U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Origins of Creativity

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. creativity

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.”[1]. 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.”[2] 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.” [3]. 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.[4] 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. [5]. 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.[6] 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.

[a] http://business.time.com/2013/04/26/the-time-creativity-poll/
[1] Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: Revisited (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 5.
[2] Florida, xi.
[3] Scientific American, Vol. 308, No. 3 (March 2013), 36.
[4] see for example Richard Lloyd, Neo-Bohemia (New York: Routledge, 2006);  Andrew Ross, No-Collar: the Humane Workplace and its Hidden Costs (New York: Basic Books, 2003); Gary Hall, Digitize This Book! (University of Minnesota Press, 2008).; Toby Miller, Blow Up the Humanities (Temple University Press, 2012); In Great Britain, Europe, and Australia, where creativity has been codified in the highest levels of government policy, scholars have been particularly attentive to these dynamics. See for example Gerald Raunig, Gene Ray, and Ulf Wuggenig, Critique of Creativity: Precarity, Subjectivity, and Resistance in the ‘Creative Industries’, (London: MayFly Books, 2011); Not all critics are so hard on creativity as a concept, and have attempted to historicize it whilst also rehabilitating it as a guiding value for more humane policy. See for example Rob Pope, Creativity: Theory, History, Practice (London: Routledge, 2005); Terry Flew, The Creative Industries (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2012).
[5] Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford University Press, 1976. Camilla Nelson has expanded and amended Willams’ history, Camilla Nelson, “The Invention of Creativity: The Emergence of a Discourse,” Cultural Studies Review, Vol. 16, No. 2 (September 2010), 49. Others have taken up the project of describing the discursive construction of “creativity” in specific sectors. Mark Readman, What’s in a Word?: The Discursive Construction of ‘Creativity’, PhD Thesis, Bournemouth University, 2010.; Darryl Hocking, “The Discursive Construction of Creativity as Work in a Tertiary Art and Design Environment,” Journal of Applied Linguistics & Professional Practice, Vol. 7, No. 2 (November 2010), 229-249. Shakuntala Banaji, Andrew Burn, and David Buckingham, The Rhetorics of Creativity: A Review of the Literature. Arts Council of England, 2006.
[6] As a model, I’m thinking here of a book like Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization.

9 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Jamie Cohen-Cole has a great essay on creativity and the social sciences in a 2009 issue of Isis — “The creative American: Cold War salons, social science, and the cure for modern society.”

  2. Great post, Sam!

    One of our readers commented on Twitter that this post “aptly discussions the origins of creativity” but leaves out race, assuming a white male subject.

    I think it would be fairer to say that your post — and your project — is directed at uncovering/tracing the history/trajectory of the importance of idea(s) of “creativity” in American cultural life since World War II — and regnant notions of this “trait” called “creativity” may very well be based upon / assume a white male subject/norm. IOW, you’re not looking at what creativity is, but you’re looking at what people’s ideas about “creativity” signify, what purposes they serve culturally, etc.

    You might want to look at Dan Wickberg’s study on the history of the idea of a “sense of humor,” which came to occupy a place very similar to what you are suggesting “creativity” occupies now as a “character trait” that people value. I am wondering if the increasing importance of something called “creativity” represents a new “modal self,” or is still part of the shift Susman pointed out from “character” to “personality.”

    In any case, this sounds like a fascinating project. And it will be interesting to see how you bring race (and class and gender and sexuality) into the mix.

    Here’s the info on the Wickberg book:

    Daniel Wickberg, The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1998).

  3. For what it’s worth, I’m currently writing a (very poor and harried) introduction to my dissertation that engages with similar considerations. Broadly speaking, it’s about the ways that midcentury artists in fields like photography, film, and poetry depicted ideals of creative autonomy, flexibility, and the like as part of a polemics aimed at the prevailing “Fordist” work arrangements in their respective fields.

    More bibliography stuff — have you read _The Creative American_, a collection of Kennedy-era reflections on the importance of creativity to American exceptionalism? The collection marked the christening of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. Here’s his speech — “The Arts in America.”


  4. Sam,

    A few thoughts—perhaps related but probably not, and overlapping somewhat with the nuggets you provided in your post:

    1. I think that link creativity to the term “novelty,” which you do briefly in your Schumpeter bullet point, gets you close to some of the mainstream historiography on modernity and American culture. The pursuit of novelty and new experiences is part of the larger transition from American Victorianism to American Modernity (think post-WWI—say Henry May’s *End of American Innocence*). And I think that LD is right to point you toward Susman—-the shift from character to personality implies openness to novelty.

    2. Using the phrase “new experiences” drives you back toward the Sixties and counterculture.

    3. It’s clear that capitalism is ALL OVER your essay. And of course the The Market magically and creatively “solves” problems in relation to scarcity, yes?

    4. On education, the Kindergarten movement (which began in Germany and had much success in the U.S.) is predicated on open play—instilling creativity instead of pure discipline. This also applies to Montessori schools. This will take your discourse back to the 1880s/1890s.

    5. Speaking of education, I suspect there’s a gender component to this. Creativity was probably seen as something fostered at home, but only came to be appreciated outside the home during the male-dominated Gilded Age (in America), which of course celebrated innovation and creativity (e.g. The Wizard of Menlo Park).

    Of course all of these points open rather than close the domains outlined above. You have some tough choices to make for a dissertation-type study! – TL

  5. Jamie Cohen-Cole’s article, referenced in an earlier comment, was the first thing to come to mind. I’d also suggest getting his whole dissertation off DissAbstracts, which is really wonderful. I believe his book, based on it, is coming out from Chicago sometime soon(?). The other recent work I’d mention is by the design historian Amy Ogata. http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Creative-Child-Playthings-Architecture/dp/0816679614/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1370721975&sr=8-1
    I actually just bought it and think it’s very smart. I’m fascinated to hear you’re chasing after this topic, Sam. It’s long fascinated me and comes into my own work on the intellectual history of art education.

  6. Thanks for your comments, everybody. What a great community. This is exactly the kind of feedback I was hoping for.

    I’m on the road at the moment, so I haven’t had a chance yet to check out all the leads. Once I do, I may have more to ask, but for the moment I just wanted to address a couple of your comments.

    L.D., yes, you’ve nailed the spirit of this project, which is essentially to find out what we talk about when we talk about creativity.

    And yes, that might often entail listening in on conversations that assume a white male subject. But it might not always. I think some of the work that creativity does is to encompass a wide range of cultural expression that might be implicitly excluded by that tortured and overdetermined word “art.” Creativity, to pick up on a recent conversation on this blog, seems to embrace a more anthroplogical notion of culture that includes not only the old realms of “high” and “low” art, but also many everyday practices. I think over the last fifty or so years it has given people the language (literally) to talk about, legitimize, even valorize the doings of nonwhites and nonmales. Meanwhile, in the U.S. I imagine we would find a particular connotative linkage between creativity and African American culture. The embrace of jazz in official and elite circles during the Cold War, and the jazz musician as archetype for American dynamism would suggest that perhaps “creativity” is raced in subtle and complicated ways that I have yet to untangle.

    That’s not to say it’s necessarily liberatory or counter-hegemonic, and of course it’s only one of the many ways “creativity” can work. When I tune into the creativity discourse I often find myself asking why some people get to be called creative and others don’t. Not to keep picking on Richard Florida, but his critics have noted that his “creative class” actually just looks a lot like the old college-educated professional demographic, which tends to be white and male.

    And this ties into the connection between creativity and capitalism. On one hand, in the spirit of Tom Van Dyke’s comment and some of the critics I alluded to above, we could say that creativity is the word that helps smooth over the commodification of art. But one man’s commodity is another man’s useful art. Tocqueville, in the passage Tom linked to, is clearly the second man. It is interesting that Kennedy, in the speech Roger Benson pointed us to, invokes Tocqueville, but instead of embracing the form-after-function pragmatism that supposedly characterizes the making of things in a market culture, Kennedy employs a kind of theory of the avant garde to account for American “creativity.” And notice the occasion for the speech is the reinscription, in the stone and glass and steel of the future Kennedy Center, of the decidedly high forms of opera, ballet, and concert music. The speech and the Center, I think, reflect the age’s squeamishness about the relationship between art and capitalism. This eagerness to prove that America was about more than just commerce would subside in the ensuing decades, with creativity rushing in to contain–or resolve, depending on who you ask–the contradictions.

    But it does seem to be in that Cold War moment that creativity started to enter the conversation. I think part of my interest is in understanding what made that word available and useful to Kennedy at that moment. I take it Jamie Cohen-Cole’s essay will have a lot to say about this. I can’t wait to get to it.

    Thanks again everybody for the feedback. I hope to keep the conversation going.

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