the technocratic perfectionism of Keynesian economics and seemed to call for a different kind of business.
- Meanwhile, on Madison Avenue, advertising firms at some point began to describe their illustrator/writer teams as “creative.” High modernist critics at the time may have known where to draw the line between art and commerce, but fewer and fewer outside of their ranks did, and with one carefully chosen word advertising execs blurred it out entirely. Insofar as these ad firms were prototypes for the symbolic economy that proliferated in the post-industrial American economy, and insofar as that now-massive sector shares advertising’s challenge of resolving ambivalence about the social value of its work, perhaps we can locate the latter as a key node in the discursive construction of creativity.
- Thomas Frank argues the so-called creative revolution in American advertising actually anticipated the counterculture so commonly associated with the 60s. White middle-class youths weren’t the only ones chafing against Fordist inflexibility. Still, one might expect to find creativity crop up in the language of social transformation associated with the left. At the risk of conflating the New Left with the counterculture, it’s worth noting that the 1962 Port Huron Statement declares, “we would replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity.”
- Might it also lie in the language of the right? In 1966, California gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan gave a speech in which he offered a vision to counter Johnson’s Great Society. He called it the “Creative Society,” and in it he called for “(a) government no longer substituting for the people, but recognizing that it cannot possibly match the great potential of the people, and thus, must coordinate the creative energies of the people for the good of the whole.” While traditionalist conservatives were fighting proponents of creativity in k-12 education, did the idea resonate with an emergent libertarian right inspired by the visions of unbridled iconoclasm offered by Hayek and Rand?
- Or is it more likely that we’ll find creativity in the confluence of the two, in the putatively post-political Silicon Valley of the 1970s-80s. It could be that creativity carries forth the optimism of an older Liberal notion of progress, but trades the modernist teleology for a metaphysics of emergence that characterizes the libertarian left.
- When it comes to creativity, all roads lead to education. Education policy is where psychology, economic predictions, and cultural politics all come to bargain. Again, Britain has most recently been leading the way in choosing creativity as a guiding principle, but in America the notion seems to have been at the center of state and local debates for decades. At stake in these discussions is no less than what kind of people we want our society to produce.
Starting in the late 1990s, British New Labour led the way in investing in the “creative industries” as a way to compensate for a diminished manufacturing base. On all levels of government in Europe, Australia, and the UK, and in scores of cities in the US, economic and cultural policies were fused under the banner of creativity, while the sectors of business, education, cultural non-profits, and real estate reoriented accordingly.
Those are some of the places I’ve been looking. I’d love to hear what you all think.