Creativity and the long arc of cultural history
A major meta-narrative about cultural change in the West over the last hundred years or so is that mainstream culture (imagined to be white and middle class) has shifted from a “Protestant” or “bourgeois”—thrifty, moderate, obsessed with “character”—to a looser, more romantic, self-expressive, even “bohemian” sensibility.[i] The former, in the tradition of Max Weber, is associated with capitalism, while the latter is associated with those who have long rejected it–“bohemians,” artists, queers, fallen aristocrats or prodigal children of the bourgeoisie who rejected both capitalism and the cheap, conformist culture it produced. One of the major challenges for social theorists of the last few decades has been to explain how the values associated with these misfits were able to become so mainstream at the same time that global capitalism continued its nearly unchallenged global spread. Some, like Daniel Bell, predicted the clash between the two would shut the system down. Others, seeing how readily capitalism was able to incorporate bohemian values (think bean bag chairs and “Think Different” campaigns) see it as a natural evolution of the culture of capitalism in postindustrial era in which ideas, not things, are the source of value.
The term “creativity,” totally ubiquitous today and accepted as an almost universal good, sits in an awkward spot in this cultural arc, yet I think is key to understanding it. On one hand creativity sounds like something outside of capitalism, even something naturally opposed to it or impossible to commodify. We associate it with rebellious artists and lone-wolf thinkers toiling in spaces capitalism has forgotten or sloughed off, like Parisian garrets or SoHo lofts. We place it against everything we see as “un-creative” like white button-down shirts and lined paper and cubicles and rows of school desks full of students memorizing stale facts. We think of creative pursuits as ones we do outside of work–our passion projects, our morning pages. When we chuckle at euphemisms like “creative accounting” it’s because they transgress the two main things we think “creative” should mean: artsy and innocent, things we think business is not. In other words, our love for creativity would seem to express the bohemian ethic in its pure form, and a rejection of the creep of capitalist rationality into every crevice of our lives.
At the same time, creativity seems right at home in capitalism. Isn’t capitalism, as Marx and everyone after noticed, a uniquely inventive system? Haven’t champions of capitalism long praised the ingenuity of inventor-entrepreneurs from Watt to Edison to Steve Jobs? Creativity–which experts define as the ability to come up with something new and useful or appropriate–is often said to be characterized by a strong drive, a restlessness and desire to improve, to grow. The passion of the creative person for their work is something akin to the Protestant “calling.” Seen from this angle, creativity can be placed right alongside values like initiative, ingenuity, and productivity that have long animated the bourgeois imagination, and all the engineers, designers, photographers, filmmakers, stylists, decorators, illustrators, writers, and all manner of “creatives” are simply carrying forth the independent spirit that built American capitalism from its earliest days.
Over the course of writing my book, The Cult of Creativity: a Surprisingly Recent History I came to realize that our almost universal love for the idea of creativity, which started in the decades just after WWII, rests on its ability to play for both teams, to keep this tension between the bourgeois and the bohemian open, while also seeming to reconcile it. Creativity’s ubiquity today represents our conflicted allegiance to traditional capitalist entrepreneurial individualism, on one hand, and to expressive individualism, on the other. It allows us to see expression as inherently productive and productivity as inherently expressive. It allows us to feel we are living out the cultural progress the counterculture sought without disposing of the system it professed to want to overturn.
Open any book or TED Talk or podcast on creativity and you will find the concept comes with its own narrative, one that largely parallels the one about cultural liberalization. That narrative holds that creativity is a historical underdog that has only recently come into its own. Once upon a time, during the dark ages of the industrial era and the more uptight, religious, and conformist eras that preceded it, creativity was an idea discussed in Parisian garrets and bohemian salons and extolled by romantic poets but never seriously embraced by mainstream bourgeois culture. But then, some time after World War II, serious people began to take creativity seriously. Psychologists began to study it, and businesses began to embrace creative people and creative methods. As we embraced creativity, the story goes, we also learned more about it: that it’s actually, contrary to popular belief, not inborn but a learnable trait, and that it’s actually, contrary to popular belief, not restricted to art but can be applied to anything. This embrace of creativity, the narrative goes, taught these institutions to appreciate things like open-mindedness, flexibility, difference, and a reflexive antagonism to the status quo, and in doing so helped to mainstream the kinds of values that one were restricted to society’s outcasts.
But what if the story of creativity is not about a long-ignored singer-songwriter who finally hits the big time but rather a boy band of disparate ideas—imagination, genius, originality, self-actualization, adaptability, resourcefulness—that got thrown together under a new name and debuted as if it had been around for years? In fact, people hardly used the term at all before the twentieth century, and it wasn’t a regular word until the 1950s. Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean the “idea” of creativity didn’t exist–the writings of Aristotle, Wordsworth, Poincaré, and Dewey, to name just a few, can bear a striking resemblance to how we talk about creativity today. But if creativity really was a topic going back to the romantics and the modernists why didn’t they use that term (or its cognates in other languages)? What if creativity is like ideas that go back generations, and can at times mirror them almost exactly, but is also meaningfully different from them? What if the term creativity allows us to say things, to make claims, that previous terms don’t. Sure, people used to think genius was rare, but we still do; so did we really discover something new about the nature of genius, or did we just come up with a new term for something like genius that everyone might possess? Likewise, did we really discover that non-artists can actually have new ideas? Surely we never thought otherwise. Rather, it seems, we just started talking about everyday cleverness and problem-solving and mechanical inventiveness as somehow related to what goes on in the creation of art. That was made possible by the term creativity, and that’s why everything you read and hear about creativity will feature examples of each of these–technological invention, fine art, and commonplace problem-solving–to make its claims to significance.
What I’ve come to realize is that this desire to cluster meanings and the desire to reconcile the bourgeois and the bohemian are closely related. Creativity, as a semi-coherent concept, was adopted, almost invented, not to combat or resist capitalism but rather to take what was seen as valuable about bohemian values and repackage them in a way that was also amenable to longstanding values of capitalism. Its history therefore shows us that the supposed shift from bourgeois to bohemian values was not the victory of the latter over the former but rather a synthesis. This helps explain the cultural logic of our time, in which we read books about monks and Bob Dylan to help us write better marketing pitches, and work our butts off creating content for an insatiable and unsustainable consumer economy because, hey, at least we can do it from the corner of a cafe.
[i] This narrative animates works as diverse as Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise, and Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, as well as the work of Richard Sennet.