03 February 2014

Debunking the value of "creativity"

From an interesting essay by Thomas Frank in the June 2013 issue of Harper's:
What was really sick-making, though, was [the] easy assumption that creativity was a thing our society valued.  Our correspondent had been hearing this all his life, since his childhood in the creativity-worshipping 1970s. He had even believed it once, in the way other generations had believed in the beneficence of government or the blessings of Providence. And yet his creative friends, when considered as a group, were obviously on their way down, not up. The institutions that made their lives possible — chiefly newspapers, magazines, universities, and record labels — were then entering a period of disastrous decline. The creative world as he knew it was not flowering, but dying.

When he considered his creative friends as individuals, the literature of creativity began to seem even worse — more like a straight-up insult. Our writer-to-be was old enough to know that, for all its reverential talk about the rebel and the box breaker, society had no interest in new ideas at all unless they reinforced favorite theories or could be monetized in some obvious way. The method of every triumphant intellectual movement had been to quash dissent and cordon off truly inventive voices. This was simply how debate was conducted. Authors rejoiced at the discrediting of their rivals (as poor Jonah Lehrer would find in 2012). Academic professions excluded those who didn’t toe the party line. Leftist cliques excommunicated one another. Liberals ignored any suggestion that didn’t encourage or vindicate their move to the center. Conservatives seemed to be at war with the very idea of human intelligence. And business thinkers were the worst of all, with their perennial conviction that criticism of any kind would lead straight to slumps and stockmarket crashes...

And what was the true object of this superstitious stuff? A final clue came from Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1996), in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus. Using Vincent van Gogh as an example, the author declares that the artist’s “creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art.” Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise. 

Consider, then, the narrative daisy chain that makes up the literature of creativity. It is the story of brilliant people, often in the arts or humanities, who are studied by other brilliant people, often in the sciences, finance, or marketing. The readership is made up of us — members of the professional-managerial class — each of whom harbors a powerful suspicion that he or she is pretty brilliant as well. What your correspondent realized, relaxing there in his tub one day, was that the real subject of this literature was the professional-managerial audience itself, whose members hear clear, sweet reason when they listen to NPR and think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk. And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue. Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.


  1. Well, this is why the real work happens among the real artists, who don't work for the Big Six publishers, the network TV stations, the big studios.

    You'll always see great artists working and emerging somewhere else. Right now, great films are being made by indies. Great stories and great books are being put out by small presses and independent magazines.

    And that was, I believe, the original thinking behind government funding of science -- you can't count on business to fund science because corporations will only fund what looks like it will obviously make money soon. I don't know enough about this to speak intelligently, but as I understand it government grants are given by actual scientists who (supposedly) can be expected to understand how science works. Though yes, sometimes you get cliques there too, as the recent Nature issue shows.

    1. NSF (and I assume NIH as well) give out grants based on the recommendations of panels of peers. How "peer" those peers are varies. Panels are constructed to cover a wide range of topics, so you may submit a proposal for research on ontogenetic shape change in an extinct mammal group and wind up with panelists who work on the molecular phylogeny of lizards, ecology of ferns, and other such far slung topics.
      People in some fields have negative misconceptions about how other fields work (e.g., they may think a methods that work great in their field apply equally to yours when they don't, in spite of many publications which say as much), so it's not uncommon for submitters (in my field, at least) to have to pander to whatever group they expect to review their proposal in the form of saying they'll use methods the panelists use [that are problematic when applied to their type of study] on top of methods that are actually more useful, or avoiding criticizing the application of those inapplicable methods because you know you'll be flagged for rejection.
      ...It's frustrating.

  2. Probably some good points, but also some bad ones. For example, you would struggle to find a single author who in any sense "rejoiced" at the discrediting of Lehrer.

  3. I am leery of claiming anything original in terms of writing. So much of what I am resembles Maslow's pyramid of needs. The base is parenting where syntactic patterns and a vast lore of literature was implanted in my noggin. Then 13 years of public education, followed by a bachelor's degree and three master's degree and post-graduate work that continues to this day at age 69. We learn by modeling and imitating, then taking the plunge and trying to write a poem, story, novel, play or other opus that we think/hope is a watershed moment. I am pleased if someone likes a poem I have written. How much of the diction, the syntax, the semantics, tone or mis en scene is derivative, I do not wish to grovel in, but I do think we have to be honest about our influences, both influenced by and influences we have on other writers and thinkers. Not to do verges powerfully in the direction of "hubris."


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